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Madeleine L’Engle: An Epic in Time

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

As she sits behind a modest wooden desk on a well-worn, creaking office chair, you would never guess that this award-winning author is well past the legal age for retirement. As she strokes a stray cat that adopted her, a characteristically gentle Madeleine L’Engle makes it clear that she has more projects in her head than time in her day.

L’Engle, 81, is surrounded by what she loves best—abundant walls of wooden shelves decked with well-worn and new books, interposed with photos of her loved ones, cards and some religious symbols. Behind her, a church-style tasseled banner simply proclaims, “THE WORD.” Across from her, a homey seating area invites rest next to a large fireplace, its mantel also stacked high with books. And next to her, L’Engle’s personal assistant returns calls and letters from the countless requests for national and international speaking engagements, interviews and manuscripts that she receives.

L’Engle, whose creative vision is high-voltage and intense, remains committed to her craft. The top of her desk at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine library is colored with life—a dab of papers, a tinge of notes, a fresco of books to comb and brush through.

Since 1965, when she became its volunteer librarian and writer-in-residence, L’Engle has gone to work there when she’s not traveling for work or spending time with family. Family, in fact, is a critical energy source for L’Engle, whose legions of readers have come to know—with intimate familiarity—her children and grandchildren through her writing.

“By far the nicest thing to happen in February [1999],” says the proud great-grandmother, was the birth of her “superb” first great-grandchild, Konstantinos John Voiklis. “The great excitement,” says L’Engle of that birth, “has me so dazzled.”

Episcopalian and Catholic

A practicing Episcopalian who attends daily Eucharist at the Cathedral and who feels called to daily prayer, Scripture and devotion, L’Engle says, “I think if we speak the truth and are not afraid to be disagreed with, we can make big changes.” The biggest obstacle is often within us, she offers. “We get so frightful.”

L’Engle believes that her Episcopal upbringing—with its language and imagery—has gifted her as a writer. “I have spoken at most denominations and I never try to change my voice,” she says, her voice in unison with the nearby St. John the Divine Cathedral bells. “I never try to talk like a Lutheran or whatever denomination, but as much as possible I speak from my heart, what is on my mind at that particular time. If I don’t do it from me, then I’m not being true.”

The main thing that separates Protestants and Catholics—and she includes Episcopalians as Catholic—is “our attitude toward the Eucharist,” offers L’Engle. “When it’s only a memorial service, it doesn’t mean anything. But that should not keep us from seeing us as one body, made by God. We can worship many ways and still be one.”

In spite of the religious differences, L’Engle believes it is important to see ourselves as all catholic, with a little c, meaning universal. “You get this picture of Jesus calling his disciples together and saying, ‘O.K., guys. Peter, of course, you will start the Catholic Church. John, I think you better mind the Episcopalians. Matthew, how about the Methodists?’…Of course, that’s not what he had in mind!”

‘When I’m Writing, I’m Listening’

The small distinctive library where she works—described and noted in detail in various L’Engle novels—is an oasis in the bustle of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The building that houses it is venerable and worn with wooden floors, stone walls and narrow halls. It’s an uncommonly warm spring day, and L’Engle has the room’s single-pane windows open, allowing New York’s sound explosion to enter the calm of the library. Her short silver hair lies naturally around her oval face as she speaks of writing and her faith.

“Since I started writing when I was five, it’s hard for me to understand anything else,” she says as she flashes her familiar smile. “At its best, it is like Michelangelo seeing a discarded piece of stone, looking at it and having his heart’s expression chip it into the form of David.”

L’Engle is a surprisingly quiet person whose voice fills with passion when she reflects on subjects that she cares about deeply—writing, faith, relationships. She talks in short sentences and often pauses before she speaks. “I know my best work is unself-conscious. When I’m really writing,” she explains in a bedtime-story voice, “I’m listening, and I’m not in control. That’s when I finish and look back and say, ‘I wrote that?’”

Best known as a writer of children’s books, Madeleine L’Engle has also written poetry, adult fiction, memoirs, biblical commentary and essays about the relationship between art and faith. Her Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962) continues to find new audiences of young readers.

“I write for me.” L’Engle sighs before she adds, “I think that is when we are at our best, when we can tell something that is a struggle within us, its questions, its problems. We work it out through our craft.”

Since her first novel was published in 1945, L’Engle has published over 50 books, won countless awards and been presented with numerous honorary doctorates. In 1976, her papers and manuscripts became part of a special collection at the Buswell Library at Wheaton College, Illinois. Both her fiction and nonfiction works have been translated into many languages. And A Wrinkle in Time, the book that still makes her laugh when she remembers “no one wanted to publish” it, has sold over six million copies.

Indeed, something about Madeleine L’Engle’s writing, in both style and subject, has created a brigade of loyal fans who defy generation gaps. Literally millions of readers know her contemporary and early writings. In 1998—the 35th anniversary of her Newbery Medal—L’Engle was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her lifetime contribution to teen literature.

