Friday, March 2, 2012

Review: Daddy-Long-Legs & Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1912 and 1915

Genre: romance, epistolary

Topics: love, relationships, letters, education

Review: This review is cross-posted from the original at things mean a lot.

I am so in love with this book! Thank you, Jenny and raidergirl3, for bringing it to my attention. I can’t believe I lived for over a quarter of a century without it. I needed it in my life, even if I didn’t know I did until a few days ago. But let me begin at the beginning:

Daddy-Long-Legs is an epistolary novel first published in 1912. It’s about an orphan, Jerusha Abbot (later known as Judy), who one day is told that one of the orphanage’s trustees will sponsor her university education. This philanthropist, who prefers to remain anonymous, only requests that in exchange Judy write him monthly letters about the progress of her education. They are to be addressed to Mr John Smith, and Judy is not to expect any response. All the same, she is to keep writing. Judy catches a glimpse of this man the day the deal is made, and because he’s tall with skinny arms and legs, she renames him Daddy-Long-Legs:
Before leaving yesterday morning, Mrs. Lippett and I had a very serious talk. She told me how to behave all the rest of my life, and especially how to behave towards the kind gentleman who is doing so much for me. I must take care to be Very Respectful.
But how can one be very respectful to a person who wishes to be called John Smith? Why couldn't you have picked out a name with a little personality? I might as well write letters to Dear Hitching-Post or Dear Clothes-Prop.
I have been thinking about you a great deal this summer; having somebody take an interest in me after all these years makes me feel as though I had found a sort of family. It seems as though I belonged to somebody now, and it's a very comfortable sensation. I must say, however, that when I think about you, my imagination has very little to work upon. There are just three things that I know:
I. You are tall.
II. You are rich.
III. You hate girls.
I suppose I might call you Dear Mr. Girl-Hater. Only that's rather insulting to me. Or Dear Mr. Rich-Man, but that's insulting to you, as though money were the only important thing about you. Besides, being rich is such a very external quality. Maybe you won't stay rich all your life; lots of very clever men get smashed up in Wall Street. But at least you will stay tall all your life! So I've decided to call you Dear Daddy-Long-Legs. I hope you won't mind. It's just a private pet name we won't tell Mrs. Lippett.
And this is only the first of four year’s worth of charming, spirited and funny letters. I confess that I was perhaps naturally predisposed to love this book, because it’s both an epistolary novel and a novel from the early twentieth-century that argues for women’s education. But really, what made me fall in love with Daddy-Long-Legs was Judy’s voice. She reminded me a bit of Anne Shirley – both are orphans, unconventional, lively, and aspiring writers – and yet she’s still very much herself. I can’t understand why this book is not as popular as Anne of Green Gables. (Or is it, and I live under a rock?) I also can’t possibly convey what a delight Judy is, so let me give you a few more examples instead:
I forgot to post this yesterday, so I will add an indignant postscript. We had a bishop this morning, and WHAT DO YOU THINK HE SAID? 'The most beneficent promise made us in the Bible is this, "The poor ye have always with you." They were put here in order to keep us charitable.' The poor, please observe, being a sort of useful domestic animal. If I hadn't grown into such a perfect lady, I should have gone up after service and told him what I thought.

Should you mind, just for a little while, pretending you are my grandmother? Sallie has one and Julia and Leonora each two, and they were all comparing them tonight. I can't think of anything I'd rather have; it's such a respectable relationship. So, if you really don't object—When I went into town yesterday, I saw the sweetest cap of Cluny lace trimmed with lavender ribbon. I am going to make you a present of it on your eighty-third birthday.
! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
That's the clock in the chapel tower striking twelve. I believe I am sleepy after all.
Good night, Granny.
I love you dearly.

That's the way with everybody. I don't agree with the theory that adversity and sorrow and disappointment develop moral strength. The happy people are the ones who are bubbling over with kindliness. I have no faith in misanthropes. (Fine word! Just learned it.) You are not a misanthrope are you, Daddy?

You know, Daddy, I think that the most necessary quality for any person to have is imagination. It makes people able to put themselves in other people's places. It makes them kind and sympathetic and understanding. It ought to be cultivated in children. But the John Grier Home instantly stamped out the slightest flicker that appeared. Duty was the one quality that was encouraged. I don't think children ought to know the meaning of the word; it's odious, detestable. They ought to do everything from love.
Oh Judy, I love you! Can you tell how smart and funny she is? Also, I don’t want to say that her greatest charm is her naivety, because that would be doing her a great disservice, but… she spent the first eighteen years of her life at the John Griers Home, where she was sheltered from most of the experiences young girls her age had gone through. To watch her experience things for the first time and approach the world as if it entirely were new was enchanting. She’s so…earnest, in the best possible sense of the word. And so eager to experience, well, everything. Including literature! I loved seeing her discover classics for the first time - Jane Eyre, Hamlet, Little Women, Treasure Island, and so on.

