Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Childhood Favorites (Second of Two Posts)

I wrote about Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess here.  Today it's Daddy-Long-Legs' turn.

A Little Princess was published in 1905; Daddy-Long-Legs was published in 1912.  But Sara Crewe and Judy Abbott are young women of the same period (I calculate Judy to be about three years older than Sara).  There are other similarities.  They are both orphans and charity cases until well along in their respective books.  (That Judy earns her way partly out of her charity-case status is perhaps just a factor of her advanced age.  There's no reason to suppose Sara wouldn't have figured out a way to earn some money by the time she was Judy's age.)  Their stories are both about character and education, and by the time they get their HEAs, they have earned that happiness.

There is one really huge difference, though, between Sara Crewe and Judy Abbott.  Judy smiles a lot more.  A lot.  Even though, truthfully, she might have been excused a few tears or some stoic grimness.  She did not have an easy time of it as a child.

When we first meet Judy, she's been summoned to the matron's office at the John Grier Home, the orphanage where Judy has lived her entire life.  She's to be sent to college through the financial generosity of one of the trustees.  She saw him leaving the Home as she hurried to matron's office, but all she caught was a glimpse of the shadow made when his car was being driven up to the porte cochere and its headlights lit his tall frame.  The resulting shadow is distorted by the angle of the light and her impression is of spindly arms and legs: a daddy-long-legs spider.

His conditions for her scholarship and allowance are very simple.  She's not to know who he is, she's to write to him monthly with reports of her education, and she's never to expect a reply.  With those rules in place, off she goes to a girl's college.  As Jean Webster (the daughter of a publisher and great-niece of Mark Twain) went to Vassar, I think we can safely assume that Judy's unnamed college was very much like Vassar.

The rest of the novel is epistolary, a wonderful word that means it's just her letters to Daddy-Long-Legs, as she calls her anonymous benefactor.  She assumes he is as old as the other trustees, only thinner.  (There's a bit of disbelief to be suspended here, as it seems unlikely she would never ever have seen this unusually slender trustee, but hey -- that's why we read fiction and not biographies or true crime books.)

Now, I love epistolary novels, perhaps because I would love to receive letters.  Think of all those letters Elizabeth Bennett writes in Pride & Prejudice -- who wouldn't have loved to get those on a semi-regular basis?  Alas, emails and tweets can't hold a candle to what Judy writes to DDL; she's funny and informative and very very happy to be at school.  True, her life at the John Grier Home was not nearly as horrible as what Sara Crewe endured as a drudge at Miss Minchin's, but Judy relays to DDL a story about the time she was caught stealing cookies:

That's just a chilling image:  a nine-year-old girl tied to a stake in the back yard.

Oh, did I forget to mention that this is a romance?  Spoiler alert -- if you haven't read Daddy-Long-Legs and you want to, stop reading now.  I'll discuss something benign while you're clicking away, but really, if you don't want to know who her beloved turns out to be, stop now.  (And if you literally want to read it now, it's happily out of copyright and can be read here.

When Judy gets to her college, she's given a single (a big deal even today, I would imagine; certainly it was a big deal when I was a freshman back in the Dark Ages 1970s).  (My first roommate took one look at my phenomenally unfashionable appearance and conspired with the RA to get me moved to a room with a seriously depressed girl.  Back then, we didn't know from depression; today she'd be escorted firmly to the campus health center within a couple days.  Anyway, seriously depressed girl dropped out and I got . . . the room to myself.  A double single.  And all because I was phenomenally unfashionable.)  Judy figures she got a single because the college doesn't want someone from an orphanage (whose parentage might be . . . anything) to be in too-close proximity with their "better" students.

She's in a suite, effectively, with Sallie McBride and Julia Pendleton.  Sallie is from a well-off family, but the Pendletons are filthy rich (my characterization, not Webster's, although she's no fan of Vanderbilt-level wealth in the book).  Toward the end of Judy's freshman year, Julia's uncle Jervis pays them a visit.  He's the black-sheep of the Pendleton family, the much-younger younger brother of Julia's father.  Julia and Sallie can't get away from class, so Judy shepherds him around the campus and writes about all this to DDL:

Okay, are we good now? Is everyone (except Judy, of course) on the same page?  She doesn't twig until the very end, of course.  And it's a lovely ending, although one might wish that the book would go back to the third-person narrative form of the first chapter just so we might be a uh, spider on the wall when Judy and her love reconcile.

