Keeper Shelf: Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.

If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!

Jean Webster—Alice Jane Chandler Webster (1876-1916) if you want to be stuffy about it—was a grandniece of Mark Twain, and it shows. She died relatively young; Daddy-Long-Legs is her best-known book.

Trigger warning: Daddy-Long-Legs came out in 1911. If you look at it with modern eyes, you may find something creepy and even stalkerish in the way the love story plays out. Therefore, do not look at it with modern eyes. Really. I mean it.

Meet our heroine. Jerusha Abbott was raised in an orphanage. (Spoiler alert: We never learn who she “really” is. It is not that kind of book.) In her last year of high school she writes an essay about “Blue Wednesday”, the day the orphanage’s trustees come to visit. The management are Not Amused … but one of the trustees is. In fact he is so amused, he arranges for Jerusha to go to college to be educated as a writer. The only condition: She must write to him regularly. Her letters—with wonderfully crude stick-figure illustrations—make up the rest of the book.

Crudely drawn comics about what Judy has learned to do, like skating and sliding down ropes.

Our heroine gives her benefactor the name “Daddy-Long-Legs” because all she has ever seen of him is a tall shadow. He refuses to give any information about himself, asking her to call him Mr. Smith. One of her first letters includes the impassioned query “ARE YOU BALD?” No reply. In fact he never writes back; it’s a strictly one-sided correspondence. Everything from his end is relayed through a secretary.

Do you dread the prospect of, well, Jerusha? I feel your pain. I once read a 20th-century novel whose heroine was named Beulah, and kept waiting for the author to jump out and say Haha, just kidding, it’s really Betty. (Spoiler: She never did.) But Jerusha Abbott is another story. The moment she arrives at college, she informs everyone that her name is now Judy. Ahh, that’s better.

Freshman year:

We meet Judy’s roommates: Sallie McBride who is nice, and Julia Pendleton who is stuck-up. They both have their uses, though, as Sallie has a nice brother at Princeton named Jimmie, while Julia has a nice uncle named Jervis. So there’s your two Potential Men, right off the bat.

Judy goes out for the freshman basketball team. (“I’m little of course, but terribly quick and wiry and tough.”) Did you know that girls in 1911 played basketball? They sure did; in fact the sport was tailor-made for them. An indoor arena meant the young ladies wouldn’t get wet or muddy—and if they built up an unbecoming glow, you could always lock out everyone but close friends and relatives. Eat your heart out, WNBA.

One of Judy’s most appealing traits is that she’s not perfect. She does make the basketball team—Julia, neener-neener, doesn’t—but she also fails two classes, and has to retake her exams. (Spoiler: She passes.) And, unlike Harry Potter, she is not dumped back in the orphanage each summer. Daddy-Long-Legs arranges for her to stay on a farm. And here the plot thickens: By amazing coincidence, the owner of the farm knows Julia’s Uncle Jervis—“Master Jervie” to her—from way back. He comes to visit, and sparks fly.

Sophomore year:

At year’s end, conflicts develop. Judy has been invited to spend the summer with Sallie’s family, including the nice Princeton brother. Instead of being glad to be rid of her for a few months, Daddy-Long-Legs vetoes the plan and packs her off to the farm again. Spoiler: This is the last time he will win this particular battle. The quest for independence will be a big part of Judy’s character development over the next two years.

During the summer, Judy learns that in spite of those freshman-year fails, she has won a scholarship that will free her from Daddy-Long-Legs’ support. Not that she’s got anything against him—how could she, when she’s never set eyes on the guy?—but she wants to make her own way. This time he can’t prevent her from accepting. (“Are you still harping on that scholarship? I never knew a man so obstinate and stubborn and unreasonable, and tenacious, and bull-doggish, and unable-to-see-other-people’s-points-of view as you. If you make any more fuss, I won’t accept the monthly allowance either.”) Go Judy!

Junior year:

Victory again! (Score to date: “Mr. Smith” 1, Judy 2.) Come summer, Judy flatly refuses to go along with Daddy-Long-Legs’ plans for her, and instead goes to work tutoring two college-bound sisters. In the meantime, we’ve seen a lot of her hanging out with the other students, getting involved in student government, writing for the school paper, tramping across the countryside in “short skirts”. (In 1911, this can only mean—horror!—above the ankle.)

By year’s end, it is obvious that Brother Jimmie is out of the running. He’s just too young—only a year older than Judy. Uncle Jervis, on the other hand, is a comfortable 14 years older.

Senior year:

Clouds on the horizon—and some disgruntlement, as Daddy-Long-Legs doesn’t show up for Judy’s graduation. Maybe he’s offended at the way she keeps refusing his help. When he learns that Snooty Julia is going to Europe after graduation, he offers to send Judy too. Once again she declines, and instead spends a final summer at the farm writing, writing, writing. Her first novel is accepted! (Publishers worked a lot faster in those days.) With the advance, she starts paying back Daddy-Long-Legs. Surprisingly, he doesn’t even try to send back the money. By now he knows who he is dealing with.

But all is not well. We learn from Judy’s letters that Jervis has proposed, and she has turned him down. You may remember that he is related to the rich Julia; Judy can’t bring herself to come clean about her own raised-in-an-orphanage background. She is miserable. So is Jervis; he runs off to Canada, and comes back deathly ill. By grievous coincidence, Daddy-Long-Legs is also dangerously ill—and this, at last, forces him to break his resolution about letting Judy meet him.

Final letter:

My very dearest Master-Jervie-Daddy-Long-Legs-Pendleton-Smith,

P.S. This is the first love letter I ever wrote. Isn’t it funny that I know how?

I don’t know when I first discovered Daddy-Long-Legs. I only know that it’s one of those books you can reread an almost infinite number of times, and it always leaves me feeling happy.

Daddy-Long-Legs comes from Louise Rose’s Keeper Shelf! When Louise isn’t making ebooks, Louise writes about things nobody in their right mind would be interested in at Fifty Words for Snow.

This book is available from:
Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster


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