I had romantic notions in my childhood of living like my childhood heroines and heroes where things were less technological, where we knew our neighbors, families made jam at home, and entertainment was taken from games, outdoor adventures and picnics. Unlike my childhood fantasies, I grew up in the city even while my neighborhood was more suburban in nature. I still was a child born in the modern world. But I recall trying to capture the joy of what it meant to live ‘back then.’ I climbed trees, found crooks and crannies to explore, and made up stories whenever I could. I was an old soul, they said. Maybe I am.
Daddy Long Legs was one of those stories that spoke to me as a child. I was first introduced to the book by an animated series I used to watch. I fancied myself as Judy Abbott. I like the kind of mischief she came to and loved her kind of stubbornness (I seem to love heroines that were proving themselves equal to any male). Most of all, I loved Daddy Long Legs because I love letters.
Jean Webster wrote Daddy Long Legs as a collection of letters. Jerusha “Judy” Abbott was required to write a monthly letter to her unknown benefactor called John Smith about her progress in school. In refusal to write to a “John Smith,” Judy took it upon herself to call her unknown benefactor Daddy Long Legs. The epistolary format immediately called to me as a child, even now as an adult. I have loved letter writing for most of my life. I unfortunately didn’t have anyone to write to. I remember making fictional letters as a child.When I eventually got a chance to exchange letters with my best friend who had moved to the US, I was excited. The internet then wasn’t widely used, so my friend and I would exchange letters through snail mail. We would fill out pages and pages of paper talking about our lives. Letter writing required patience in both the writing and the waiting for the reply. A letter wasn’t a singular occurrence, sometimes it was written in several chunks throughout the day. Re-reading Daddy Long Legs reminded me how different letter writing was to email, viber or facebook. The novel reminded me how we used to write letters and how we would wait for a reply. When the reply never came, we sit in sadness and frustration, but when it does come how our hearts leaped.
While the old memories came back to me, re-reading this little novel brought about new insights to the book. Daddy Long Legs, when it first came out, belonged to a ‘genre’ called ‘girl’ or ‘college girl’ literature. Literature under this genre were about girls going to college, pursuing careers and marriage. Other authors in this genre were Louisa May Alcott and LM Montgomery. What struck me about this book is the ‘stubbornness’ of its heroine. It wasn’t simple stubbornness, it was conviction. Judy expressed very strong opinions on what it means being a girl and what she could or couldn’t do. In this day and age, a book written in that tone, in a girl power sort of way, isn’t unique. However, in those times this was a new and growing attitude among the females.
“ I believe absolutely in my own free will and my own power to accomplish–and that is the belief that moves mountains.”
It’s a powerful declaration for any female. Even in the 21st century, where women are allowed to vote, this remained a powerful declaration in places where women still struggle for freedom. It’s an independence not too common in 1912.
Judy’s conviction doesn’t however happen overnight. The reader sees how freedom, education and growing up slowly helped develop the heroine’s opinions and convictions. It is surprising how this short novel, now considered a children’s book, is filled with sprinkles of wisdom, conviction and independence.
“Thank heaven I don’t inherit God from anybody! I am free to make mine up as I wish Him. He’s kind and sympathetic and imaginative and forgiving and understanding—and He has a sense of Humor.”
“It isn’t the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh— I really think that requires spirit.”
“I think that the most necessary quality for any person to have is imagination. It makes people able to put themselves in other people’s places. It makes them kind and sympathetic and understanding.”
“ It isn’t the great big pleasures that count most; it’s making a great deal out of the little ones–I’ve discovered the true secret of happiness, Daddy, and that is to live now. Not to be for ever regretting the past, or anticipating the future; but to get the most that you can out of this very instant.”
It is through her letters to Daddy Long Legs that Judy shares her formed opinions, her wisdom and what she has discovered in life. There is stubbornness in her as she insists on her own freedom. While not completely able to act on her decisions and having to compromise to go to the Farm than stay with her friend Sally and her brother Jimmy, her constancy in argument and demanding a logical decision allows the reader to see the independent spirit within her. She insists on working and paying her benefactor in the future – these are strong declarations of a young woman’s freedom.
Some may argue that Judy’s falling in love and seemingly-inevitable marriage contradict all the other assertion of her rights as a woman, I would say otherwise. Marriage and falling in love don’t make women weak. What this novel showed was women can work, be independent and fall in love and marry just like all the other men that work and get married.
Re-reading Daddy Long Legs was like traveling through time. I traveled back to 1912 as much as I went back to my childhood days and my own determination to proclaim my own personal freedom. If you haven’t read the book, do check it out. It’s a short lovely book.
P.S Turns out there was a 1955 movie adaptation featuring Fred Astaire. I’m off to watch it!