Mar 20 2012 10:45am

Author Kate Rothwell Talks the Earliest YA and Chick-Lit Author, Jean Webster

Daddy Long Legs by Jean WebsterToday we welcome Kate Rothwell as a guest to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Kate writes under her own name, as well as the pseudonym Summer Devon. Kate’s latest release, Thank You, Mrs. M, was partly inspired by Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, available for free in e-book from certain vendors. Kate’s here to talk about Webster’s work as well as YA and chick-lit tropes. Thanks, Kate!

Here’s a handy checklist of Young Adult (YA) and Chick-Lit (CL) tropes:

Story told in first person by unmarried young person (female in CL)

Protagonist ventures out alone into new world

Protagonist gives herself her own identity or life plan, rejecting the one bestowed upon her by her past.

A love interest conflicts with plans for future.

A love interest comes from the most unexpected places.

More than one book—so a series (esp YA).

A light, fun writing voice (CL).

Some cute description or even pictures of fashion (CL).

By the end, the main character reaches new understanding of herself and her world (interpreted as reaching maturity in YA or personal fulfillment in CL).

Fun nicknames for attractive men (CL).

Embarrassing yet funny episodes involving men (esp CL).

Frequent use of ALL CAPS, exclamation marks and/or italics for emphasis (CL)

Let’s agree to the supposition that if a book fit all those categories it shall be labeled Chick Lit or YA. And with that in mind, we’re talking about a modern book, right?

Not so fast, bucko. I’m thinking of a series that fits all of the above and more. The books I mean are Daddy Long Legs, written by Jean Webster in 1912, and Dear Enemy, its sequel, written in 1915.

Rose in Bloom by Louisa May AlcottI don’t think Webster was the very first chick lit writer; Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott doesn’t have the light, fun voice, but it does get checkmarks in some other boxes. Her most famous book, Little Women, has some qualities for both categories. No need to explain that one because we’ve all read it—including Webster, who mentions the story in Daddy Long Legs.

Other writers from Webster’s era, like Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables), could be called YA, but I think Webster’s voice is even fresher. She’s got that chatty, informal style down.

Here’s an example pulled at random from Dear Enemy:

Dear Judy:

You tell Jervis that I am not hasty at forming judgments. I have a sweet, sunny, unsuspicious nature, and I like everybody, almost. But no one could like that Scotch doctor. He NEVER smiles.

He paid me another visit this afternoon. I invited him to accommodate himself in one of Mrs. Lippett’s electric-blue chairs, and then sat down opposite to enjoy the harmony. He was dressed in a mustard-colored homespun, with a dash of green and a glint of yellow in the weave, a “heather mixture” calculated to add life to a dull Scotch moor. Purple socks and a red tie, with an amethyst pin, completed the picture. Clearly, your paragon of a doctor is not going to be of much assistance in pulling up the esthetic tone of this establishment.

Dear Enemy, Webster’s second book, fits the chick-lit bill almost perfectly. For one thing, the story contains a great deal more moaning about her job, and her obnoxious coworkers. And there are plenty of blissful descriptions of fashion.

Even better, she strives to have it all: Mr. Perfect and her marvelous career. She won’t leave her dreams behind. Webster’s politics and attitudes about women are extremely modern.

If you haven’t met up with these books, go, now. Get off the internet and read. You can find both stories available for free on Gutenberg, but if possible, give those versions a miss; Webster drew great little pictures to illustrate her stories and they didn’t make it into the online versions.


Kate Rothwell wrote a book that was loosely inspired by Daddy Long Legs called Thank You, Mrs. M.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. KateRothwell
Judy looks about 12 on that cover! Makes the hero seem like a pedophile. (almost wrote his name, but NO SPOILERS)
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
Kate, thanks to you I got the book for my e-reader. I love this stuff, and it's funny, I never thought about Louisa May Alcott being a CL/YA forerunner, but she totally is! Makes that whole choosing Professor Bhaer thing make more sense, too.
Rachel Hyland
3. RachelHyland
Bless you! Daddy-Long-Legs has long been a Top 10 favorite in my house, and while Dear Enemy isn't quite as far up there, it is certainly a worthy sequel. No one -- no, not even Jane Austen, in her Juvenilia -- does the epistolary style as well as Webster, and DLL in particular is simply a laugh-riot. I never would have thought of it as chick lit, or even YA, but I definitely see your point, and don't disagree with either label.