You should all read Daddy-Long-Legs right now. Did I mention that it’s (unfortunately) very short, and that you could read it in only about two hours? And that it will fill you with happiness and make you smile for the rest of the day? Also, that it’s not just a collection of charming letters – it has a Real Plot and everything? A clever plot too, even if easy to see coming. (Possibly spoiler-ish: any misgivings I might have had about certain, er, white lies were mostly erased by the fact that the characters’ ties just seem so genuine. Also, the power dynamics didn’t alarm me, which was a pleasant surprise. Also, aww. But let me shut up before I say too much.) As I was saying, go read it right now!

Dear Enemy, the not-sequel, was published in 1915. I’m calling it a not-sequel because this is the best way to approach it. I started it as soon as I finished Daddy Long-Legs because I wanted more of it, which is not what Dear Enemy is. However, once I got over my disappointment over the fact that I wasn’t reading more of Daddy-Long-Legs, I was able to love it for what it is.

What it is, then, is a collection of letters sent by Judy’s college friend Sallie to several correspondents, including Judy herself. In them, she retells her experiences as the new superintendent of the John Griers Home, the orphanage where Judy grew up. Sallie’s voice is not Judy’s, but it’s charming in its own right. And the book, while not as delightful and satisfying, is actually a bit meatier than Daddy Long-Legs. It deals with new theories concerning education and child-rearing, with the value of women’s work, and with other themes central to first wave feminism. One of the main things Sallie learns is that no, she doesn’t have to settle for the domestic sphere and live a life of suffocation; and yes, she’s just as entitled to pursue something that satisfies her as a man is, and just as capable. And her work is worth just as much.

Unfortunately, one of the new social theories that were popular at the time was eugenics, as evidenced by passages such as this:
It seems that feeblemindedness is a very hereditary quality, and science isn't able to overcome it. No operation has been discovered for introducing brains into the head of a child who didn't start with them. And the child grows up with, say, a nine-year brain in a thirty-year body, and becomes an easy tool for any criminal he meets. Our prisons are one-third full of feeble-minded convicts. Society ought to segregate them on feeble-minded farms, where they can earn their livings in peaceful menial pursuits, and not have children. Then in a generation or so we might be able to wipe them out.
NO, SALLIE, NO! This is interesting as an historical document, I suppose, but it still made me cringe. And it made me sad, too, because I liked Sallie a lot—because she was so kind in so many ways, and yet here she was, accepting a patronising and appalling form of cruelty so casually. But that's the early 20th century for you. And, in not entirely dissimilar ways, the early 21st too. That’s just people for you, I guess. The good news is that later on, her actual experience with these children causes her to doubt the Doom and Gloom social theories she was exposed to.

I urged you to read Daddy-Long-Legs, and I’m going to tell you to go ahead and read Dear Enemy too—but keep in mind that it won’t be more of the same. Still, Sallie is most definitely worth getting to know.

Some more interesting bits:
Sandy has two passions in life: one is for cod-liver oil and the other for spinach, neither popular in our nursery. Some time ago—before I came, in fact—he had ordered cod-liver oil for all {aenemic} of the{ }—Heavens! there's that word again! {aneamic} —children, and had given instructions as to its application to Miss Snaith. Yesterday, in his suspicious Scotch fashion, he began nosing about to find out why the poor little rats weren't fattening up as fast as he thought they ought, and he unearthed a hideous scandal. They haven't received a whiff of cod-liver oil for three whole weeks! At that point he exploded, and all was joy and excitement and hysterics.

The Hon. Cy was awfully impressed with the new dining room, especially when he heard that Betsy had put on those rabbits with her own lily-white hands. Stenciling rabbits on walls, he allows, is a fitting pursuit for a woman, but an executive position like mine is a trifle out of her sphere. He thinks it would be far wiser if Mr. Pendleton did not give me such free scope in the spending of his money.

I must tell you the joke about my enemy—not the Hon. Cy, but my first, my original enemy. He has undertaken a new field of endeavor. He says quite soberly (everything he does is sober; he has never smiled yet) that he has been watching me closely since my arrival, and though I am untrained and foolish and flippant (sic), he doesn't think that I am really so superficial as I at first appeared. I have an almost masculine ability of grasping the whole of a question and going straight to the point. Aren't men funny? When they want to pay you the greatest compliment in their power, they naively tell you that you have a masculine mind. There is one compliment, incidentally, that I shall never be paying him. I cannot honestly say that he has a quickness of perception almost feminine.

I can't tell you how pleased I am that Betsy's salary is to be raised, and that we are to keep her permanently. But the Hon. Cy Wykoff deprecates the step. He has been making inquiries, and he finds that her people are perfectly able to take care of her without any salary.
"You don't furnish legal advice for nothing," say I to him. "Why should she furnish her trained services for nothing?"
"This is charitable work."
"Then work which is undertaken for your own good should be paid, but work which is undertaken for the public good should not be paid?"
"Fiddlesticks!" says he. "She's a woman, and her family ought to support her."
(At which point both Sallie and I rolled our eyes.)