Jean Webster (1876 – 1916) was a popular American author. With a mere eight published novels to her credit, she was nevertheless an accomplished and engaging writer.
Jean Webster was born Alice Jane Chandler Webster in New York State. Related to Mark Twain both by blood and family business associations (her attitude towards him was soured by his part in driving her father to suicide), she began writing at an early age. Jean worked as a free-lance writer after graduating from university, and her first novel was published in 1903. “When Patty Went to College”, like her two most well known novels, chronicles part of the life of a young woman.
Webster is most famous for her two part series “Daddy Long-Legs” and “Dear Enemy”. These books follow the paths of two girls – Jerusha (Judy) Abbott – an orphan sent to college by a rich philanthropist, and Sallie McBride, a socialite at the same college as Judy. The books are written in the form of letters from the two girls. Judy Abbott writes to her unknown benefactor in “Daddy Long-Legs”, and Sallie McBride’s correspondence is divided between Judy, her “young man” – Gordon Hallock, and the doctor at the orphan asylum where she works – Dr. Robin McRae.
“Daddy Long-Legs” has been altered for both the stage and film. Three films were made – one remained faithful to Webster’s novel, of the other two, I have seen the one starring Fred Astaire. The plot was altered almost beyond recognition.
In 1915, Webster married her fiancée of seven years, Glenn McKinney, after he obtained a divorce from his insane wife. Webster reflected this part of her life in her book “Dear Enemy”. Webster became pregnant immediately, and nine months after the wedding gave birth to a girl, Jean McKinney. Jean Webster died the next day of complications, at 40 years old. In her article on Webster, Karen Alkalay-Gut comments on the bitter irony inherent in the situation – that a woman whose last novel in particular focused on mending institutional problems should have died from a disease spread by doctors’ dirty hands.
I strongly recommend Jean Webster’s work. It is not easy to find (or afford) her other six novels, but “Dear Enemy” and “Daddy Long-Legs” are often to be found in second hand book shops. The books are a joy to read – with a certain humour blended with poignant depictions of the life of the less fortunate children in this world. The novels are usually classified as children’s fiction. While they are suitable for young readers, their appeal transcends age boundaries.
Jean Webster’s novels are, in chronological order: