Daisy Ashford wrote The Young Visiters when she was 9. Rediscovered many years later, it was hailed as a comic masterpiece and published in 1919, retaining its author's childish spelling mistakes. It rapidly became a best seller and has never been out of print.
Margaret Mary Julia Ashford, known to her family as Daisy, was born at home on 7 April 1881. Her parents, Willie and Emma, were living at Elm Lodge in Petersham, Surrey at this time. Her place of birth was auspicious; Dickens had rented Elm Lodge, known then as Elm Cottage, during the summer of 1839 while writing Nicholas Nickleby. The Ashfords were a cultured, middle class, Roman Catholic family, fond of literature and amateur dramatics. Daisy was the eldest of three sisters. Her mother also had five children from her first marriage, so home life was often rather bustling and noisy with the comings and goings of her teenage half-siblings. In 1889 the family moved into a larger house in Lewes, Sussex, where Daisy and her sisters Vera and Angela were educated by a governess. Here the three sisters, rather like the Brontë children, invented imaginary lives for their dolls. Daisy's play acting was particularly elaborate. While Vera and Angie gave their dolls aristocratic personas, Daisy's were provided with a fully realised back story as members of a 'mere' working-class family from Portsmouth's naval dockyard, whom she dubbed 'the Hams'. Interactions between the two sets of doll families were characterised by childish mimicry of adult snobbishness, social embarrassment and romance, themes which Daisy would return to in her stories.
Unlike Ninetta Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby, Daisy was a true infant phenomenon. Her first known story, 'The Life of Father McSwinney', the fictional biography of a Jesuit priest, was dictated to her father when she was just 4. Two other dictated stories from this period were lost. In 1889, at the age of 8, she wrote two short stories, 'Mr Chapman's Bride' (also lost) and 'A Short Story of Love and Marriage'. Then, in 1890, at the age of 9, she wrote her comic masterpiece, The Young Visiters, or, Mr Salteenas Plan, the story of Alfred Salteena ' an elderly man of 42' and his efforts to elevate his social standing by gaining a coveted position at Queen Victoria's court, and the parallel story of the love and marriage of his best friend Bernard Clark and the 'very active and pretty' Ethel Monticue, 17. As in all her stories, its comedy arises from her fascination with the peculiar idioms of adult speech and her innocent misapprehensions of adult behaviour. Her precocious knowingness often gave her writing an unintended satirical edge as she effortlessly dramatised two of the great preoccupations of the grown-up world, namely love and class.
The Young Visiters was followed by a play, A Woman's Crime (lost) and two more short stories, 'The True History of Leslie Woodcock' and 'Where Love Lies Deepest', written when she was 12 and 13 respectively. Her final work, 'The Hangman's Daughter , was her most substantial and the one she herself rated her best. She finished this in 1895 when she was 14, quite sure that she was destined to be a writer. Sadly, she seems never to have written again, except for an autobiography which she burned, the victim of over zealous spring cleaning.
After their mother's death in 1917 Daisy and her sisters were sorting through her papers when they came across Daisy's stories. These were read and passed among other members of the family who greatly enjoyed them. In 1918 Daisy lent her manuscript notebook of The Young Visiters to a friend, Margaret Mackenzie, to cheer her up while she was ill in bed. Miss Mackenzie was so delighted with the story that she read portions of it to a family friend, Frank Swinerton, who was an editor at the publishers Chatto & Windus. Swinerton was equally impressed and persuaded his employers that the book was worth publishing. It appeared in 1919, retaining its author's idiosyncratic spelling and adding a preface by Sir J. M. Barrie, the celebrated author of Peter Pan. It was a great success, going into eighteen impressions in its first year. Initially, some critics refused to accept it was the unaided work of a child, and some even accused Barrie of perpetrating a hoax, which caused this shy and sensitive man considerable distress. An American edition soon appeared and it became a phenomenal success there too, influencing such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who gave the name Daisy to the heroine of The Great Gatsby, and his friend, Ring Lardner, who wrote a parody, 'The Young Immigrunts'.
In 1920 four of Daisy's other stories and the one surviving story by Angela were published, this time with a preface by Daisy herself. The adult Daisy was bemused and somewhat abashed by her newly acquired celebrity. She felt that the child who had written the stories so long ago was not really her but another person. In 1920 she married and turned down all offers of further literary work. After marriage she and her husband, James Devlin, moved to the village of Framlingham Pigot in Norfolk where they ran a cut flower business for several years while they raised a family: two girls and two boys. They later ran the King's Arms hotel in Reepham before retiring in the 1950s to a small terrace house in Woodland Road in Hellesdon, where Daisy (Mrs Margaret Devlin) died in 1972, aged 90.
Stuart John McLaren