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I feel I must preface this post as it’s about an American book that references women’s suffrage by saying that I read ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ at the end of October, but hadn’t been able to finish this review until now.

Daddy Long Legs: Jean Webster, Hodder & Stoughton

When I went to see the musical adaptation of this book (four years ago, EEK!), I realised that I couldn’t find my copy of ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ (a paperback edition, with an image of Judy in her gingham dress on the cover, possibly on a swing, I think). I still haven’t found it. So, when I came across a hardback copy, I decided to buy it. I have the original cast recording of the musical, so it’s been kept fresh in my mind, but I ought to be able to revisit the original easily.

It was good to return to the book and find that the best lines really were Websters’s and to rediscover that Judy Abbott is such an engaging heroine. Yes, she’s an orphan who struggles to become a published writer, not a rare type, but she’s a vividly drawn girl.

We first meet her in the first chapter, which is written in an omniscient POV, but with more humour than usual. Jerusha Abbot is the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home for orphans and foundlings. It struck me more as an adult that Judy, who was named at random by the matron, was quite probably an illegitimate child. It’s alluded to indirectly. Equally important is that she was brought up in an institution, not a home, her clothes were second-hand. Her ignorance of her antecedents is referred to, at one point she speculates wildly about them, when the reality was probably more humdrum and sad, and it does become a poignant plot point towards the end. But it wasn’t something I’d fully thought through when I was a child reader.

As you should know, because this is a real classic, Judy is informed that one of the home’s Trustees, who wishes to remain anonymous, is going to pay for her to receive a college education, as she has shown promise in English. She is required to write her benefactor a monthly letter about how she’s getting on and those letters comprise the rest of the book. Having seen a glimpse of the shadow of this benefactor – tall and long-limbed, he reminds her of a daddy long-legs, so she adopts this as a pet name for the man who becomes her imagined family, her confidant in her new life. At a women’s college of a thousand girls, mostly well-off, mostly intelligent, probably based on Vassar, where the authoress studied, the education goes beyond the syllabus. Judy is lonely at times, even though the girls are mainly congenial, with her ‘unusual’ background, although she reads and transforms her ignorance with the quick intelligence and sense of humour she shows throughout the letters.

Rereading it, how Judy remains at least consciously unaware of Daddy Long-Legs’s identity for so long seems to stretch credibility. But I think that when I first read it – probably from the school or local library – I never made the connection either. The musical was a two-hander expanding on the likely response of Judy’s correspondent, but in the book, after the first chapter, everyone is seen through Judy’s perspective, although the reader can assign motives that Judy is blind to. For despite laying it as a condition that he wouldn’t, DLL does respond to her letters, through notes through the secretary or gifts or one handwritten note at a point of crisis, but we only hear of them in Judy’s correspondence, which lasts through her college years and a little beyond.

Through her two room-mates Sallie McBride (a chum) and Julia Rutledge Pendleton (rich) Judy does meet some young or youngish men… (One of them goes to Princeton, which apparently didn’t take in women properly until 1969!)

I gobbled this book up in under one day, reading letter after letter, giving only seconds’ thoughts to the fact that the receiver would have weeks to chew over this or that comment. Apart from learning of Judy’s character, her letters provide the perspective of an outsider who becomes an insider, as all freshmen who grow to be senior do, on what it was for American young women to get a higher education at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is political in some ways and there are references to women’s suffrage – it was published eight years before (some) American women got the vote, I understand. Judy, naturally, has all sorts of ideas about how children’s homes should be run.

This copy included the authoress’s own illustrations, which are little better than stick figures, but add to the charm. I was reminded also, in rereading this, of how much of an influence it was on my letter-writing habits, when I did write letters, that is.

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