But look here (as my grandmother, who was close to Judy in age, might have said) -- what's really great about this book is its fresh voice when it comes to the education of women.  Judy loves to learn, another thing in common with Sara Crewe, and her letters make even her Latin class sound fun.  Here's one of my favorite bits: 

In fact, Judy's voice is so unaffected and friendly (it's easy to see why a certain someone falls in love with her) that it lulls us into forgetting that -- as she points out -- she's not a citizen as a woman in the US.  She is pretty pithy about the subject of suffrage, as well.

Webster, despite a very middle-class upbringing, was herself a progressive thinker.  (Although I'm shocked to read in Wikipedia -- so it must be true, right? -- that Webster subscribed to the theory of eugenics just because everyone did back then.  Judy is herself equivocal on the subject, and certainly doesn't worry too much about her parentage, although she is enough of a classist to worry that a certain someone shouldn't marry a woman he doesn't know (she thinks!) was raised in an orphanage.

Sadly, Webster barely got her own happy ending.  She fell for a Princeton man who, rather like Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester, had a mentally ill wife.  Only after he was able to get a divorce could he and Webster marry.  She got pregnant at a relatively advanced age of 38 or 39, and died shortly after giving birth.  Her daughter would have been my mother's age, which provides me with a certain perspective.

There are illustrations, done by Webster herself in the style of a young woman's letters; high art they are not.  I have for that reason not included any here.  But here is Vassar College -- presumably a bit of it old enough that it would have been there in 1896 when Webster was a student:


  1. I love the book Daddy Long-Legs! I actually own a battered paperback copy that I found in a thrift store years ago. I read the book before I saw the film adaptation (and I'm glad I did - I found Fred Astaire slighty creepy as Uncle Jervis). I will now have to figure out where my copy might be...hmmm...that could take a while.

  2. I still have my copy of Daddy Long Legs that I got for my birthday when I was 12 or 13. I love that book! I think one reason that I liked it more than A Little Princess is because of the narrator's voice. Sara is a little overly perfect for me, but Judy seems warm and more approachable.

  3. I've been meaning to read this - I've read a number of reviews from people who love it. And it sounds like a great book for a rainy day.


    I've always had an 'ew' thing about books where the hero is in loco parentis and then ends up romantically involved with the heroine. So I've never liked the idea of DLL (which I read when I was about 11 or 12). However, you're warmth about this book is intriguing me and I've also noticed my reading preferences changing a little as I get older. I used to hate May/December stories but I kind of like them now. Maybe I should give it another try.

    I really loved the What Katy Did books. I'm not even sure why. The whole thing of feisty Katy learnign to be good and sweet should have offended my early feminist sensibilities but I remember all those details about writing desks and swing mirrors with great affection.

  5. THIS COMMENT THREAD IS OFFICIALLY DANGEROUS FOR ANYONE WHO (still?) DOESN'T KNOW WHO'S WHO IN THIS BOOK. (Thanks, Tumperkin, for alerting me to the need to alert the unwary.)

    Betty Debbie -- That's a horrible movie; almost worse than Alfonso Cuaron's version of "A Little Princess." Frankly, I'll take Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn ("Love in the Afternoon") before I can stomach Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron!

    Lynn -- Well, as you know, I love them both. :-)

    I agree that Judy is much more fun as a heroine, which is good because you spend almost the entire book listening to her "voice" in her letters. I did think an epistolary novel might have allowed us a glimpse of her letters to "Jervie" and his to her, but no . . .

    Victoria -- Go read it online. It won't take long (from a time-suck point of view) and it's well out of copyright, so no piracy is involved. There's a link in the post...

    Tumperkin -- Well, her liberal use of the nickname "Daddy" is pretty creepy out of context, but I think the book does a good job of getting us over that hurdle by showing us how few options she has for what to call him. (And in 1912, "Daddy" probably didn't have the faintly kinky sexual aroma it has today.)

    But I don't think he can be seen as in loco parentis with regard to Judy. First, she's 18 when he even agrees to finance her education, and he's never met her or even seen her. Second, he intends to have no contact with her. The suggestion is that he requires the beneficiaries of his informal scholarships to pay him the courtesy of honoring his funding with letters; he certainly owes them no reply.

    So his interest in her doesn't arise until after he's met her. I mean, maybe the letters got him intrigued, but he doesn't start the relationship as anything other than financial, and certainly not anything remotely parental. Then he meets her, and it still takes three more years for him to make a move...

    Of course, you'll need to re-read it to see what you think now. I think Webster makes a good case for the proposition that by the time Judy and her beau end up, she's more than mature enough for that relationship.


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