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.
So the letters begin, with Samantha explaining herself and her ambitions to her benefactor. She has lived at Grace House, a Catholic institution, since she was fifteen, where her mentor, Father John, early recognized and encouraged her writing and journalistic talents. Samantha is hooked on books from mysteries to the Victorian classics; they are her passion and her escape. With a difficult life, owing to the death of neglectful, abusive parents, and bouncing from one foster home to another, she has understandably grown up feeling safer in fiction than reality. She relates to Fanny Price and Anne Elliot better than to her troubled roommates at Grace House. She’s not even sure she wants to be a journalist – fiction is her thing – but Medill would help her achieve her great dream, to write for a living. So she accepts Mr. Knightley’s offer.
Trouble is, she doesn’t get into Medill first round; she’s wait-listed, and in disappointment retreats to her part time jobs. She also develops an unlikely friendship with a black 13-year-old orphan named Kyle, who shares her passion for running. He rejects her kindness at first, but soon comes to like and trust Samantha, and encourages her in her dreams as she does him. Then she is finally accepted at Medill, and her great adventure in education begins.
It isn’t easy. Her rigorous professor is tough on her, saying that she’s not connecting in her writing, and will be bounced from the program if she doesn’t put her soul into her stories. Samantha is discouraged and struggles with plenty of problems – her disappointment in herself, her trauma when she is beaten by an attacker at night, her dates with a superficial young man named Josh who doesn’t understand her background, and her friendship with a brilliant best-selling novelist, Alex, who treats her like an equal and introduces her to a lovely older couple who become surrogate parents. Samantha has a lot to sort out, and her journey to self-knowledge, achievement, and love, is what’s most natural and compelling about this novel. It’s the framework that’s ultimately distracting and less successful. The updating, whether from 1912 or 1955, often doesn’t ring true; there are too many discrepancies with the modern world and its economic realities. In what universe does a journalism grad student get such a free ride with all the trimmings, connections, and the assurance of a career? In these circumstances Samantha’s writerly whining and angst can border on the naïve and annoying. Despite such cavils, it’s possible to see beyond the book’s implausibilities because it also possesses heart, mind, and a heroine whose awkwardness, uncertainty, and longing for affirmation make her so endearingly likeable that the reader will be swept into her touching emotional journey.
4 out of 5 Stars
Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel, by Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
Diana Birchall, is a story analyst who reads novels for Warner Bros Studios. She is the author of the Jane Austen-related novels Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, and also a scholarly biography of her grandmother, Onoto Watanna, the first Asian American novelist. Her story “Jane Austen’s Cat” appears in the Random House anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and her Austen-related plays have had readings around the country and in Canada.
Cover image courtesy Thomas Nelson © 2013; text Diana Birchall © 2013, Austenprose.com