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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Emma, Daddy Long Legs, Dear Mr. Knightley, The Ephrons, & The Web of Allusion That Unites Them All



The following is the beginning of a wonderful blog post written by Diana Birchall yesterday:

“Does anyone remember Daddy-Long-Legs, the enchanting 1955 movie in which Fred Astaire is the benevolent, mysterious, rich sponsor who sends the exquisite young French girl Leslie Caron, to college? It was a favorite musical of my childhood, along with a string of other Caron and Audrey Hepburn films. Daddy-Long-Legs actually started life, however, as long ago as 1912, as a bright, effervescent, epistolary novel by Jean Webster. It enjoyed a huge success as a Broadway play and was filmed several times, including a Japanese anime version. Now new author Katherine Reay, instead of penning yet another in a lengthy backlist of Jane Austen updates, has cleverly chosen to write a modern retelling of Daddy-Long-Legs. Her Dear Mr. Knightley has a thoughtful literary setting, with enough Austen and Bronte references to provide intellectual mind candy for the reading woman. She also bestows an unusually satisfying romance upon her heroine, and succeeds in creating a portrait of a young writer that is so poignantly fresh and full of growing pains and uncertainties, that you question why she ever needed to lean on somebody else’s old classic at all. In Jean Webster’s original version, the heroine, Jerusha Abbot, was fifteen and still working in the orphan asylum where she was raised, when her rich benefactor sends her to a posh college. In her version, Katherine Reay advances her orphan’s age to twenty-three, and this constitutes my main problem with the novel, and the reason I wish she’d left the Daddy-Long-Legs template behind her. Samantha Moore has already graduated from college and failed in her first job, when she is offered a full tuition grant to the master’s program of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, by a wealthy philanthropist. The only stipulation is that she write him personal progress letters, which he will not answer. His assistant suggests she address him as “Mr. George Knightley,” in tribute to Samantha’s own love for Jane Austen and Emma….” END QUOTE

Diana, thanks for alerting me to the above literary/film history, of which I had been entirely unaware till this morning. As soon as I read your post, I smelled a web of veiled allusion, but even I could not have anticipated  how rich a web it is! So, as you’ll see by the end of this post, you’ve done  it again!

I would like to suggest to you that Katherine Reay had a very very good reason for her modern retelling of Webster’s classic from a century ago, and for her connecting Webster’s epistolary novel to Jane Austen’s Emma. I.e., from a very pleasant several hours I have just spent pretty much reading most of Webster’s novel (it is a super-fast read), and then reading up on Jean Webster’s career, I have arrived at the following inferences which I consider noteworthy:

ONE: In her novel, Jean Webster, very clearly and strikingly, but covertly, was alluding, in a dozen different ways, to Austen’s Emma, and, in a handful of other ways, to Austen’s Pride & Prejudice as well! So, I infer that Katherine Reay, writing in 2013, recognized those veiled allusions to Austen, and showed her awareness thereof by making the connection of Daddy-Long-Legs to Emma open and explicit in her own novel title, Dear Mr. Knightley.

TWO: The screenplay of the famous 1950’s film version of Daddy-Long-Legs was written by Nora Ephron’s parents, and I am not the first to notice that, in You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox conceals his true identity from Kathleen Kelly during a lengthy correspondence, just as “Master Pervie” Pendleton (sounds like Pemberley) conceals his true identity from Judy in Daddy-Long-Legs. From all of those data points, I therefore infer that the late Nora Ephron paid a veiled, yet in hindsight obvious, homage to Webster’s novel, and to her parents’ famous adaptation thereof, in You’ve Got Mail.

THREE: I have previously demonstrated…


…that, in addition to You’ve Got Mail’s obvious  homage to Pride& Prejudice, Nora Ephron’s screenplay cleverly but covertly also alluded to Much Ado About Nothing (prior to writing Daddy-Long-Legs, Jean Webster wrote a group of short stories entitled Much Ado About  Peter).  
So when I put all of those connections together, I also further infer that Nora Ephron was showing that she herself was aware of the connections of Daddy Long-Legs to both Pride & Prejudice and Emma.


Now, I could go into great textual detail to back up my above three inferences about Webster’s veiled allusions to Jane Austen, and their literary lineage, but I will let one textual example (among many) suffice for now—it is my personal favorite from Daddy Long Legs, a short passage from one of Judy’s letters to “Mr. Smith”, which functions as a kind of mini-Rosetta Stone for decoding the sly allusion to Emma in Daddy-Long-Legs:

 “Good-by, Daddy. I must call on Harriet Martin now, and, having discussed the chemical situation, casually drop a few thoughts on the subject of our next president.”

What a witty, subtle, erudite, and multi-layered sense of humor Jean Webster must have had, to have sounded all of the following echoes of Emma in that one sentence:

ONE: Webster named her heroine (a young girl, like Austen’s Harriet Smith, of unknown parentage at a girls’ boarding school, who benefits from the generosity of an anonymous man of means who prefers to be known to her as “Mr. Smith”) Jerusha or Judy Abbott, who in the above sentence in one of her letters to “Mr. Smith” refers in passing to a classmate whose name, Harriet Martin, just happens to be Harriet Smith’s married name in Emma.

