Book: Daddy Long Legs
Author: Jean Webster
Gutenberg: Daddy Long Legs (free ebook)
Internet Archive/Open Library ebook: Daddy Long Legs (free ebook. The version I read and recommend, especially because the introduction is a short biography of Webster. Also this version includes "Judy's artwork" in many of the letters - the character likes to illustrate various things she's writing about.)
The usual roundabout story about how I picked this book: I was reading Dear Author's Daily Deal post about Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay and the in the comments someone mentioned that it was a direct lift of the Daddy Long Legs plot, with some Austenish aspects and a Christian inspirational spin to it. (I'll just note that this annoys me in all sorts of ways and not go into a full rant. I'm pretty sure you can imagine the content of that anyway. And I'm not bothering to link to the book out of that irritation.)
I only knew the story thanks to the films - specifically the 1955 version with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, though I think I've seen bits of the 1935 one with Shirley Temple. I thought the plot was extremely eyeroll-worthy - not the part about the orphan, Jerusha "Judy" Abbott, getting sent to college by a mysterious benefactor, but who the benefactor turned out to be. Spoiler:
it's the guy she falls in love with. You can see how this is problematic - especially the question of when he fell in love with her, before sending her to college or during or what. Not to mention that the love interest is called Daddy - ugh. Not funny in this context.
I did not like that plot at all, and I thought the nickname was also ridiculous, especially for a girl of college age, even if it was an old movie. Except I didn't have any idea that the original novel was written in 1912, and in that era I can buy that a girl going off to college can still be very much a child, and especially this particular girl, Judy. Oh and it's an epistolary novel, told in letters from Judy, to the mysterious benefactor who she calls Daddy Long Legs rather than use the boring pseudonym John Smith. I am not wild about epistolary novels - in the past I've found those can get really dull.
The reason I read the book, in spite of all that I just mentioned, has everything to do with the wikipedia biography of the author, Jean Webster:
In 1897, Webster entered Vassar College as a member of the class of 1901. Majoring in English and economics, she took a course in welfare and penal reform and became interested in social issues. As part of her course she visited institutions for "delinquent and destitute children". She became involved in the College Settlement House that served poorer communities in New York, an interest she would maintain throughout her life. Her experiences at Vassar provided material for her books When Patty Went to College and Daddy-Long-Legs.
...Webster and [college friend] Crapsey supported the socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs during the 1900 presidential election, although as women they were not allowed to vote.
...An increasing intimacy and a secret engagement developed between Webster and Ethelyn McKinney [friend she met traveling Europe]'s brother, Glenn Ford McKinney. A lawyer, he had struggled to live up to the expectations of his wealthy and successful father. Mirroring a subplot of Dear Enemy, he had an unhappy marriage to an unstable woman, Annette Reynaud, who was frequently hospitalized for manic-depressive episodes.
...The McKinneys separated in 1909, but in an era when divorce was uncommon and difficult to obtain, were not divorced until 1915. After his separation, McKinney continued to struggle with alcoholism, but had his addiction under control in the summer of 1912, when he traveled with Webster, Ethelyn McKinney and Lena Weinstein to Ireland.
[McKinney and Webster quietly marry in 1915.]
...Webster became pregnant and according to family tradition, was warned that her pregnancy might be dangerous. She suffered severely from morning sickness, but by February 1916 was feeling better and was able to return to her many activities: social events, prison visits, and meetings about orphanage reform and women's suffrage.
...Jean Webster entered the Sloan Hospital for Women, New York on the afternoon of June 10, 1916. Glenn McKinney, recalled from his twenty-fifth reunion at Princeton University, arrived ninety minutes before Webster gave birth at 10:30 p.m to a six-and-a-quarter-pound daughter. All was well initially, but Jean Webster became ill and died of childbirth fever at 7:30 am on June 11, 1916. Her daughter was named Jean (Little Jean) in her honor.