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‘Mr Salteena was not very adicted to prayers’

28 June 2019

Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters was the comic bestseller of 1919. Glyn Paflin looks back in our archive

Daisy Ashford (1881-1972)

Daisy Ashford (1881-1972)

“BERNARD always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rarther pious but Mr Salteena was not very adicted to prayers so he marched up to bed. Ethel stayed as she thourght it would be a good thing. The butler came in as he was a very holy man and Bernard piously said the Our Father and a very good hymn called I will keep my anger down and a Decad of the Rosary. . .”

Daisy Ashford’s juvenile novel of Victorian social climbers, The Young Visiters, was the publishing sensation of 100 summers ago, although written three decades before. A suede-bound copy was a courting gift from my Anglican Welsh grandfather to my (then) Strict Baptist Norfolk grandmother — one of many thousands of such gifts given across the country, no doubt, as the book was reprinted a dozen times between 22 May and August, appealing to a battle-scarred people in need of a good laugh.

That its appeal was also ecumenical as well as orthographical was confirmed by the Church Times in a relentlessly jocular unsigned review on 6 June 1919. The reviewer deduced: “The authoress, we observe, owes allegience to the Larger Organization [i.e. the Roman Catholic Church], what Anglican child would have thought, or thourght, of “a nice fat baby called Ignatius Bernard?”

Although the merry Earl of Clincham considers divorce, he gives up the idea and decides to “offer it up as a Mortification”: music to CT ears at that time. The review concludes: “If any owner of this delicious little book wants also to offer up a Mortification he will find few more difficult than giving it away.”

Ashford’s other juvenilia did not enjoy the same success, but her tale “The Life of Father McSwiney” gave her religious genius fuller rein. When Pope Pius IX visits the priest, the pair walk hand in hand to Barnes station, try their weight, buy chocolate from a machine, and travel in first-class to London, to attend the Opera and “spend a few nights with a favourite Catholic waiter of theirs”. It is a world as delightful as it is surprising.

The Editor’s Table (Church Times 6 June 1919): Mr Salteena

THERE is a class of book of which a kindly reviewer, finding, in it nothing fit in itself for much praise or blame, is apt to suggest that it is suitable for a railway journey; The Young Visiters* is not in that class: it is even necessary to enter an earnest dissuasive from reading it in a railway carriage. For there is a degree and continuity of mirth which it is unseemly to indulge in public places.

The Young Visiters is a book which has brought its authoress immediate fame. By noon on the day of publication the first edition had been exhausted, by the evening the American rights had been sold for sums which few can command. New impressions pour from the press, they will be needed. But Miss Daisy Ashford cannot possibly repeat her triumph. Her work is the fruit of a Dead Past. She has now come to years of discretion, and she wrote it when she was but nine years old and delightfully indiscreet.

The authoress as she appeared at the time of her greatest literary activity is presented in the frontispiece. How different from the portraits of popular novelists with which — vainly thinking to increase that popularity —publishers adorn their book lists! Here is no self-conscious middle-aged person, wan and haggard with travail of production. Miss Daisy Ashford, plump and smiling, was evidently content with life as she found it, “more exquisitely bland” than even the angel of the poem. The pleasure of reading her work is sensibly increased by frequent reference to the portrait of the writer.

She was then industrious beyond the habit of precocious novelists, who rarely complete their second chapter. The manuscript, Sir James Barrie, to whom are due the thanks of every reader, tells us, is contained in a stout little twopenny notebook. That in itself shows confidence, a penny notebook usually suffices young ambition. She had also a remarkable power of steadily developing her plot. The equivalent of sixty-five pages of type was set down before she reached the last page, and could say: “So, now, my readers, we will say farewell to the characters in this book. THE END by Daisy Ashford.”

She was sure, you see, of ultimate readers. Yet what neglect, what hazards, befell that twopenny notebook, filled with the childish writing of which a page is reproduced as a proof of good faith, before its value was discerned and the readers gained. It might so easily have responded to the call of its country for waste paper in the recent times of scarcity, and we should never have known our loss.

Mr Salteena — the authentic tinkle of the bells of fairyland is in his very name —- was an elderly man of 42, with dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty. These went in unusual combination with very pale blue eyes. Ethel Monticue, aged 17, also had blue eyes, and matched them with a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves, just as little girls’ sleeves do, you notice. Mr Salteena was a social climber, hampered by a little disability which he frankly admitted when accepting an invitation to stay in a countryhouse, “I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but can it be helped anyhow.” His father was in fact a first-rate butcher, though his mother was a decent family called Hyssopps of the Glen.

