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Daddy-Long-Legs is a 1912 epistolary novel by the American writer Jean Webster. It follows the protagonist, Jerusha "Judy" Abbott, as she leaves an orphanage and is sent to college by a benefactor whom she has never seen.
Jerusha Abbott was brought up at the John Grier Home, an old-fashioned orphanage. The children were completely dependent on charity and had to wear other people's cast-off clothes. Jerusha's unusual first name was selected by the matron from a gravestone (she hates it and uses "Judy" instead), while her surname was selected out of the phone book. At the age of 17, she finished her education and is at loose ends, still working in the dormitories at the institution where she was brought up.
One day, after the asylum's trustees have made their monthly visit, Judy is informed by the asylum's dour matron that one of the trustees has offered to pay her way through college. He has spoken to her former teachers and thinks she has potential to become an excellent writer. He will pay her tuition and also give her a generous monthly allowance. Judy must write him a monthly letter, because he believes that letter-writing is important to the development of a writer. However, she will never know his identity; she must address the letters to Mr. John Smith, and he will never reply.
Judy catches a glimpse of the shadow of her benefactor from the back, and knows he is a tall long-legged man. Because of this, she jokingly calls him Daddy-Long-Legs. She attends a "girls college" on the East Coast. She illustrates her letters with childlike line drawings, also created by Jean Webster.
The book chronicles Judy's educational, personal, and social growth. One of the first things she does at college is to change her name to "Judy". She designs a rigorous reading program for herself and struggles to gain the basic cultural knowledge to which she, growing up in the bleak environment of the orphanage, was never exposed.
During her stay, she befriends Sallie McBride (the most entertaining person in the world) and Julia Rutledge Pendleton (the least so) and sups with them and Leonora Fenton.
At the end of the book, the identity of Daddy-Long-Legs is revealed as Jervis Pendleton, whom she had met and fallen in love with while she was still unaware that he was Daddy-Long-Legs.
The book is dedicated "To You." Today this book is often classified as children's literature, but at the time it was part of a trend of "girl" or "college girl" books which featured young female protagonists dealing with post-high-school concerns such as college, career, and marriage. These books predated the contemporary view of adolescence. Other authors who wrote in this vein include L. M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott. In Georgina Castle Smith's children's novel Nothing to Nobody (1873), Daddy Long Legs (sic) is the name of the orphaned urchin who receives the assistance.
Webster tackles issues such as education of and the vote for women, and institutional reform, as well as the then-hot topic of heredity and eugenics. The literary, historical, and biographical evidence makes clear, Webster’s eugenics is decisively moderate; she insists on the importance of improving environments as well as limiting reproduction for society’s poorest and least healthy members. In the novel, Judy educates Jervis while he (as Daddy-Long-Legs) is paying for her education. Before Judy influences him, he is an autocratic man who insists on having his own way and whose dedication to socialism is academic but not particularly evident in his day-to-day life. It is only through her influence that his social activism moves beyond writing college tuition checks for the occasional deserving orphan. Jervis certainly gives Judy a hand up, but she eschews his attempts to control her, both as himself and as the anonymous Daddy-Long-Legs, long before she agrees to marry him. She consistently disobeys her benefactor’s orders and disrupts his ideas, transgressions for which she is never punished—either literally or metaphorically—and through which she shapes the world around her and creates herself as a person living with agency in that world. The novel affirms that, under some circumstances, it is actually possible to live out the American ideal of self-creation Her argument can be read as resistance to the biological determinism of eugenics, in which heredity and familial heritage decide the fate of future generations. Indeed, Judy makes a classic statement of self-creation by renaming herself at the beginning of the novel. Judy adopts her new name as soon as she arrives at school, able to imagine and create a new option, a new name, and a new life for herself. [copyright violation?]
Stage and screen
This book was Webster's best-known work. Webster herself adapted it into a stage play which debuted in 1914. In addition, it was adapted into a 1952 British stage musical comedy called Love from Judy, as well as films in 1919 (starring Mary Pickford), 1931 (starring Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter), 1935 (a Shirley Temple adaptation called Curly Top) and a 1955 film, Daddy Long Legs (starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron). The latter two film versions departed considerably from the plot of the original novel. In Japan, Daddy-Long-Legs was made into a musical anime television special in 1979 by Tatsunoko Production, directed by Masakazu Higuchi of Superbook fame with Yūko Tanaka as the voice of Judy. Dubbed in English, it was released on home video in the United States.
This was followed in 1990 by the TV serial Watashi no Ashinaga Ojisan (My Daddy-Long-Legs), directed by Kazuyoshi Yokota for the Nippon Animation studio as that year's installment of the studio's World Masterpiece Theater. It notably makes Judy younger, with Daddy-Long-Legs paying her tuition for high school, not college.
One of Japan's longstanding charities, properly called The Foundation for Orphans from Automobile Accidents (交通遺児育成会募金), takes its inspiration as well as its nickname from the novel, providing financial support to fatherless children and calling itself the Ashinaga Ojisan Bokin (足長おじさん募金) or Daddy-Long-Legs Fund.
The 2005 Korean movie Kidari Ajeossi has elements of Daddy-Long-Legs transferred into a modern setting.
In 2009, the novel was made into a two-person musical play by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (music), which premiered at the Rubicon Theatre Company (Ventura, California) and TheatreWorks (Palo Alto, California). On September 27, 2015, the musical premiered Off-Broadway at the Davenport Theatre with Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander Nolan.
- "Smith, Georgina Castle [née Georgina Meyrick; pseud. Brenda]". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/41041.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Keely, Karan (Sep 2004), "Teaching Eugenics to Children:Heredity and Reform in Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy", The Lion and the Unicorn, 28 (3): 363–389, doi:10.1353/uni.2004.0032
- Phillips, Anne K (1999), ""Yours most loquaciously": Voice in Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs", Children's Literature, 27: 64–85, doi:10.1353/chl.0.0124
- TheatreWorks program, January 2010
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