Sometimes when I read children’s or young adult classics, I think wistfully that I wish I’d read them when I was a child, because I don’t appreciate them quite as much now as I would have then. I’ve missed out on something essential. But sometimes when I read them, I only wish I’d read them years ago because then I would have had so many more years of enjoying such a wonderful book. That was my experience reading Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. Now that I’ve read it in rapidly-approaching middle age, I wish I’d read it when I was twelve; I would have had decades more time loving this book.

Jerusha Abbott (later she renames herself “Judy”) is an orphan at a dreary asylum where she’s been cared for and educated but not loved. One day, she’s inexplicably chosen by an anonymous trustee for a scholarship to college. The only repayment he asks is that she write him monthly letters to let him know how she’s getting on. She happens to catch sight of his long, thin shadow leaving the asylum, and instead of calling him John Smith, as he’s requested, she rebaptizes him Daddy-Long-Legs.

And this is just the lovely beginning of four years of letters from Judy at college. Daddy-Long-Legs never writes back, as per his deal, so Judy’s letters are a one-sided conversation. Still, they are completely delightful. Judy is mischievous and thoughtful and naive, insubordinate and intelligent. She has strong thoughts about women’s rights and women’s education, and when she feels strongly about something, she never backs down. (She also has strong feelings about religion: after the asylum, for instance, it’s a relief to her not to have to say thanks for every mouthful she eats, and not to have to believe that the poor are a useful sort of domestic animal.) Since she was brought up in an orphanage, everything is new to her:

I never read Mother Goose or David Copperfield or Ivanhoe or Cinderella or Blue Beard or Robinson Crusoe or Jane Eyre or Alice in Wonderland or a word of Rudyard Kipling. I didn’t know that Henry the Eighth was married more than once or that Shelley was a poet. I didn’t know that people used to be monkeys and that the Garden of Eden was a beautiful myth. I didn’t know that R.L.S. stood for Robert Louis Stevenson or that George Eliot was a lady. I had never seen a picture of the Mona Lisa and (it’s true but you won’t believe it) I had never heard of Sherlock Holmes.

Isn’t that sense of discovery wonderful? She takes everything in and forms her own firm opinions:

Speaking of classics, have you ever read Hamlet? If you haven’t, do it right off. It’s perfectly corking. I’ve been hearing about Shakespeare all my life, but I had no idea he really wrote so well; I always suspected him of going largely on his reputation.

Judy does all kinds of college things, from studying and writing essays to going on a paper chase to pulling taffy to spending her summer on a farm. She tells her benefactor everything, and the gentle development of a real character — a writer, a thinker, a woman — is glorious to see. The gentle surprise at the end is winsome (and not much of a twist), and perfectly plausible. Everything about this book is done just right.

I cannot imagine why this book isn’t as popular as Anne of Green Gables (of which it reminded me, a bit.) It should be absolutely essential. It’s as suitable for adults as for children, and I wish I’d read it years ago. Why don’t you read it?

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39 Responses to Daddy-Long-Legs

  1. merilyn says:

    I read Daddy-Long-Legs when I was about 12 (52 years ago!) and have read it several times since. I can remember it being my favourite then. I still have 2 copies of it. There was also a film made but can’t remember who the actors were. I can still see the shadow walking down the hall. Love your blog thank you for introducing me to many new authors.

  2. bibliolathas says:

    The film had Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in it.
    I quite enjoyed the (sort of) sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, which is also epistolatory in form: Dear Enemy. One of Judy’s college friends goes to run the orphanage. It didn’t really hit the highs of Daddy-Long-Legs but was an enjoyable read nevertheless. Quite a lot on eugenics tho’!

    • Jenny says:

      Fred Astaire? A singing, dancing Daddy-Long-Legs? Hmmm. And hmmm also on the eugenics. That doesn’t exactly thrill me. Still, it might be worth reading as a curiosity.

  3. Iris says:

    I had never heard of this (but then I haven’t read Anne of Green Gables yet either *hides*) you make me want to though!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Anne is not optional if you’re going for children’s classics. But this is truly enchanting, and you don’t have to embark on seven or eight books this way. :)

  4. Bibliophile says:

    I loved this books when I first read it, and I recommend you read Dear Enemy as well.

    The film version (with Fred Astaire and Lesley Caron) always struck me as a bit creepy, but the book didn’t.