TWO: By giving her heroine the surname ‘Abbott’, Webster thereby winks at the following words spoken by Harriet Smith to Emma about two of her fellow parlour-boarders who just happen to be named “Abbot”:  “The two Abbots and I ran into the front room and peeped through the blind when we heard he was going by, and Miss Nash came and scolded us away, and staid to look through herself…”

So…if we view Daddy Long Legs through the lens of Emma, we see that Judy Abbott shares a lot with Harriet Smith, but of course she also shares a lot Emma Woodhouse. And similarly, Jervie Pendleton/Mr. Smith shares a lot with Mr. Knightley, but also shares a lot with Harriet Smith’s never-named biological father.

What could Jean Webster have intended by this blurring of allusive lines between Austen’s hero and heroine, on the one hand, and two of her less beloved characters?

The tame interpretation is to focus on Judy and Jervie as Emma and Mr. Knightley, but the disturbing interpretation is to see Judy and Jervie as Harriet and Knightley, and to go one step further and ask whether Webster is suggesting that Knightley is actually Harriet’s biological father. That last turn of the allusive screw would put a creepily incestuous Electraesque overlay on Harriet’s already creepily (re the age-discrepancy) aiming for Knghtley as a husband. Or, just as disturbing, Webster might be suggesting that Emma is herself a foundling, and (horrors) Knightley’s own daughter!

I of course lean toward the disturbing interpretations, not just because this fits so well with so many disturbing overtones I have collected from all of Austen’s shadows, but in particular because Jean Webster was actually, historically factually, exactly the sort of radical feminist that I have often asserted  Jane Austen was!

Read Webster’s Wikipedia page to get an idea of what I mean:


Webster was all about empowering women in a variety of ways, both legal and literary, and that’s who I see JA as having been, a century earlier.

And I was particularly struck by the factoid that Webster’s mother was Mark Twain’s niece, and her father was Twain’s business manager and publisher of many of his books! 

Given that I believe Mark Twain was a secret Janeite of mammoth proportions…


….it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that somehow Twain was in personal contact with Jean Webster and helped foster her interest in the subversive side of Jane Austen’s fiction. And look what I just found via Google:

“Webster's great-uncle Mark Twain praised her first efforts: "I read most of Jean Webster's book today; and the most of what I read greatly pleased me" 

I will end on that note, with a promise to revisit this  topic as I delve more deeply into this matrix of literary allusion.  But already I can say that there is now no question in my mind that Webster in writing Daddy Long Legs was paying JA the sincerest of homages, because it, exactly like Emma, can be read either as very romantic or very creepy. And finally, bravo again to the late Nora Ephron, as the above analysis  makes it clear that You’ve Got Mail was even more complex in its allusive depths than I had previously determined, as it now clearly enfolds Jean Webster’s feminist fiction.

Now, how much of the above was on Katherine Reay’s mind as she wrote her recent, critically acclaimed debut novel? I  will reach out to her shortly to find out!

In the interim, Diana, now you know why I thanked you at the start of this post for once again turning me on to something remarkable having to do with Jane Austen’s shadows!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

5 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

The trouble with all this is...you're turning associations and background knowledge and reading into explicit puzzles and clues. I don't think that's right, in general. I think writers naturally echo other writers all the time, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. I think turning it into systematic codes or hidden messages is a rather anti-literary way of reading. It diverts attention from the literary aspects to what you take to be puzzle aspects.

For instance - Ephron's echoing of the Daddy Long-legs situation seems plausible to me. Jean Webster's naming someone "Harriet Martin" as "clue" of some sort seems very implausible indeed - and more to the point it's just not particularly interesting in terms of either DLL or Emma.

Much more interesting, I think, is the way DLL echoes the Emma-Mr Knightley relationship: the heroine at first seems to be destined to marry someone near her own age, then the older wiser mentor-figure takes center stage.

Arnie Perlstein said...

The trouble with your otherwise interesting response is that you are making a ton of assumptions about the possible authorial purposes in making such covert allusions, when you reduce my analysis to "puzzle aspects"---you don't realize that there are many other reasons why I claim what i claim, which go much deeper than just that "puzzle" level.

I'd welcome a dialogue with you about this, I came across your blog discussion of Hamlet last night, and I can see that you enjoy climbing around in the same playground that I have been frequenting the past 11 years... ;)

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes you're probably right - I certainly haven't read enough to know for sure. It was the way this post struck me, but this is just one post.

A dialogue would be fun. Would you like to do an inter-blog one? We could each post it on our respective blogs?

Have you read John Sutherland's amusing books on various puzzles in literature? I'm sure you have, given your avocation.

Arnie Perlstein said...

I would love to do something like that. If you're free after 5 pm EST today for a brief chat on the phone, perhaps we could quickly talk it through and come up with some format that would be mutually pleasing.

From what I just read about you online, I would be grateful to you in particular for any advice you might give me for how best to get my ideas to the next level of public exposure.

My cell # is 954 6476154.

Arnie Perlstein said...

I'll also tell you a story about Sutherland's books and how they connected in a very strange way with my research!