Piffle Before the Wind

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Daisy Ashford

This is no portrait of a writer who had to burn the oil at midnight: it has an air of careless power; there is complacency about it that by the severe might perhaps be called smugness.  It needed no effort for that face to knock off a masterpiece.

Preface by J.M. Barrie to The Young Visiters

The Young Visiters was published in 1919 and reprinted 18 times in that year.  The author, Daisy Ashford, was 38 when it came out but had written the story when she was nine.  I think it is one of the funniest things I have read, and one of the oddest and happiest books in publishing history.

Because it was written by a precocious child it has three qualities: (1) “almost but not quite” word choices which are right enough to make sense and wrong enough to be incredibly funny, (2) an “almost but not quite” understanding of how the adult world works which is sometimes naive and funny, and sometimes satirically deflating of adult pretensions, and (3) a flying-across-the-surface-plot that allows no pause for thought.  The combination is powerful.

(1) “almost but not quite” word choices which are right enough to make sense and wrong enough to be incredibly funny

I give you two favourites out of hundreds:

Visiters3

and

Visiters4

(2) an “almost but not quite” understanding of how the adult world works which is sometimes naive and funny, and sometimes satirically deflating of adult pretensions

Visiters

Is it costly and mere, or is it “clatter up” that makes this so good?

Visiters1

(3) a flying-across-the-surface-plot that allows no pause for thought.

Visiters2

Everything works out very well for Ethel in the end who, after one of the best marriage proposal scenes in literature, returns from her six week honeymoon in Egypt with a son:

“They soon had six more children four boys and three girls and some of them were twins which was very exciting.”

You can read this book – and you should – in about 30 minutes, and it is available on line for free here.

***

At the time the book came out people said three things about it: (1) the author is nine! (2) it’s a scream, and (3) is it a literary hoax?  Because Barrie had written the preface some people claimed the work was actually by him.  It wasn’t.  The story of how it was discovered is a good one about how chance and serendipity work.

Daisy stopped writing when she was about 13, and had not written in the 25 years since.  The Young Visiters was kept by her mother, and only rediscovered after her death in 1917 among her possessions in a trunk.  Daisy showed a friend the discovery, and the friend – who loved it – showed another friend – Frank Swinnerton of Chatto and Windus – who then persuaded Barrie to write the preface.

In the interviews I have read Daisy seems modest, and perceptive, and genuinely shocked by what has happened,

visiters

and aware that it is a one off achievement.

visiters1

[1]

By March 1920 the news was reporting 400,000 copies sold, and the happy fact that Daisy and her fiance had been able to marry and buy the farm they had long wanted with the proceeds. [2]  For some reason most of the early reviews say that she was in her twenties when the book came out, but she seemed to have actually been in her late 30s.

Inevitably, there was another book in 1920 with more novels from her childhood and a novel by her sister, written aged eight, called The Jealous GovernessDaisy Ashford: Her Book did not receive a positive review from Katherine Mansfield who felt the other juvenile works were not up to the mark of The Young Visiters.  I will, of course, be reading them all for myself and distrusting the sometimes snippy Katherine.

tempsnip
New Zealand Herald, 2 March 1929, p.23

***

[1] Among the Books – SUN, 2 AUGUST 1919, p.4

[2] Books and Writers – OTAGO DAILY TIMES, 13 MARCH 1920, p.2

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