Sunday, March 30, 2008


A few weeks ago, for no discernible reason, I got to thinking about Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. So I took it with me the next morning when I went to sit with my dad while my mother went to Mass. (My father had just been released from the hospital after having suffered another stroke. The physical therapists didn't want him to be home alone yet.) It's a small book bound in navy blue cloth which, according to the penciled price on the fly-leaf, I bought for fifty cents. It's one of my Woolworth books and therefore very dear to me.

We moved to Azusa when I was in the sixth grade. In those more innocent days my mom wasn't afraid to let me walk all by myself to the local shopping center which was about a mile and a half away. I loved the freedom of those solitary expeditions, especially browsing at Woolworth's where the merchandise was within my means and ranged from live goldfish and turtles to tiny Whitman Samplers and the sort of jewelry that children buy as gifts for their mothers.

On one of my visits to Woolworth's I discovered an enormous pile of used, hardcover books. For me, this was like stumbling upon El Dorado. You have to understand that there were no bookstores in our immediate area. (This was long before chains like Borders or Barnes & Noble.) My only source of books was the Scholastic Book Club at school which only offered paperbacks. But here, piled in profusion, were real books, i.e. hardcover books with the authority of age, official books such as might be found on the shelves of a real library.

And, mirabile dictu, I could buy them and take them home! But how long would that pile of books be there? And how many of them could I buy, with my carefully hoarded, minuscule allowance, before they disappeared?

I don't remember how many books I ended up buying, but I made many trips to Woolworth's and spent hours sifting through that pile as I weighed the merits of one book against another. I know I got my copy of Tom Sawyer there and my copy of Jane Eyre. And I'm pretty sure that's where I got my Robinson Crusoe. (Only 25 cents! Though that was a whole week's allowance at the time.)

But getting back to Daddy-Long-Legs. . .

Eighteen year old Judy Abbot, an inmate of the John Grier Home, receives the astonishing news that one of the institution's trustees has offered to pay for her college education based on a humorous (and somewhat irreverent) composition which she wrote for her high school English class. Her beneficiary wishes to remain completely anonymous and in return asks only that she write him a monthly letter describing the progress of her studies and the details of her daily life. He intends her to become a writer, and "he thinks nothing so fosters facility in literary expression as letter-writing." The only thing Judy knows about her benefactor is that he is very tall, so she dubs him "Daddy-Long-Legs." The novel consists of her letters to him written throughout her four years of college and the summer after graduation. By the end of the novel, Judy has published her first book, found true love, and discovered the identity of Daddy-Long-Legs.

When I originally read the book, I was fascinated by the author's description of college life and by Judy's efforts to become a writer. In later rereadings I found it interesting to compare her experiences at a women's college circa 1912 with my own in 1970. But what struck me this time was how much of Judy's education took place outside the classroom and how successfully she followed Mark Twain's dictum that one should never allow one's schooling to interfere with one's education.

As a freshman, she is very conscious of her status as an escapee of the John Grier Home and her diligent attempts to "pass" as an ordinary girl are both funny and poignant.

You know, Daddy, it isn't the work that is going to be hard in college. It's the play. 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. It's a miserable feeling.
Part of her "language" difficulties consists of a lack of cultural literacy.
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. For example:

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.

Now, I know all of these things and a lot of others besides, but you can see how much I need to catch up. And oh, but it's fun! I look forward all day to evening, and then I put an "engaged" on the door and get into my nice red bath robe and furry slippers and pile all the cushions behind me on the couch and light the brass student lamp at my elbow and read and read and read. One book isn't enough. I have four going at once. [N.B. A girl after my own heart!] Just now they're Tennyson's poems and "Vanity Fair" and Kipling's "Plain Tales" and -- don't laugh -- "Little Women." I find that I am the only girl in college who wasn't brought up on "Little Women." I haven't told anybody though (that would stamp me as queer). I just quietly went and bought it with $1.12 of my last month's allowance; and the next time somebody mentions pickled limes, I'll know what she is talking about!
In fact, in her first semester she ends up flunking both mathematics and Latin prose in her autodidactic efforts to catch up to the other girls.

I'm sorry if you're disappointed, but otherwise I don't care a bit because I've learned such a of things not mentioned in the catalogue. I've read seventeen novels and bushels of poetry -- really necessary novels like "Vanity Fair" and "Richard Feverel" and "Alice in Wonderland." Also Emmerson's " Essays" and Lockhart's "Life of Scott" and the first volume of Gibbon's "Roman Empire" and half of Benvenuto Cellini's "Life" -- wasn't he entertaining? He used to saunter out and casually kill a man before breakfast.

So you see, Daddy, I'm much more intelligent than if I'd just stuck to Latin.


Sherwood said...

I never read that book, though I knew the movie was based on a book. I think the movie put me off a tad.

Hmmm. Have to repair that.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

If it was the Fred Astair version, it was not at all like the book! I haven't seen the one with Mary Pickford. The Shirley Temple movie, Curly Top, is supposed to be based on Daddy-Long-Legs, but only loosely I imagine.

mrsdarwin said...

Years ago I read about half of Daddy Long Legs in an original copy while we were visiting someone. I never had the opportunity to finish it until I found, at Half Price Books, a lovely Everyman Children's Classics edition with the author's illustrations.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oooooh! Daddy-Long-Legs is one of my own favourites from childhood! I spent months reading and rereading it, wishing I could have gone to Judy's school. Then I figured out that same bit about the difference between schooling and education, and realised I didn't have to! =P

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Would you believe that I never knew that Jean Webster had written other books? But thanks to the Internet, I now know that she did, that some of them are in print, and I even read one, Just Patty, over at Project Gutenburg.

Bookgirl said...

I didn't read Daddy Long-Legs until I was in my 20s. But oh, how I loved it. I have the movie in my Netflix queue, but if it doesn't do the book justice, I'm not going to bother.

There's something about that particular type of novel for me-- a girl falling in love with learning and books, or seeing the word anew through books, that brings me such joy. I don't know if you read The Thirteenth Tale, but it had the same feeling for me.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Oh, goody! Another book to put on my Search For list.