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Best known for A Wrinkle in Time (1962), a fantasy hailed as the first work of science fiction for children to be regarded as genuine literature, and for a series of naturalistic, autobiographical stories about the Austin family, Madeleine L’Engle has won a devoted following among young readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Unpopular in Boarding School, Writing Becomes a Haven
L’Engle was born in New York City in 1918, the year that World War I ended. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a foreign correspondent. Her mother, Madeleine Barnett Camp, was a southern gentlewoman who had studied music extensively and was talented enough to have been a concert pianist, had she so desired. The southern background and love of classical music exerted a strong influence on L’Engle’s writing. Several of her works portray the staunch tradition of southern gentility and characters imbued with its ideals. Throughout her works, L’Engle’s characters also exhibit a great fondness for classical music—for example, Mrs. Austin vacuuming to it, Katherine Forrester studying it, and Adam Eddington whistling it as a code. In her science fiction works, L’Engle’s extraterrestrial beings often speak in voices compared to musical instruments, such as the English horn and the harp.
L’Engle was an only child (her only brother died as an infant) brought up in the formal English tradition her father wished, with a nanny and governess. Because of the rather solitary childhood, she developed a great love of reading, writing stories, and drawing. Her father had been a victim of mustard gas in World War I, a war that produced over forty million casualties during trench warfare mostly occurring in Europe, and resulted in large-scale disillusionment with technology and the idea of progress. As L’Engle’s father’s physical health deteriorated, his professional work also suffered. His lungs became so afflicted that he could no longer live in New York or any of the other cosmopolitan cities he loved. The family moved to Switzerland, and L’Engle went to the first of a series of boarding schools both in Europe and in the United States. L’Engle graduated from Smith College with honors in 1941 and pursued a career in the theater for the next five years, because she thought it would be good schooling for a writer. Both the boarding schools and theatrical experience provide the dramatic backdrop for L’Engle’s first book, The Small Rain (1945).
L’Engle again looks to the past for the settings of her next three books: Ilsa (1946) takes place in the South and provides a memorable portrait of southern family life; And Both Were Young (1949), L’Engle’s first “junior” novel, takes place in a Swiss boarding school; and Camilla Dickinson (1951) is the story of a sheltered young girl growing up in New York.
Rejections, But Not Defeat
While she was writing these three novels, changes were taking place in L’Engle’s life. While acting in a play, she met a young actor named Hugh Franklin; in 1946 they were married. When Franklin decided to leave the theater “forever” (a time span which lasted nine years), the family moved from New York to Connecticut. During these years L’Engle was busy coping with the disadvantages and delights of a 200-year-old house, helping her husband in the general store they purchased, and mothering their three children, Josephine, Maria, and Bion.
As always, L’Engle devoted as much time as she could to reading and writing. This decade was a time of professional discouragement to her; she could not seem to get anything published. Publishers rejected A Winter’s Love (1957), an adult novel, for being ”too moral”; they rejected Meet the Austins (1960), a children’s book, because it opened with a death; they rejected A Wrinkle in Time because it was a ”difficult” book—it failed to fit into either their adult or juvenile marketing slots.
All these rejections are chronicled in L’Engle’s first nonfction book, A Circle of Quiet (1972). An inveterate journal keeper, L’Engle has written this and three other nonfiction works, largely from journal entries. These books not only give insight into the larger works of L’Engle, but also into the discipline involved in being a writer. Walking on Water (1980) discusses at length the interplay between her writing and her Christianity. L’Engle’s journals also trace the close parallel of her actual experiences and her writing.
Continuous Publishing in Later Career
Of her over sixty books, A Wrinkle in Time (which became one in a trilogy) continues to be her most popular book. In it, L’Engle incorporates Albert Einstein’s 1919 theory of relativity, a scientific discovery that explains how space and time are influenced by gravity. Einstein’s theory made worldwide headlines in the early twentieth century as it was the first since Isaac Newton to significantly explain the science of gravity. L’Engle’s inclusion of such weighty scientific content in her novels challenged what was expected of children’s literature.
