21 December 2013


Reading Diary: Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

Dear Daddy-Long-Legs,

Did you ever hear of Michael Angelo?

He was a famous artist who lived in Italy in the Middles Ages. Everybody in English Literature seemed to know about him and the whole class laughed because I thought he was an archangel. He sounds like an archangel, doesn't he? The trouble with college is that you are expected to know such a lot of things you've never learned. It's very embarrassing at times. But now, when the girls talk about things that I never heard of, I just keep still and look them up in the encyclopaedia.

I made an awful mistake the first day. Somebody mentioned Maurice Maeterlinck, and I asked if she was a freshman. That joke has gone all over college. But anyway, I'm just as bright in class as any of the others--and brighter than some of them . . .

When I blogged my Twelve Things about So Undercover and mused that the "modern" Cinderella adaptation has heroines who go to college rather than to a ball, I was literally a hundred years late to the party. So Undercover came out in 2012, but Daddy-Long-Legs was first published in 1912. And unlike the movie, the novel isn't content to let its socio-economic message remain part of the subtext. Jean Webster's Cinderella is a self-proclaimed socialist! =P

But I have always liked Judy Abbot best as a simple college student, for whom an educational patron is worth all the faerie godmothers in folklore.

I have a new unbreakable rule: never, never to study at night no matter how many written reviews are coming in the morning. Instead, I read just plain books--I have to, you know, because there are eighteen blank years behind me. You wouldn't believe, Daddy, what an abyss of ignorance my mind is; I am just realizing the depths myself. The things that most girls with a properly assorted family and a home and friends and a library know by absorption, I have never heard of . . .

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 . . .

You know who she reminds me of? A close friend from uni who had spent most of her teenage years living in a boarding hospital because of a rare condition she had and who had no choice but to be homeschooled. (Or should that be "hospitalschooled"?) When she finally got to our university, where all papers were open to anyone who wanted to take them, she told me, "This is my Disneyland!" And she spent her evenings watching movies which had been in the cinemas while she had been confined, just catching up so that she'd know why in the world people would yell "I'm the king of the world!" when watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban . . .

All together now @0:50

. . . and for that matter, so she'd know who in the world that Harry Potter fellow was in the first place.
(Answer: another modern Cinderella--but male.)

Judy has had an even more limited childhood, having spent her first eighteen years in an orphanage. As she writes to her anonymous benefactor, "Half the time, I don't know what the girls are talking about; their jokes seem to relate to a past that everyone but me has shared. I'm a foreigner in the world and I don't understand the language."

Theirs are unique situations, of course, but I think that any person who is truly interested in learning has felt the same "culture shock," for it is simply the recognition of how ignorant one has really been.  I had my own Judy Abbott moment when discussing books with a girl from Canada, a girl from New Zealand, and a girl from Sweden--a pocket-sized international readers' convention! One of them brought up Douglas Adams and then they all ecstatically proclaimed their love for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At that time, I hadn't heard of either the author or the novel, and suddenly it was all I could do not to feel uncultured and gauche.

Yet when I think of my own uni experiences, I find the letters in Daddy-Long-Legs wanting. Sometimes Judy is a chatty, contemplative correspondent . . . and sometimes she just dashes off a silly note. It's realistic, but it has always left me wanting more. About a quarter of the way through this reading, I started thinking about adapting the novel to another setting--either a convent school in pre-war Manila or a present-day university--just so that I could fill in all the holes myself!

Perhaps the original reader of her letters, the mysterious Daddy-Long-Legs, felt the same way at some point, which is why . . . Oh, wait. That's a spoiler. =P

Although I have read this novel at least three times, it is not one of my favourites. The themes of learning and flourishing . . . of discovering how small your own world still is and how rich the wider world can be . . . aren't given much more space than the passages I've already quoted here. I would have liked to see more of the angst that comes from being an outsider and feeling like a fraud--and the growth that comes from "faking it to make it." In short, I would have liked more than just those few peeks at Judy's inner world which we get at the start of her freshman year and the summer after her graduation, when she falls in love . . . 

If you've read Daddy-Long-Legs, let us know what you thought of it in the combox!

And if you haven't, feel free to share your own "Judy Abbot moment" from uni. =)

Image Source: Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster


Sheila said...

I have moments like that constantly. I didn't watch much TV or many movies growing up, and I am hopeless at keeping track of actors' names. Or sports people. I find it odd that we have this cultural assumption everyone is into TV and sports, that there is something *wrong* with you if you don't know who Peter Lorre is or what sport the Bears play.

My mom was even more culturally unaware than me, having grown up in a number of different countries while her dad was in the air force. She is constantly misusing expressions or using ones that are generations old, like "the cat's pajamas." We had a family joke that she was secretly a Russian spy. Her English was almost impeccable, but those darn idioms would trip her up every time! I can't remember why we said my dad was a CIA agent, but that was part of the game too. Two spies, in love but spying on each other.

Enbrethiliel said...


Your family is cute! =)

I'm more immersed in pop culture than you are, so I get most references quickly, but sometimes I wait for years before I actually check them out.