Don’t you love “secret benefactor” stories? You remember, of course, that in Great Expectations Pip was convinced Miss Havisham was his secret benefactor. (Spoiler alert! she wasn’t.)
A similar theme is found in Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s A Little Princess, about a much-abused but uncomplaining orphan who one day trudges the weary steps to her bare-bones garret and discovers a magical world of comfort has been created for her.
In 1912, the American writer Jean Webster wrote an epistolary novel in the same vein, Daddy LongLegs. It’s about a poor girl in an orphanage whose little essays capture the attention of a man on the orphanage board. He doesn’t like girls and wants nothing to do with her other than to send her to college anonymously and see if she can be a success. He keeps tabs by reading letters he has required her to write every month.
Well, you can imagine …
The book was hugely popular in its day and has been made into all manner of anime and films, including one with Shirley Temple and one with Fred Astaire ( both of which have snippets on YouTube and seem to be in pure gag-me-with-a-spoon territory).
Last night we saw a musical version of Daddy LongLegs at the Merrimack Rep and liked it very much. Some might find it too epistolary for the stage or too sweet for 2012, but it wasn’t Shirley Temple and the audience was crazy for it.
John Caird, famous in part for the Royal Shakespeare Theater’s Nicholas Nickleby, wrote the book and directed. Paul Gordon wrote the music and lyrics. Megan McGinnis was the orphan, and Rob Hancock was the benefactor she assumed to be 83 and bald. (Spoiler alert! he isn’t.)
What was surprising was the strong feminist and socialist vibe, which the program notes explain were characteristic of the author. “Webster was actively involved in remedying the plight of the impoverished, not only from a financial standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint as well.” She believed that no matter what the poor had missed out on in their early years (we discussed that here), many could succeed if just given a chance.