Sunday, 15 December 2013

Books to Read Again: Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) is such a charming book. I found it in the school Fiction Library when I was about 14 and read it, and read it again. And I keep going back to it because it's such fun. Written in 1912 it's obviously going to be very dated, but it is so obviously a period piece that the sometimes strange details are interesting rather than annoying.

My current copy is a little Hodder & Stoughton hardback dated 1917. It once belonged to J Vernon Hean of Ashton-under-Lyne, who taught elocution and drama. He marked the opening chapter to show the LAMDA approved passage.

Daddy-Long-Legs was made into a movie in 1955 starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The film is really not at all like the book - for a start our hero finds our heroine in France (presumably to explain why Leslie Caron is French) rather than in an institution for orphans in Dutchess County New York state, and I found it a great disappointment. Maybe if I hadn't read and loved the book I would have enjoyed the film but it's too late now. Mary Pickford made a silent movie of the book, and another version starred Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter. And weirdly (OK, weirdly to me) it seems to be hugely popular in South Korea! Who knew? Although, the plot of the 2005 Korean film that I read about on Wikipedia is (how can I put it) not even remotely like the book. Oh yes, and there's a Korean anime TV show from 1990 as well. 

Jerusha Abbott is brought up at the John Grier Home for orphans run by the unsympathetic Mrs Lippett. When she is 16 she is given the chance to go to college by one of the Trustees. He (we only know it's a he because he wants to be known as Mr John Smith and, of course, in 1912 Trustees would all have been men) only asks that his protegee write to him once a month to let him know how she is getting on. Jerusha reckons that John Smith is a name sublimely lacking in imagination and, having caught a glimpse of him leaving the John Grier Home, and seen his long thin spindly shadow, she nicknames him Daddy-Long-Legs. And once she gets to college she renames herself Judy.

Judy's adventures at college include playing basketball, studying english and chemistry, geometry and latin, reading Little Women (an American staple which I never read until I was older than Judy but then I'm not an American) and many other books for the first time, and suffering from a rather dreadful sounding sublingual gland swelling. Daddy-Long-Legs has not previously responded to any of her letters but sends a box of pink rosebuds when he gets her letter about the glands. I must say, I'd rather like to be sent a box of rosebuds if I were feeling ill. She enjoys herself enormously and does very well in her studies, winning and accepting a scholarship much to her benefactor's displeasure. He's a little bit too managing and obviously wants to be solely responsible for her upkeep.

Kite day at the orphanage
Judy spends her summers at Lock Willow Farm in Connecticut where, as it so happens, her wealthy room-mate Julia Pendleton's Uncle Jervis Pendleton spent much of his childhood. Fancy! And Uncle Jervis somehow creeps into the plot. Quite a lot in fact.  When I first read this I was caught by surprise at the end of the book but on re-reading it is quite obvious what's going on. Or maybe I am just a lot older now and it's less likely that a plot will sneak up on me....

Daddy-Long-Legs manipulates Judy in a way that modern readers may find distasteful. However, the plot has a very happy ending and there is a sequel in which it is obvious that the happy ending was no mere plot device. Well, obviously it was a plot device but it continues happy. And you can't really ask for more.

So, the sequel is Dear Enemy (1915) in which Judy's other college room-mate Sallie McBride is convinced to take on the massive task of managing of the John Grier Home. Sallie writes to Judy (spoiler: now Mrs Jervis Pendleton), to her admirer and sometimes fiance, Gordon Hallock, an aspiring politician, and to the local doctor Dr Robin MacRae who she finds extremely annoying and often addresses as her 'Dear Enemy'.

No prizes for guessing what happens in the end but along the way we have plenty of adventures with
orphans and Sallie is an interesting correspondent who finds (much against her initial judgement) that
Sallie institutes gardens for the orphans
she enjoys running an orphan asylum and very much wants to improve matters for her small charges. Sallie has a maid, Jane, and a chow chow called Singapore, and is not altogether approved of by most of the Trustees, but against all the odds she makes a terrific job of sorting out  the JGH and ends up enjoying the job far more than she expected.

When I bought this book and re-read it for the first time in years I was a bit staggered to notice how much the book focuses on health: fresh air (rather too much for my taste!) is all important, as is diet, and exercise but also there is much discussion of heredity. Well obviously it must be a good thing to have healthy parents, but to expect a small baby of 2 or 3 to have problems because his mother was an alcoholic, or to report that - of course - the daughter of a chorus girl flutters her eyelashes to get what she wants strikes me as going a bit too far. I have read other early C20th books where heredity and health are all important but this book takes things to extremes with poor Sallie forced into reading a great many improving books (which were highly thought of at the time) by Dr MacRae. I found it really annoying. However, on second re-reading (some years later) I brushed past all the improving thoughts and focused on the stories of the orphans and changes to the dreadful old regime at the orphanage which Sallie tries so hard to implement.

Jean Webster had a great friend who died of TB. She also fell in love with a man whose wife was a manic depressive and he was an alcoholic. They had a child who "showed signs of mental instability" whatever that meant. So obviously all these health matters very important to her, as well as being fashionable at the time she was writing. She was interested in women's suffrage, prison visits and orphanage reform. Very sadly she died in childbirth in June 1916. She was not quite 40.

Like Daddy-Long-Legs, Dear Enemy is very dated. But still very charming, full of great characters and a good read. Both books were illustrated by Jean Webster herself and the drawings, while not perhaps of great artistic merit, are full of life. Daddy-Long-Legs was supposed to have been illustrated by Judy as part of her letters to her benefactor, but no such claims are made for Dear Enemy.

If you come across either book do give it a try.
Sadie Kate, one of the orphans, has just had her pigtails chopped off by Jane

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