L’Engle passed away in 2007, at the age of eighty-eight. Her ability to entertain both young people and adults throughout her long career as a writer is evidenced by her continued popularity with readers of both her fiction and nonfiction works. That popularity has not waned in the years since: several of L’Engle’s books are now considered classics of young adult literature. Her revealing spiritual musings and her sensitive fictional portrayals of caring families and individuals attempting to transcend the difficulties of modern life have proved timeless affirmations of the importance of optimism, forgiveness, and love to the human spirit.
Works in Literary Context
A Focus on Children
Children’s stories generally focus on a young protagonist who must face some kind ofchallenge. Often the child’s parents are either absent or dead; indeed, L’Engle’s characters range from orphans to boarding school students, and they always have a moral challenge to overcome. In A Wrinkle in Time, the child characters have both normal childhood concerns as well as supernatural challenges. Meg, for instance, worries about school and her “awful” looks, and Calvin longs for honest affection rather than mere popularity. L’Engle has explained that she writes her most difficult works for children since she believes that children’s minds are open to the excitement of new ideas, and that they are able to understand what their parents have rejected or forgotten. Yet no matter how difficult the theme L’Engle writes of, or what personal or universal crisis her characters face, there is an underlying joy in her books, a feeling that her characters will eventually make the best choices.
The body of L’Engle’s writing is influenced by her deep Christian faith, inspiring both a complicated theology and an underlying hope in her narratives. Although L’Engle uses some broad Christian symbolism in the Time trilogy, such as the unicorn in A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) or the cherubim in A Wind in the Door (1973), her most extensive use of Christian symbolism occurs in the suspense novel The Arm of the Starfish (1965). There are several Christian and cosmic ironies in the book: Canon Tallis, a devoted, honorable ecclesiastic, is pointed out to the main character, Adam, as being evil; corrupt Dr. Ball (a name similar to the degenerate deity Baal) is introduced as a caring, benevolent clergyman. Joshua, a Christ-like figure, is really a nonbeliever. Although she is a Christian, some of L’Engle’s most theological works have been written as a reaction against what is thought of, in some circles, as Christian piety. Her constant grappling with the idea of God and her all-encompassing theology might well offend readers with a very traditional view of Christianity, while her obviously Christian philosophy might antagonize those who tend toward atheism or agnosticism.
Works in Critical Context
Although occasionally criticized for being pedantic, L’Engle’s books have generally been favorably reviewed. Perhaps John Rowe Townsend sums up the critiques best in A Sense of Story as he calls her ”a curiously-gifted, curiously-learned, curiously-imperfect writer.” In 1984 L’Engle received the Catholic Library Association’s Regina Award, given for consistent, sustained quality of work.
A Wrinkle in Time
Writing in A Critical History of Children’s Literature, Ruth Hill Viguers calls A Wrinkle in Time a ”book that combines devices of fairy tales, overtones of fantasy, the philosophy of great lives, the visions of science, and the warmth of a good family story.” She proclaims, ”It is an exuberant book, original, vital, exciting. Funny ideas, fearful images, amazing characters, and beautiful concepts sweep through it. And it is full of truth.” John Rowe Townsend examines the themes in L’Engle’s work, explaining that ”L’Engle’s main themes are the clash of good and evil,” and in A Wrinkle in Time, ”evil is obviously the reduction of people to a mindless mass, while good is individuality, art and love.” Susanne Elizabeth Read further comments that L’Engle’s work has become one of the foundational works of juvenile science fiction, stating, ”Many readers of children’s literature meet science fiction for the first time through this novel.”
- Chase, Carole F. Madeleine L’Engle, Suncatcher: Spiritual Vision of a Storyteller. San Diego, Calif.: LuraMedia, 1995.
- Gonzales, Doreen. Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Dillon Press, 1991.
- Hettinga, Donald R. Presenting Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Twayne, 1993.
- Meigs, Cornelia, ed. A Critical History of Children’s Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
- Reid, Susanne Elizabeth. ”New Themes and Trends.” Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998, 199-206.
- Townsend, John Rowe. A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writingfor Children. Philadelphia, Pa.: Lippincott, 1971.
- Wytenbroek, J. R. with Roger C. Schlobin. Nothing is Ordinary: The Extraordinary Vision of Madeleine L’Engle. San Bernadino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995.
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