With a retrospective of the artist Edward Ardizzone opening at the House of Illustration this week, I wanted to showcase one of his lesser known works – Jean Webster’s 1912 classic Daddy Long-Legs.
Jean Webster was the grand-niece of Mark Twain; a relationship that suggests literary nepotism but was in fact fraught with difficulties. Her father had been the great author’s business partner and had published works including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The success and responsibility heaped upon Charles Webster brought him to a nervous breakdown, and Twain later severed ties, leading to his eventual suicide. Jean was fifteen when her father died and it affected her deeply, particularly influencing her views on injustice and patriarchal authority figures – themes that would feature heavily in her own writing.
In Daddy-Long-Legs we follow the eduction of Jerusha Abbott, a foundling who is saved from a life of drudgery by a mysterious benefactor, who she names after the unpleasant arachnid having caught a glimpse of his elongated shadow in the halls of her orphanage. He pays for her college education, on the proviso that she write a letter to him each month and allows his true identity to remain a secret.
So the novel unfolds as a series of unanswered letters to her benefactor, and this is what makes it so compelling. Jerusha renames herself Judy and begins to experiment with her identity – in part to fit in with her well to do college friends, but more importantly as a means of self discovery. She invents the character of Daddy-Long-Legs and uses her letters to him as a proving ground for her own literary experiments, learning to produce her own authorial voice as she goes.
The original book came with illustrations by Jean Webster herself – the faux naive style, perfectly capturing the playful spirit of the central character. But the book was later republished with an accompanying set of plates by Edward Ardizzone. The effect of seeing the work of the master alongside these childlike efforts could have been a little jarring, but somehow it works, emphasising the two different sides to this multi faceted character.
Although there is comedy and romance at its core, Daddy-Long-Legs is also a deeply political book, reflecting the views of its author who was an active suffragette and Fabian (like her British counterpart E. Nesbit). Judy becomes a committed Socialist, always with one eye on inequality and her own precarious place in the world. She is determined not to be indebted to the generosity of a rich, male benefactor, and her writing becomes an escape route from ‘marrying an undertaker and being an inspiration to him in his work.’ Before any sort of romance is allowed to blossom she is determined to pay off her debts and stand on her own two feet.
An incredibly modern Young Adult novel, Daddy-Long-Legs set the template for smart romantic comedies like I Capture the Castle and Bridget Jones’s Diary; books that detail the inner lives of young women who never sacrifice their own distinctive character or ideals for the men in their lives.
Daddy-Long-Legs (without Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations) is published by Puffin Classics.