Sunday, February 19, 2012

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

Jerusha Abbott, raised in an orphanage, has never known love or nice things—until one of the trustees of the orphanage offers to pay her way to college to become a famous author. Suddenly, Jerusha has money, friends, and intellectual stimulation—and she owes it all to her anonymous benefactor, whose only terms are that she write to him monthly to describe her life.

Jerusha—or Judy as she prefers to be called—enjoys herself so much she can't stop writing. But will she ever find out who Daddy-Long-Legs is?

I'd only heard of this book recently, but after hearing it mentioned in a number of places, picked it up at an op-shop to try it out. This book and I did not get on well.

To begin with, I didn't like the main character. Jean Webster, the author, appears to hold the exact opposite convictions to me on almost every issue. Thus her idea of the virtuous heroine who deserves her happy ending is of a girl who instinctively dislikes the religion of her upbringing, and eagerly embraces all the new ideas she comes across—independence, women's suffrage, socialism. She rarely if ever says a nice word about her orphanage upbringing—which even she acknowledges not to be all bad; not as bad as Jane Eyre's Lowood at any rate—and what the author obviously thinks of as “high spirits” I think of as “saying horrid things about people you treat as friends, behind their backs.”

I don't mean to say that an unloved orphan who's had a depressing upbringing should be instinctively full of sweetness and light. But please—if Jane Eyre could manage it, so can Jerusha Abbott, even if it takes her a while to get there. But no...Indeed, the book's whole theme could be summarised thus:
I don't agree with the theory that adversity and sorrow and disappointment develop moral strength. The happy people are the ones who are bubbling over with kindliness.”

But that's not the end of the moral confusion in this book. There is an antithesis here, very clearly drawn, between religion and intellectualism. There is a place in The Lion, the Witch,and the Wardrobe where the four children hear Aslan's name for the first time; to three of them, the name seems utterly delightful, but to Edmund, the traitor, the name seems loathsome and frightening. This book is a study of a girl who finds the name of Aslan loathsome, and can't get enough magic Turkish Delight. The book is liberally sprinkled with digs at religion. For example, Jerusha resolves to help a needy family she knows:
The mother isn't very strong and is extremely ineffectual and pious. She sits with her hands folded, a picture of patient resignation, while the daughter kills herself with overwork and responsibility and worry.”
And it's the book's lovely Fabian socialist heroine and hero—the emblem of the Fabians is of a wolf in sheep's clothing, by the way—to the rescue of the poor stupid Calvinists!

Because it is very clear that the brand of religion which this book militates against is Calvinism:
I find that it isn't safe to discuss religion with the Semples. Their god (whom they have inherited intact from their remote Puritan ancestors) is a narrow, irrational, unjust, mean, revengeful, bigoted person. Thank heaven I don't inherit any 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 humour.”
Daddy-Long-Legs literally takes place in a world where everything nice that happens happens because of a Fabian socialist. And everything that happens for religious motives is horrid. There is very little subtlety here.

You could say that I disliked the book, but it might be more accurate to say that it left me apathetic, with no common ground upon which to connect with the heroine. I do, in fact, respect the fact that the author created a consistent vision—she knows, unlike some, that there is an antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In that we have common ground. It is merely that she takes the opposite side of the antithesis, and uses this story to promote the seed of the serpent in much the same way that any book I might write would be for the seed of the woman. The writing is good, and if you had any respect at all for the main character's salient traits, you might enjoy this book very much. But for the seed of the woman, there was nothing to please, nothing to nourish, nothing to be enjoyed.


Ruth said...

Thanks for this review.

I've heard of a movie by the same name; I assume it's based on this book.

Loraine said...

Nice review. Here's mine if you don't mind:

Thanks and have a nice day! :D

Unknown said...

Thanks for your article, now I am goint to do some researche about this novel, wish me luck


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