When the great morning came for setting off to the countryhouse Mr Salteena, fully aware of his limitations, did not have an egg for his brekfast in case he should be sick on the jorney. Ethel, to whom the offices of the chaperone were as unknown as the uses of the comma, semi-colon and colon to Miss Ashford, went with him, and she also had her little preparations to make. “I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.” At the countryhouse all was sumshious. Ethel’s room was indeed a lovely compartment, with purple silk curtains and a 4 post bed draped with the same shade and there were some violets in a costly varse. But their host was even more splendidly housed. “My own room is next the bathroom said Bernard it is decerated dark red as I have somber tastes. The bathroom has got a tip up bason and a hose thing for washing your head. A good notion said Mr Salteena who was secretly getting jellus. Here we will leave our friends to unpack and end this Chapter.”

Dinner, described in the next chapter, presented its difficulties. But “Mr Salteena cheered up when the Port came on the table and the butler put round some costly finger bowls. He did not have any in his own house and he followed Bernard Clark’s advice what to do with them.” After dinner there was a little music, and then Mr Salteena asked a few riddles as he was not musicle. After looking at the family portraits, which the descriptions leave us ardently desiring to see also, “Mr Salteena thourght he had better go to bed as he had had a long journey. Bernard always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rather pious but Mr Salteena was not very adicted to prayers so he marched up to bed.” The authoress, we observe, owes allegiance to the Larger Organization, what Anglican child would have thought, or thourght, of “a nice fat baby called Ignatius Bernard”?

So the hilarious narrative smoothly unfolds itself. Mr. Salteena goes to complete his social training, to be “rubbed up a bit in Socierfcy ways”, under the guidance of an earl who has a Privite Compartment at the Crystale Pallace, and who is affability itself:

“Mr Salteena seated himself gingerly on the edge of a crested chair.

”To tell you the truth my lord I am not anyone of import and I am not a gentleman as they say he ended getting very red and hot.

”Have some whiskey said lord Clincham and lie poured the liquid into a glass at his elbow. Mr Salteena lapped it up thankfully.
“Well my man said the good natured earl what I say is what dose it matter we cant all be of the Blood Royal can we.
“No said Mr Salteena but I suppose you are.
“Lord Clincham waved a careless hand. A small portion flows in my viens he said but it dose not worry me at all and after all he added piously at the Day of Judgement what will be the odds.
“Mr Salteena heaved a sigh. I was thinking of this world he said.
“Oh I see said the Earl but my own idear is that these things are as piffle before the wind.”
Poor Mr Salteena! In spite of all his efforts he failed to achieve his main ambition. Ethel married Bernard at Westminster Abbey, escorted up the aile by several clean altar boys, while Mr Salteena cried into his large handkerchief and was nudged by the Earl as his sniffs were rarther loud. The wedding refreshments were indeed a treat to all — here again is the authentic touch of youth — and the wedding presents included a gold watch which did not go but had been in the family for some years, and the promise of a darling little baby calf when ready. Ethel went away in a choice pink velvit dress with a golden gurdle and a very chick tocque, to live happily ever after.

The last chapter, conforming to the older convention, tells us with precision what became of all the characters. Ethel and Bernard had six children, to wit four boys and three girls — at nine, and even later, arithmetic is apt to falter — and some of them were twins which was very exciting. Mr Salteena was consoled by gaining a post in the Royal Household, “and any day might be seen in Hyde Park or Pickadilly galloping madly after the Royal Carrage in a smart suit of green velvit with knickerbockers compleat. At first he was rarther terrified as he was not used to riding, and he found his horse bumped him a good deal and he had to cling on desperatly to its flowing main. At other times the horse would stop dead and Mr. Salteena would use his spurs and bad languige with no avail. But he soon got used to his fresh and sultry steed and His Royal Highness seemed satisfide.”

But the earl was less fortunate: his wife had a savage temper so he thourght he would divorce her and start again but he gave up the idear after several attempts and decided to offer it up as a Mortification.

And if any owner of this delicious little book wants also to offer up a Mortification he will find few more difficult than giving it away.

*The Young Visiters. By Daisy Ashford. With a Preface by Sir James M. Barrie. (Chatto and Windus, 8s. 6d.)

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