Saturday, 17 March 2012

Daddy-long-legs

Up to now, I was only aware of the film by the same name with Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire - lighthearted and sweet - but decided to read Daddy-long-legs by Jean Webster after reading very good comments by other bloggers.
The book retains this joyful sense, albeit with tiny, sharp comments that prove the depth of character in it.  It starts with the asylum where the main character, Jerusha, is living and the way the visiting committees regard it: "they made their rounds, drunk their tea and now they hurried home to forget their bothersome little charges"

Jerusha (Judy) is an orphan of 17 years, who in the last two years has been taking care of a whole room of youngsters, as well as cleaning and tutoring in the establishment - a fact that is conveniently "overlooked" by the administration .  She is presented with a scholarship by a Mr. John Smith, whose figure, in a snapshot of car headlights resembles a daddy-long-legs, hence his nickname.

The scholarship requires that Judy report once a month her progress at college, which dictates the style this book is written - a series of letters to Mr. Smith, describing everything in Judy's new life at college.  The letters actually read like diary entries, and are full of exclamations and capital letters and are full of tiny little details, bursting with enthusiasm at all these new experiences. Judy is a straight-forward person in her dealings with Mr. Smith - she does not shy away from her feelings towards her old home "I never heard of anybody being asylum-sick, did you?", her fellow students or her new situation.  She explains that she can't do otherwise:

"you can't expect me to have any manners; a foundling asylum isn't a young ladies' finishing school"

I found her character very true to life.  A survivor, she does what she can to avoid humiliation and to fit in with the other girls.   "when the girls talk abut things that I never heard of, I just keep still and look them up in the encyclopedia". Even though she comes from the poorest of the poor, she shows her sensible side, when she prefers to buy books and writing material with her Christmas present (ok, she also buys a pair of silk stockings, but she does have a purpose...).  Still, she is a lonesome little girl, and becomes soon attached to Mr. Smith - her grandmother, her uncle, her whole family in one.  It is for this reason she also feels puzzled when she can't get any more information about him "I don't know a single thing about you. It is very uninspiring writing to a Thing"


Further on, there are just too many parts in the book that are just magnificent!
This book was published in 1912 and I thought it was well ahead of its time:  to actually write about a girl going to college, and excelling in difficult subjects, to have her play in a basketball team (!!!) and then to have her have strong opinions on important matters, like poverty (she sneers at a bishop's sermon that speaks of charity to the poor as to domestic animals) and politics (she's a Fabian!)  This at a time when women did not yet have voting rights, even if more and more were highly educated "this is an awfully wasteful country to throw away such an honest, educated, conscientious, intelligent citizen as I would be" (which was true for many of the women at that time... really a waste!).  Later on, however, she wonders:  "are women citizens?  I don't suppose they are" (I do hope this was her being cynic...)


But the book also includes very serious insights on life - Judy has had an unconventional childhood and this experience has taught her early on that it's important "to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh".  She has come to realise that one has to always "be ready to accept the good things in life - the whole secret is in being pliable... and make a great deal out of the little pleasures (in life)".  There is also the acknowledgement that "most people don't live; they just race ... trying to reach some goal far away on the horizon" - how true does this sound in our day and age?  how many of us have 5- and 10-year plans, which we follow to the letter, while forgetting to admire the sunset in front of us, and embrace our families and friends NOW?


I'm still thinking about this book - it's true that we can't know what our future holds, but we should always be thankful for everything we have - as for the misfortunes, we shouldn't be resentful - just regard those as a  very unusual adventure.


Read for the What's in a name challenge

6 comments:

  1. I was also surprised at how witty and sarcastic the book was for 1912, the religious and political remarks especially.

    I've heard that the sequel should be avoided, because the author defends eugenics.

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    1. good to know - thanks Alex!

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  2. And this is one more review that makes me want to read it. Really surprising to have a women character playing basketball in 1912 indeed!

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    1. It is indeed a very well written book - I thoroughly recommend it!

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  3. I've been wanting to read this after seeing several reviews in the blogosphere. I'm pretty sure I'd heard of it before but dismissed it because the title is a spider name - I've never read Charlotte's Web either! :-)

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    1. I found it very interesting reading - hope you enjoy it! (Charlotte's web was my first book ever and it is why I like pigs and spiders :-))

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