    • Jenny says:

      Isn’t that great? I’d vaguely heard that some people thought this book was creepy, so I was delighted not to find it creepy even a tiny bit.

  5. litlove says:

    I think I read this as a child because your post stirred deep memories – and good ones at that. I now have a longing to read it again!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, do. There’s nothing better for comfort reading than beloved childhood favorites, in my (not really very humble) opinion.

  6. Susan in TX says:

    I loved the film version of this with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron (the Slewfoot ?sp? dance scene was always a favorite with my girls). The film actually introduced me to the book and I’ve been on the lookout for the sequel for years. I agree that it is a much overlooked classic.

  7. amymckie says:

    Well, I do love Anne of Green Gables, so this book shall be added to my wish list right away :)

  8. This sounds wonderful for little girls; I’ll have to keep in mind for when my brother has children. :)

  9. Jeane says:

    I’ve thought of reading this for a long time, but often had that fear of it just not working for me because I’m not a kid anymore, and wishing I’d read it when younger. I’m so glad you didn’t have that kind of reading experience with it, and now I have high hopes of loving it myself!

    • Jenny says:

      I’m guessing you would. It’s just lovely. You can read it in a couple of hours, and there’s not a single snag to the fun.

  10. Steph says:

    I certainly never heard of this book as a child, which is really a shame because I did love Anne of Green Gables (and still do!). You’ve definitely convinced me that this is one I need to try!

  11. Jeanne says:

    This is the second recommendation I’ve gotten for this book, so I’m at the point of capitulation.

  12. Kathleen says:

    This sounds wonderful. I’m remembering that I might have read a review of this one a year or so ago and forgot to put in on my TBR list. I’ll do it now!

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read (and should have mentioned) reviews of this on Jenny’s Books, Things Mean a Lot, and Books I Done Read, so it has been making the rounds a bit, thankfully for me!

  13. I have never heard of this one but the story sounds good.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, it is. Engaging and strong-minded, just like Judy herself. I particularly liked the bits where she categorically refused to give up a scholarship. Hooray for Judy!

  14. I read this countless times when I was younger but never really bonded with Judy the way I did with so many other female protagonists. I actually preferred Dear Enemy, for all its faults (perhaps because the male lead was actually present?). Still, Daddy-Long-Legs is a delightful read and always a fun one to pull off the shelf on a rainy afternoon.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, lucky you! I agree that I bonded more with, say, Jo March, but I blame that on having read Little Women about fifty times and this only once!

  15. She says:

    I’ve never read this, but I saw it on some other blogs not too long ago. Your review has made me want to pick it up. I love the quote on Shakespeare!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, so did I, not least because it’s what I secretly thought when I started reading Shakespeare myself. Judy seems to say all the things I thought, but kept to myself. Another reason to love her!

  16. Jenny says:

    Oh, God bless you for that Shakespeare quote! I have been trying for weeks to remember who it was who said that thing about suspecting Shakespeare of going on his reputation! Only I couldn’t remember the exact phrase, so the internet was no help at all.

    I did read this as a kid, and I’ve only gotten fonder of it as I’ve gotten older. Judy charms me, and I love her little illustrations. Her drawing of the little calf at the farm looks alarmingly like my parents’ puppy, all gangly legs and big eyes.

  17. rebeccareid says:

    I sure loved Anne of Green Gables. I’m glad to hear the comparison. I’ll have to find this one too.

    Maybe it’s not popular because of the title. I hate spiders so anything called DADDY LONG LEGS is automatically put in the shudder category…

  18. Pingback: Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster « Book Snob

  19. Leila says:

    Daddy long legs was by far my favourite book when I was younger and I still love re-reading it! I found the movie very strange but I saw the cartoon series when I was younger (and have it on DVD now) and it is great fun to watch! I think there are clips of it on youtube :)

  20. Pingback: REVIEW: Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  21. KerryBeth says:

    Oh! My best friend and I read DLL when we were first starting college over 25 years ago and loved it. And just a couple of months ago I re-read it and loved it once again.

  22. Pingback: Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster « The Sleepless Reader

  23. yo says:

    this book is cute and a fun read. judy was a bit too naive for my taste though and jervie seemed like a condescending jerk. i liked sally and the doctor more in dear enemy.

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