Jerusha Abbott has a problem. She is about to age out of the orphanage where she’s spent her entire life. As far as she knows she’s never been anywhere else. The orphan home’s director even gave her name to her: Jerusha was out of the Bible, and Abbott from the telephone directory.
Thus begins the story of Jerusha “Judy” Abbott. She learns that her college board and tuition will be covered by one of the orphan home Trustees. Her main requirements are to work hard and to send her benefactor a letter every month. There’s only one problem. She doesn’t know his name.
The orphanage director tells Jerusha to address her letters to Mr. John Smith. Jerusha saw the man’s shadow in passing on Trustee Visiting Day, so she knows he is tall. She names her new friend Daddy-Long-Legs.
A commentary in the novel
This month I’m reading Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster. She was Mark Twain’s grand-niece. This book is an epistolary novel, meaning that its action unfolds one letter after another. An enduring favorite, this is my fourth time reading it. One of the things I love about Daddy-Long-Legs is that it is a sweet novel, but also a commentary on the world it portrays.
Daddy-Long-Legs tells the story of Jerusha growing up and experiencing the world. We see her world only through her letters to her benefactor. But the book also tells much more. Beyond the mysterious millionaire and his protégé, the book speaks of the frustrations and culture of its time. Jerusha reaches adulthood, but she cannot vote. The book’s publication date is 1912, and women didn’t vote until the presidential election of 1920. That’s eight years away from the world of Jean Webster.
Jerusha marvels at her roommates who grew up in luxury. Then she contrasts it to her own upbringing, and the differences become apparent. She muses on the social class differences in her world, and gives us a look at the very poor. She has a dream of social progress and of making her own way, but to see if she succeeds at either you will have to read the book.
Webster uses Daddy-Long-Legs to discuss the current (1912) place of women in society and life. In this, Daddy-Long-Legs is both novel and social commentary. Because the subjects come from Jerusha as she discovers life, the topics seem natural and not preachy. For that reason alone the book is worth the time to read it. Webster wrote other books, including a sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, but this is her best known.
Because the book dates from 1912, it contains conventions and ideas of its time. However, I was surprised at how forward-thinking it was in several areas. You can enjoy Daddy-Long-Legs as a novel, as social commentary, or as both.
Experience it yourself
Daddy-Long-Legs saw several movie adaptations, beginning with the 1919 Mary Pickford version you can watch on YouTube here. In 1955 Fred Astaire starred in Daddy-Long-Legs, but the Astaire version differs considerably from the book. If you are an Astaire fan, read the book first. It will only a take a few hours.