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Jean Webster's novel, "Daddy-Long-Legs" is one of those rare books which live for ever. First published in 1912 it has run into numerous editions. Recently I came across an edition of the sixties while browsing in an old book-shop. It takes one back to less hectic times when there was a chance to live and learn, when people had the leisure to give expression to their benevolent instincts, to cultivate personal relationships and nurture them into enduring ones. But more than all this, it is the story of a young innocent romance between a foundling and a millionaire without the sullying touch of money anywhere.
One is not allowed to forget that Jerusha Abbott is a foundling, an orphan who does not know who her parents are and what her origins may have been. The girl doesn't allow herself to forget it in her long road to self-discovery. In fact the small world of the orphanage is so cramped that she cannot help remembering it when she finds herself in the big, wide world. And she can never bring herself to go back to the world of the John Crier Home. She, however, is uninhibited in her expression of loath to return. Her attitude is in contrast to the attitude of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte's novel of that name just as the world of the Home for orphans is different from that of Oliver Twist's world of hunger and scolding in Dicken's "Oliver Twist".
Another factor which is the life and breath of the novel is Jerusha's character: hers is a quicksand character. That is her moods of depression are short-lived she is by nature a ..sunny soul", and able to see the funny side of things. At the age of seventeen her future is decided and she is to be sent to college at the expense of an unknown benevolent trustee who prefers to be called by the name of John Smith and wants only a regular report about her progress. It is these letters that form the body of the novel. Jerusha, who later abbreviates her name to Judy, used these letters for expressing her heartache, her contentment, her gratitude, her loneliness and also her liveliness. The unknown benefactor is a much hyphenated man, a "Kind-Trustee-who-sends-Orphans-to-College", and because the only thing Judy knows about him is his height she labels him Daddy-Long-Legs. Her letters are marked by candor and honesty. she does not hesitate to admit her ignorance. She tries to treat her unknown benefactor like a living person and entreats him to take up various roles in order to fulfill her longing for a family. One Christmas she buys herself seven presents with the five gold coins she receives from him and pretends that they are from her parents, her grandmother, brother Harry, Aunt Susan, Uncle Harry and sister Isabel. On another occasion she entreats him to be a grandmother.
It is not a fairy tale though it reads very much like it; it is not a mystery though there is the right amount of narrative suspense. It is a natural story about natural emotions. Judy is jealous and lonely; she has brilliant success and also fails in two of her examinations. She writes stories but most of them are rejected. Her mysterious benefactor does not disclose his identity but we learn that he is Julia's Uncle Jervie, and as the young uncle of her flat-mate he treats her to an opera, manages to spend a holiday with her on Lock Willow. a farmhouse, and begins a correspondence with her. In the capacity of her benefactor he instructs his secretary to forbid her from holidaying with the Mc Brides. There is the right degree of impertinence in their relationship. The discovery that Uncle Jervie and Daddy- Long-Legs are one and the same comes right at the end of the novel. It is both a surprise and a very pleasant attachment.
The letters carry the narration forward; they have a touch of humor and of satire. Judy avails of every occasion to dig at families and family pride at silk stockings and frivolous hats and at education. It is Julia Pendleton's family tree which infuriates her and she writes, "on the topmost branches of her family there's a superior breed of monkeys with very fine silky hair and extra long tails".
Another attraction besides Judy's endless chatter, are the sketches accompanying her letters. The book has a nostalgic touch and is very human in its approach. It is realistic and the descriptions are lively and amusing. It is worthwhile to spend an afternoon or an evening with it.