Raising Children in an Old Farmhouse

Madeleine L’Engle Camp grew up as an only child in an apartment on Manhattan Island. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer and drama critic; her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp, was a pianist. Madeleine remembers growing up in a home always full of artists of one kind or another. When she was 12, the family moved to Europe, living mostly in France and Switzerland, where she attended a Swiss boarding school. After graduating in 1941 from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Madeleine returned to Greenwich Village in New York, where she began her career as a writer and an actress.

While performing in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Madeleine met the handsome young actor Hugh Franklin, known to many as “Dr. Tyler” from television’s All My Children.Two-Part Invention (1988), written after Hugh died of cancer in 1987, records Madeleine’s joys and struggles during their 40-year marriage.

Madeleine and Hugh raised their children in an old farmhouse, named Crosswicks, that is still owned by the family in northwestern Connecticut. Their oldest child, Josephine, and their son, Bion, were joined there by Maria, whom Madeleine and Hugh adopted when her parents—their best friends—died within a year of each other.

In order to earn a living, Madeleine and Hugh acquired a defunct general store. She remembers in a written sketch of her life, “I must honestly admit that helping to build up, participate in the life of a small, but very active community, run a large farmhouse and raise three small children is the perfect waynot to write a book. I did manage to write at night. Writing is, for me, an essential function, like sleeping and breathing.”

Eventually, the family moved back to “the quiet life of New York and the theater,” where Madeleine began a six-year teaching stint at St. Hilda and St. Hugh’s Anglican schools in New York City.

Some of the wonderful mysteries of art, L’Engle notes, are the surprises that follow when an artist “listens” to her work, when he or she is in touch with it. “Often, when we listen to the work, it takes us places we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow,” she suggests. “If we’re given a talent, you have to serve it. You don’t own it. You don’t control it. You don’t manipulate it. You can do that and be a best-seller if you want to. But ultimately it is a gift that is freely given and you have to serve your gift.”

Simply Madeleine

She is blunt, witty, intelligent and observant. She describes herself as stubborn. L’Engle’s informal honest voice invites readers to assume a first-name relationship with her very quickly. She becomes simply Madeleine—a woman, a spouse, a friend, a mother, a grandmother who struggles out loud with her questions of faith and family.

“When it came my turn to be a mother, it was shortly after the end of the Second World War and things had changed again, and I had firm ideas of what I wanted my family to be like. I had had two books published, and I knew I needed to keep on writing, but I also wanted to bring up my own children,” Madeleine wrote in Mothers & Daughters (1997), a book she collaborated on with daughter Maria Rooney, a professional photographer. “Even if we had been able to afford nannies, I wanted my children to know their mother and learn about life and love from me.”

About Maria, who came to live with Madeleine and Hugh when she was seven, the author noted, “Ours has been a stormy relationship, with lots of misunderstandings on both sides, but it has also been undergirded by love, and that is what has made it creative and delightful as well as difficult. Would I want it to have been easy? Of course. But as I used to tell my children, things that are easy aren’t worth much.”

Madeleine, who characterizes herself not as a Christian writer but as a “writer who is struggling to be a Christian,” says writing is a form of contemplative prayer. “To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. In a very real sense the artist should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.” When at work, Madeleine wrote in Walking on Water (1980), “I move into an area of faith which is beyond the conscious control of my intellect. The challenge is to let my intellect work for the creative act, not against it. And this means, first of all, that I must have more faith in the work than I have in myself.”

A Christian writer, L’Engle says with emphasis, should create “good art,” above all. “Bach music is totally Christian,” she explains, “and yet how can you find anything in it to proclaim it as such?”

A Character Study

Like the circle of friends and family who surround her daily life, Madeleine’s novels are inhabited by recurring characters. They are often preceded by a genealogy explaining the characters and the previous novels where they have been brought to life. L’Engle also regularly weaves together various genres into one work, crossing traditional barriers to create stories where theology, fantasy and science are casually employed to reflect themes such as scientific irresponsibility, the dangers of unthinking conformity and the saving power of love.

In the award-winning A Wrinkle in Time, for example, young Meg Murry and her brother, Charles Wallace, embark on a cosmic journey through space and time to find their lost father, a scientist studying time travel. Along with their neighbor, Calvin O’Keefe, the children travel to the planet Camazotz, where they encounter a repressed society controlled by IT, a nothing-less-than-evil-incarnate in a disembodied brain.

In A Live Coal in the Sea (1996), Madeleine explores a family’s struggles with loyalty, faith, commitment and identity through Dr. Camilla Dickinson, a protagonist from her novel Camilla (1951). In its search for the truth behind a generational crisis, the novel shifts between the distant past and the troubled present, creating a psychologically complex and profound piece of literature.

L’Engle’s fiction can also be poetic in its narrative, as in The Love Letters (1966): “At night the gardens were alive with sound and shadow….The fountain caught the distant silver of the moon and the silver was sound as it splashed into the marble bowl….From the convent the heavy creaking of a door. A nun: a nun coming out into the arched cloister, the hood of her night robe up and shadowing her face, her white garment a lighter shadow moving against the white stone of the vaulted arch. A nun hiding behind the deeper shadow of a column, listening to a new sound, a sound of—what is it?”

