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Madeleine L'Engle: Intrepid Storyteller

By Tara Mae

Madeleine L’Engle is now remembered as a very successful author, whose most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, is still read and beloved by people of all ages. Less recognized but as enduring is the legacy of her persistent pursuit of her dreams, despite repeated rejections. L’Engle endurance paid off, and today her writing is celebrated throughout the world.

Born in New York City, on November 29, 1918, L’Engle had a somewhat isolated childhood. Named for great-grandmother, Madeleine Margaret L’Engle,she was the daughter of socialite artists. Her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett, was a pianist, and her father Charles Wadsworth Camp was a critic, writer, and foreign correspondent. Depending on the source, he suffered either from the effects of mustard gas or alcoholism.

L’Engle’s parents took a hands-off approach to her upbringing, frequently leaving her in the care of their Irish housekeeper, Mrs. O. Barnett. Camp tended her academic and cultural education; Mrs. O oversaw L’Engle’s emotional and spiritual instruction. She spent a lot of time alone in her bedroom, reading, writing, and exploring her imagination. L’Engle wrote her first story at age five and started keeping a journal at age eight.

She struggled in school, and was educated by a series of private and boarding schools as well as governesses. Some teachers apparently considered her to be “stupid.” When L’Engle entered and won a school poetry contest, the teachers did not believe that she had actually composed the poem. The next day, her mother went to the school with a stack of her writing to prove L’Engle’s talent.

Her most traumatic educational experience may have been when her parents, upon moving to Europe, sent L’Engle to a boarding school in Switzerland. At age twelve, L’Engle felt abandoned and alienated. She was devastated by the utter lack of privacy. So, L’Engle developed a new coping skill: the ability to occupy silence and block out the scrutiny of her peers and teachers. “Within that force field, I could go on writing my stories and my poems and dreaming my dreams.” It was a talent that would serve her well in her career.

Three years later, the family returned to the United States because L’Engle’s grandmother had fallen ill. Attending yet another boarding school, she still struggled to make friends but discovered a love of performing and a passion for playwriting. Her father, who had given her his old typewriter to use and generally supported her writing, died of pneumonia shortly before L’Engle’s eighteenth birthday. She reached his bedside too late to say goodbye. A lost or absent father is a recurring theme in writing.

After graduating cum laude from Smith College, L’Engle moved back to New York City, and published her first novel, The Small Rain, which The New York Times described as “evidence of a fresh new talent.” Eighteen months later, she released Ilsa. L’Engle met her future husband, actor Hugh Franklin, when she performed on Broadway in The Cherry Orchard by Anton Checkov. The couple married in 1946 and moved to a 200-year-old farmhouse that they named Crosswicks.

They purchased a general store, which he operated and she helped run. Franklin and L’Engle raised three children, Josephine, Bion, and Maria. The daughter of family friends who had died, Maria was adopted around the age of seven. Involved in the community, L’Engle was the choir director of the Congregational Church to which they belonged. She continued to write but received more rejection notices than acceptances.

Madeleine L’Engle (Photo: Sigrid Estrada)

Weary from her inability to get published, on her fortieth birthday L’Engle vowed to stop writing. "With all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially." Seemingly unable to be published and unskilled in the role of traditional “homemaker,” L’Engle felt like a failure as both a writer and a wife. The family went on a 10 day camping trip before returning to New York City so Franklin could resume his acting career.

It was on this trip, while withstanding a crisis of identity and faith, that L’Engle conceived of A Wrinkle in Time. Deeply spiritual, L’Engle was unsure whether she still believed in God. She redefined her concept of the divine by reading the works of Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck. Their texts would directly influence the concepts, themes, and world-building of the book.

Interwoven into the narrative are elements of L’Engle’s own youth: the main character, Meg, is underestimated by teachers, misunderstood by peers, and separated from her father. Still, she and her family are tied to an entire universe of otherworldly creatures, who are linked to a single powerful source of Light. In her journal, L’Engle noted, “If I’ve ever written a book that says what I believe about God and the universe, this is it.”

Although L’Engle had persevered past her plan to stop writing, she faced a new obstacle: getting A Wrinkle in Time published. It was not easily categorized or classified, and editors did not think it would be profitable. L’Engle was again the recipient of a consistent influx of rejection letters. Rejected by between twenty-five and forty publishing houses, it took two years for it to find a home.

At a Christmas tea party L’Engle hosted for her mother, she encountered a guest who knew John C. Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a publishing firm. At the time it did not publish children’s books, but Farrar met with L’Engle and so enjoyed the novel that he agreed to release it under the Ariel imprint. A colossal success, A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal in 1963, and became the first installment of the Time Quintet: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind at the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time.

For all of the praise, there was also backlash as Christian conservatives and evangelicals criticized the books for their incorporation of religion. Numerous Christian bookstores refused to carry A Wrinkle in Time, and it is one of the most commonly banned books in America. These deterrents did not hinder the lasting popularity and impact of the book, nor did it thwart L’Engle’s writing and legacy.

The family resettled in Manhattan, but maintained Crosswicks as a weekend and summer home. While Franklin returned to the stage, L’Engle kept writing. She volunteered as a librarian in the Diocesan House of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. During her tenure, L’Engle composed twenty-five more books, welcomed school children, fans, and other guests, and coordinated different outreach programs. She undertook different speaking engagements, going on the road to give talks and offer sermons. L’Engle died on September 6, 2007, at the age of eighty-eight.

In spite of external skepticism and internal self-doubt, L’Engle did not relinquish her goals. The fortitude born of a sometimes lonely childhood enabled her to press forward. The praise of the public came only after L’Engle’s acceptance of herself.

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