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?