Distinctly but without preaching, Madeleine offers inspiration about life-changing moments in one’s life in Certain Women (1992), a novel paralleling the lives of two Davids: a legendary actor named David Wheaton and the biblical King David. In this scene, the protagonists discuss with awareness that how each one faced his father’s death reflects how he chose to live out a major crossing in his life. Every crossroads demands a choice, one protagonist says, between two roads—one road leads to a funeral and the other to a wedding.

“‘I choose the wedding. No matter what’—[Nik] looked at Emma— ‘I will still choose the wedding. I’ve had too many funerals.’

“‘But when Papa dies’—Louis’s voice was choked—‘how can we choose the wedding?’

“Sophie laughed. ‘By giving him an enormous great grand glorious funeral at the Cathedral, a real show for all his family and friends and fans. And by going on living, living better because we’ve been part of his life than if we’d never known him.’”

Madeleine L’Engle, who does not see herself as a “children’s writer,” once declared that the same rules that apply to the Brothers Karamazov apply to Peter Rabbit. “If I have something that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children,” L’Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet(1972). Her characters are dedicated to a sense of family, even when they are teenagers who are adopted into another family, like the character Maggy in Meet the Austins (1960). “There are intimate details of home life that everyone will recognize with pleasure,” wroteThe New York Times about the book, dedicated by L’Engle to her own family. “There is warmth in the family relationship, and it is movingly communicated.”

If L’Engle’s vision of family is one that lifts the best in all of us, it comes from her strong belief that we all need heroes to guide our way.

“What do you do without heroes? We wouldn’t have anything to aim for. I always needed somebody that I wanted to be as good as, if not better than,” Madeleine offers, merely raising an eyebrow. “Sometimes the characters are technically not religious, not believers, but people who simply live their faith.”

A Brewing Controversy

It is precisely her decision to create characters that are not labeled as “Christian” and to use themes in her novels that are not explicitly Christian—such as science fiction or South American Indian rites—that has made her a target of Christian literalists who dismiss her as “new age” and “neo-orthodox.” While she has been labeled too worldly by some conservative Christian audiences, she is also deemed too dogmatically Christian by some secular audiences. Wrinkle, in fact, has the dubious distinction of being number 12 in the list of “50 Most Frequently Banned Books.”

Although she claims no scientific background, Madeleine’s readers know her stories often involve disciplines such as quantum mechanics or astrophysics.

Pitting science against religion “has never made sense to me. People get their own definitions of God, declare that God made one planet, only, and that everything else revolves around us. They call it a scientific fact,” Madeleine remarks. “Suddenly that gets blown to bits. Now we find we’re a planet that circles around a sun and there are probably many planetary systems, many galaxies. We’ve learned how much we don’t know—but God didn’t get blown to bits, just the original ‘fact’!” she exclaims, her voice showing her passion for the subject.

“Scientists are as bad as Christians in hanging on to what they think they know. They don’t want to change what they’ve ‘discovered,’ even after all the evidence changes. I think it’s human. We find something and we don’t want it to change on us,” Madeleine comments, her words lost in a symphony of peacock squeals and children’s voices from the adjacent Cathedral School.

Her Favorite Authors

Much has changed since Madeleine L’Engle published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945. “I think it’s much harder to get published as a starting writer than it used to be because most publishers are no longer owned by people who read books,” she notes in her characteristic blunt style. “All they want is the bottom line. Wrinkle went through rounds of publishers until it found one willing to try something nobody else would do. You can’t do that now. It’s very sad.”

Her own favorite writers, the ones she keeps going back to, include biblical authors, especially the psalmists, Shakespeare and C. S. Lewis. “I’m about to begin another go-around with C. S. Lewis,” she adds, smiling. On her nightstand right now, L’Engle notes, are two books: one written by a friend about unusual people in the Gospels and their encounters with Jesus, the other a four-volume historical novel.

Although she acknowledges that she reads mostly fiction, L’Engle also studies physics and other sciences, a fact to which her novels attest. “Some of them are theists, few of them are Christian, most of them are just searchers. They don’t label themselves,” L’Engle says of the physicists she has read. She is currently “deep into” writing a novel featuring A Wrinkle in Time’s protagonist, Meg, who is now in her 50’s and the mother of seven children.

‘Have Courage and Joy’

What message would the newly crowned great-grandmother like to convey to the newest generation of readers?

“Have courage and joy. Sometimes our moments of greatest joy come at [the] times of greatest courage,” she says simply. “Our children need to hear over and over again that there is no such thing as redemptive violence,” she adds. “Violence never redeems. And what we do does make a difference!”

Madeleine pauses before reinforcing, softly emphasizing each word, “Be brave! Have courage! Don’t fear!” And echoing the message proclaimed and lived by all prophets, she adds, “Do what you think you ought to do, even if it’s nontraditional. Be open. Be ready to change. I want us to help make this a better world for Konstantinos.”

María Ruiz Scaperlanda is a freelance journalist and author. This article first appeared in the June 2000 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.