Has anyone read: 'Daddy Long Legs' by Jean Webster?

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Has anyone read: 'Daddy Long Legs' by Jean Webster?

Post by Sportycb »

I am big lover of pre-1915 literature and I came across this book and have absolutely fallen in love with it. So much so in fact, that I have already read it twice this week to see what I originally missed. In helps though that it is a very short book at only 170 pages or so.

Yet, despite its brilliance, the fact it was a best seller when it was published in 1912 and has been made in various films and plays around the world, very few people seem to have heard of it. To me it is Jane Austen meets Oscar Wilde in storyline and humour. It is like 'Mansfield Park', 'Pride and Pejudice' and 'The Importance of Being Earnest' all rolled into one.

I originally saw the 1955 film version with Fred Astaire and Leslie Coran and decided I wanted to read the book which was the source material. Being a film, typically, it has moved away a bit from the original story. It almost feels like they did the casting first and then tried to adapt the story to suit their leading actors. While I like the film, the book is 100 times better. I also have watched the Broadway musical which I hate to say but I preferred even to the book because it is so faithful to the book (being word for word the same), but all while taking a slightly different slant on it and resolving the few issues I have with the book itself.

The story if you don't know it and are interested is:

The main character Jerusha Abbott is a 17 year old orphan in an orphan asylum who is reaching the end of her time there. At a meeting of the Trustees they discuss her future as she has nowhere to go. Having read one of essays she wrote for High School and having found it intelligent and witty, one of the Trustees decides to sponsor Miss Abbott to go to College. This is something he has done for a number or orphans before her but she is the only girl he has done this for.

There is only one real rule for this sponsorship is that she must write a letter of acknowledgement to this Trustee. He doesn't want any thanks but just to keep him up to date with her studies and daily life, etc ("as she would write to her family, if she had any") and giving her an opportunity to practice her writing skills. However, he will not reply and he wishes to remain unknown to her, so she will only ever know him as "Mr. John Smith".

This first chapter until the day she arrives at College is the only prose in the book. From then on until the end of the book it is just back to back letters she sends which start: "Dear Daddy Long Legs". This is because she has only seen him once which was when he was leaving the day she found out about her future. She only saw him at a distance and she could see he was tall. Then, when his car approached it cast a massive shadow on the wall which she thought looked like a daddy long legs. As this is the only time she actually ever saw him, this is what she decides to call him, or just "Daddy" for short.

It is a hilarious but very sweet coming of age story. A lot is about her trying to fit in when all the other girls seem to have come a different world from her and she learns a lot from her roomates and their families; one of which is from a middle class family and the other from a rich aristocratic family. She becomes more and more mature and begins to develop her own opinions and even political views but keeps an almost child like nature. Each letter seems different to the next. She writes to him often pretending he is different members of her family that she doesn't have, such as pretending he is her Grandmother, saying that she is going to buy her a cap to decorate and send her for her 83rd birthday. Or when talking about some of her studies she writes in the form of a thesis contents page or news report. As well as having this childish mindset she still seems to keep this child like naïvity. She seems completely oblivious to what or why the two gentleman she meet act as they do and why it is such a sweet love story as it seems that it takes quite a while to click that she is being courted by both of them.

The biggest difference between the book and the play (and what I meant by a "different slant on it") is in the book you only ever see her letters. You don't even see any of the letters she receives from the other main characters or the odd notes from Mr. Smith's Secretary. You only hear about their contents in the her own letters. And throughout the book you have no idea who Mr Smith is until the last page of the book when she finally gets to meet him. While in the play, you see him from the start.
This has pros and cons, really. In the book it keeps an extra layer of mystery as to who he is or what he is really like compared to how she imagines. And it means that like her I am sure most reading it would be confused by some of Mr. Smith's reactions and actions in response (I didnt but I had seen the film). Whilst, for the play as you get to see him from the start you can see his reaction to some of letters and it obvious to see what and why he does these things which make little sense in the book. So, even though the only added bits are his lines and the rest of the wording is identical and also only seen through the reading of the letters, it just adds to the comedy of it all and seems to add an entire new dimension to the book. Oh, and they seem to have fixed the ending which I didn't personally feel was as realistic as it is in the play.

I have tried to not give any spoilers should anyone read it and it would be nice to find someone who has read it as I could comment a lot more and provide my own theories as many mysteries still remain (even if the film and play try to add their own take). But as yet I haven't found anyone who has actually read this book.
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