May I ask: what is your opinion of the Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron movie? Personally, I think it's a travesty! Judy is way more kickass and adorable than Caron's limp French version of her; that movie just makes me furious.
Anna Bowling
4. AnnaBowling
Kate, I'd never made the connection with those titles and CL/YA before, but it totally fits. Good to see you here, too.
6. brontëgirl
Interesting post! Books by Lovelace and Wilder fit some of the criteria--

Protagonist ventures out alone into new world--Betsy and the Great World (and Daddy-Long-Legs is mentioned), These Happy Golden Years (Laura's first teaching job)

Protagonist gives herself her own identity or life plan, rejecting the one bestowed upon her by her past--Betsy In Spite of Herself, to an extent

A love interest comes from the most unexpected places--Heaven to Betsy, Betsy and Joe (Tacy's love interest), Betsy and the Great World, Betsy's Wedding (Tib's love interest), Emily of Deep Valley, Carney's House Party

More than one book—so a series (esp YA)--Betsy-Tacy Books, Little House Books

Some cute description or even pictures of fashion (CL)--Betsy-Tacy Books, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years

By the end, the main character reaches new understanding of herself and her world (interpreted as reaching maturity in YA or personal fulfillment in CL)--Betsy-Tacy Books, also Emily of Deep Valley and Carney's House Party

Fun nicknames for attractive men (CL)--Philip the Great in Betsy In Spite of Herself

Embarrassing yet funny episodes involving men (esp CL)--the toy store window scene in Betsy In Spite of Herself, the scene in Betsy and the Great World where she and Marco run into that Englishman who'd offered to take her to the Custom House and around Venice her first day there.
7. KateRothwell
Brontegirl: I've seen references to the series and never so much as picked a book up. Thanks!

I grew up with all sorts of series in the house--five little peppers, all-of-a-kind family. The only really remarkably bad writing I recall reading is Horatio Alger's stuff.
Carmen Pinzon
8. bungluna
@RachelHyland- I remember reading the book "Daddy Long Legs" when I was in boarding school and loving it. Way back then, we had movie nighs with projectors once a month(!) and when we were shown the movie with good OLD Fred, I was really put off. He looked old enough to be her grandfather!
9. brontëgirl
@KateRothwell, You're welcome! I enjoyed All-of-a-Kind Family too! :) I've never read the Alger books.
10. KateRothwell
An odd thing about the books (and this is especially true about the second book) the language is fresh, the writing modern, but some of the ideas are slap-on-the-face wow, like at some point someone tosses off a line about "deaf children and other defectives" which isn't cruel, just part of that time's accepted language. At moments like that you really see that the past really is a foreign country.
Louise Partain
11. Louise321
Along with Little Women, Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and my absolute favorite, An Old Fashioned Girl, I would point out that the Lucy Maude Montgomery Anne Shirley series also has almost all of the YA CL points albeit in a mild and gentler era (if anyone can call WWI gentler).
12. KateRothwell
Louise321 Oooo I forgot An Old Fashioned Girl. I loved that book. And yeah, Anne fits perfectly (she's up there).

Brontegirl Alger's writing is clunky and stiff--but his rags to riches theme really rang true for his audience. I stayed in a house that had all of his books and I read anything that summer read every last one of them and seriously -- read one Alger and you've read them all.
13. brontëgirl
@KateRothwell, I'll have to have a look at an Alger book. An Old-Fashioned Girl is prob'ly my favorite Alcott book tho' I like Little Women and its sequels, and Alcott's other works.
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