Archive for March 10th, 2011

March 10, 2011

Jean Webster, Dear Enemy

In my regular column for this month’s Kindle Magazine I talk a bit about my discomfort with Daddy-Long-Legs and conclude that Webster’s Dear Enemy is far better.

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I have a rather complicated relationship with Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs. When I discovered it (I was 11 or 12 at the time, I think) I loved it; it was exactly the sort of thing a girl that age might be expected to love. Brilliant, funny orphan Judy Abbot is sent to college by a mysterious benefactor (an anonymous trustee of the orphanage where she has grown up) on the strength of one humorous essay. Her benefactor’s only condition is that she write to him regularly and she does so, giving him the nickname Daddy-Long-Legs. While at college she meets the gorgeous young uncle of one of her classmates. Gradually she falls in love with him, but hesitates to tell him the secret of her background. Of course it turns out that he is her mysterious benefactor and it all ends happily.

As a grown-up, I find that I have my doubts. It’s difficult to be wholly supportive of a relationship where the (older, richer) man is deliberately manipulating and keeping information from the woman. Not to mention the inherent (and I’m sure unintended) creepiness of Judy’s calling her future partner “Daddy”.

If Daddy-Long-Legs is a teenage girl’s book, its sequel, Dear Enemy (1915), is a book for adults. Dear Enemy tells of the adventures of Sallie, Judy’s college friend, as she attempts to take over and refurbish the orphanage. Like the first book, Dear Enemy is told entirely through letters; Sallie writes to her fiancé Gordon, to Judy, and to the grumpy local doctor who she soon begins to refer to as her “dear enemy”. It is obvious from the beginning, when we learn that Judy and her husband disapprove of Gordon and are hoping Sallie will fall for the doctor, how this is going to go.

But for all its predictability, Dear Enemy is a surprising leap forward from the first book. Daddy-Long-Legs has its moments of seriousness, but Dear Enemy has long conversations about things like whether or not eugenics works, women’s rights, how institutions should function; it’s a book that treats its characters and (more importantly, perhaps) its readers like grown-ups. And unlike a number of other books with similar settings (many of them written much later than this one) it manages not to patronise or romanticise or become twee.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is Gordon. We the readers know how this is supposed to go – the heroine of the last book disapproves of this man, he is a charming politician, surely he will turn out to be a cad and she will turn to the taciturn doctor? And yet this plot, familiar as it is, would have diminished Sallie. Instead we are shown a man who is really quite nice, though he has his flaws, and with whom she could have been happy. The break-up, when it comes, is amicable and blame is not flung around. Readers of romance will know just how rare this is.

Dear Enemy was adapted into a TV series in the 80s so can hardly be called obscure. Still, it’s a lot less famous than the book it follows, and that strikes me as rather unfair.

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