Book reviews

I’m not sure why I never read Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster as a child, it would have been right up my alley. I was charmed by this story as an adult, although I have one very large reservation. As it is a plot spoiler, I’ll give you fair warning before I talk about this.

The story is told in letter form written by an orphan, Jerusha, or Judy as she wants to be known, who at the start of the story is 17 years old. When Judy is given the opportunity to go to college by one of the orphanage’s benefactors, she leaps at the chance. Her anonymous benefactor expects her to become a writer and the only thing he asks of Judy is that she write to him of her experiences once a month.

Judy’s letters over the course of her four years at college are delightful. She briefly caught sight of her benefactor at the orphanage and knows that he is tall, so she addresses her letters to him as Daddy-Long-Legs. In the letters she tells him about her classmates, who come from all walks of life, what she is learning about and of what she is reading, her sporting endeavours and of the people she meets. In one letter, Judy confesses to failing her mathematics and Latin prose exams… but of course, she promises him she will work hard to rectify her failure which she does.

Judy is a terrific heroine. She is gracious in her gratitude to her benefactor, and importantly, doesn’t accept more from him than she needs. She returns excessive amounts of money which he gives her for hats and fripperies, and makes it clear to her benefactor that she will pay him back financially for his investment in her future. Impressively, she takes on paid work during her holidays rather than accepting an expensive trip to Europe from him.

Now for the spoiler.

I found it creepy that Daddy-Long-Legs moulded Judy to become a particular person, then fell in love with her. I disliked him taking advantage of her trust as she wrote to him as Daddy-Long-Legs, even telling him about the lovely man she had met, who of course was him only she didn’t know it. I was surprised that Judy, who showed herself to be independent and clear-thinking in every other way, was all too happy to fall in love with Jervis/Daddy-Long-Legs once all was revealed to her.

I wasn’t wild about the age difference between Judy and Jervis either and don’t see theirs as an equal pairing. The thought of Judy continuing to call him ‘Daddy’ after the big reveal made me feel even more uneasy.

End of spoiler.

However, despite my reservations about the romance-side of the story, I loved everything else about the story. Daddy-Long-Legs is a gorgeous look at the life of a girl in college in the early 1900s and Judy herself is a heroine whose character is one to live up to.


Comments on: "Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster" (10)

  1. This is a long-time favorite of mine, although I have the same giant reservation that you do! It especially made me uncomfortable when “Daddy” doesn’t let her go on holiday with her friend because the friend has a young, handsome brother. That’s a little too far for me! But still, otherwise it’s just such a happy, lighthearted read.

    If possible, you should definitely find the sequel to this one, “Dear Enemy,” which is about Judy’s friend Sallie McBride. I love it even more than “Daddy-Long-Legs,” I think because it feels like Sallie is a more realistic character who actually grows as a person a lot more than Judy. Judy persuades Sallie to take charge of the orphanage where Judy grew up, against Sallie’s better judgment, with genuinely delightful results.

  2. Yes, that plot line made me feel uncomfortable too. It would have been better had she gone on the holiday then chose him over the brother later.
    I’ll look out for Dear Enemy. I didn’t realise it was connected to Daddy-Long-Legs, thought it was a separate story, but now it is even more appealing 😀

  3. I didn’t read this either and I understand your reservation. I’m reminded of a children’s book I read recently, published in the eighties, where there is a significant age difference and although the story doesn’t go as far as marriage, a relationship is implied beyond friendship. I wondered at the time of such a storyline would be acceptable today. Then I think of L M Montgomery’s ‘Emily’ books – again read quite recently. Somehow that same situation didn’t seem to bother me. Interesting. So far as D-L-L is concerned, I’d like to read it anyway based on your review and because I do love epistolary novels 🙂

  4. Despite my big reservation, Daddy-Long-Legs is well worth reading and is deserving of being known as a classic.
    I like epistolary novels too, but they’re few and far between these days, think the last one I read was told in email and text, so was a very casual style.
    Now you’ve reminded me of the Emily novels I think I’ll have to read them again soon 😀

  5. Yes, the romance aspect would have creeped me out too, but definitely we have such a different attitude today. I find some of the age differences in Austen and Dickens, and what we would now think of as grooming, hard to read too, but clearly people thought these things were completely normal back then. Oddly I’ve just finished Middlemarch where the young central character marries a vastly older man, and some of the characters – the younger ones – do express reservations about the idea.

  6. Grooming is exactly what it is (and the word that I couldn’t think of). You’re right, big age differences are common in Jane Austen’s stories, I haven’t come across them in any of the Dickens’ stories I’ve read yet, but sounds like I will soon. Looking forward to your review of Middlemarch 😀

  7. I love this too – I read it when i was a teen, and saw the film then too (Fred Astaire I think played Daddy) on the midday movies on TV! I think we have to accept that sort of story as being acceptable in those times and that there was nothing creepy about it. Just because in our day we are aware of the dangers in relationships like that doesn’t mean that those relationships can’t exist validly. May-September stories were very common in days gone by. We Jane Austen fans often think about Emma and Mr Knightley – she used to play on his knees when she was a baby and he a young man. If we think about it in our times it’s a bit creepy, but their relationship, as presented by Austen, is developed respectfully and honestly. And what about Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester? Hmm … he’s a bit more questionable!

    So, I certainly think it’s worth mentioning our changed awareness of the potential dangers of relationships like this, but I do think we should weigh them too heavily them with the sorts of stories we’d more likely write now because our times are focused on the worse versions of those sorts of relationships. I think we can accept that those writers (Austen, Bronte and later Webster) wrote these romances in good faith. Does this make sense? I’m not sure I’d said it as articulately as I’d like.

  8. Mmm, Fred Astaire, might have to watch the movie sometime…
    I’m definitely reading with modern values and I do think that real-life couples with big age gaps can have challenges that don’t exist between partners from the same generation.
    The age difference between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester didn’t bother me, perhaps because she wasn’t a child when they met and she held her own with him in so many important ways. I never liked the connection between Emma and Mr Knightley though, probably because of the playing on his knees as a baby relationship.

  9. Fair enough, but I do think we need to read with the context of the times in mind. I think we should call out sexism, racism etc when we see it, but if we don’t see wrong behaviour I’m not comfortable judging a book on our assumptions. I have a couple of friends who married men 15 years or so their senior. They were all adults admittedly but if course there are challenges, particularly when one hits old age, but that doesn’t mean those relationship are wrong does it?

    BTW, Mr Knightly was completely upright while Rochester was deceitful to Jane, and acting selfishly. He was going to marry her bigamously than give her the opportunity to decide herself. In one case we are we overlaying our modern concerns on something the author presents as positive and in the other case excusing truly poor behaviour?

  10. I don’t think the differences between Mr Knightley’s and Mr Rochester’s characters influenced my unease in these relationships, it was more to do with the emotional maturity of Jane Eyre and Emma, and the influence of the two men in forming their characters. Mr Knightley obviously played in larger role here than Mr Rochester did.
    I too have friends with large age differences who make it work and whatever makes them happy is fine by me. I do admit to noticing imbalances in some areas between them which are to do with the older one having more power, although that is true of all relationships in some area or other.
    And I do think DaddyLong-Legs acted wrongly in not allowing the heroine to go overseas with her friends (suspect he didn’t want to getting engaged to the other fellow). I did enjoy the book though and will seek out the movie.

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