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Madeleine L'Engle | Biography

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An Early Start in Writing

Acclaimed author Madeleine L'Engle is known for her daring, imaginative works exploring expansive concepts like good and evil. She was born in New York City on November 29, 1918, to a wealthy and artistic family. Her mother was a pianist, and her father was a music and drama critic for The New York Sun. Her father's family had a country estate in New Jersey called Crosswicks, which L'Engle wrote about in her autobiographies. L'Engle was often left to herself as a child. She established her own "interior dream world" through reading, writing, art, and music. This dream world, she says, helped her through troublesome periods as an adult.

L'Engle moved to Europe at age 12 and attended boarding school in Switzerland. She clung to dreams of being a writer for the page and stage. "It didn't occur to me that there was an alternative career," she said. She described writing as "an essential function, like sleeping and breathing." At Smith College in Massachusetts, L'Engle continued to study literature and theater. In 1941 she graduated with a bachelor's degree in English, and she returned to New York City hoping to learn more about playwriting through acting.

Creating a "Safe Place" Through Fiction

L'Engle earned small theater roles and saw several of her own plays produced in New York. Her first novel The Small Rain (1945) was about a determined aspiring pianist. L'Engle met actor Hugh Franklin during a production of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1904). The two married in 1946 and moved to the rural town of Goshen, Connecticut, in 1951. They called their 200-year-old white farmhouse "Crosswicks" after L'Engle's family estate.

In Goshen, the couple bought and ran a general store. L'Engle said, "A lot of what I learned in our store was of immense value to a writer ... Our customers included gypsies, carnival men, farmers, factory workers, artists, and philosophers." The people she met at the store became an inspiration for her novel Meet the Austins (1960) about an eccentric family. Both Meet the Austins (1960) and A Wrinkle in Time were partially set in a rural home similar to L'Engle's own.

L'Engle later reflected on raising children in the 1950s, when the world seemed "poised for nuclear war." At the time, the United States was involved in the Cold War (1947–91), a post–World War II rivalry with the Soviet Union. Each side threatened to use nuclear weapons. Americans were frightened and unsure of the outcome. Some thought they could die at any minute. Despite this foreboding atmosphere, L'Engle and her husband "tried anyway, for the children, to create that safe place." Her books echo this sense of home as a safe haven from danger. A Wrinkle in Time also reflects an ongoing fear of Soviet communism and totalitarianism, oppressive forms of government that permitted no personal freedom.

L'Engle raised three children: Josephine, Bion, and Maria. She stayed up late and woke early to write. Her 30s were spent in "spasms of guilt" for writing too much and feeling inadequate as a wife and mother. Publishing became more difficult. After a series of rejections, she nearly quit writing at age 40, but found she couldn't stop. She kept getting ideas for stories. In her journal, L'Engle recorded a "moment of decision," saying, "I had to write. I had no choice in the matter."

Meet the Austins became the first in a series based around the lives of the Austin family. It included The Moon by Night (1963), The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas (1964), The Young Unicorns (1968), and A Ring of Endless Light (1980). In A Ring of Endless Light, young protagonist Vicky Austin experiences death for the first time and processes her feelings through telepathic communication with dolphins. The series' supernatural elements, its focus on family love, and its descriptions of "the cosmic battle between light and darkness" continued in L'Engle's other books.

A Wrinkle in Time and Time Quintet

While writing Meet the Austins, L'Engle nurtured a more unconventional story idea. Her novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962) featured three children in a battle to save the world from cosmic evil. The children are aided by three unusual shape-shifting women and creatures from other planets. "I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it," L'Engle later said; "It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant."

Publishers balked at the novel's strange plot, although one publisher believed he might be turning down the next Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The book's religious overtones also put off several readers. L'Engle was a devoted Episcopalian, and her Christian faith is a recurring element in her work. A Wrinkle in Time quotes several passages from the Bible.

The novel was rejected 26 times before L'Engle's agent sent it to John Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. Farrar had misgivings—the book was unusual. But he took a chance. The book's editor agreed with L'Engle that "the capabilities of young readers are greatly underestimated." The gamble paid off. Readers and critics loved the book. In 1963 A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal, the publishing world's highest honor for children's literature. It became L'Engle's best-known work.

A Wrinkle in Time's uniqueness made an impression on readers. The novel combines common science fiction and fantasy devices, moral concepts of good and evil, and the coming-of-age quest of the awkward, but brilliant, protagonist Meg Murry. Imagery associated with totalitarianism, or control by an absolute state authority, also pervades the novel. The children travel to the planet Camazotz, a society ruled by leaders who insist on conformity. The fight against the evil represented in Camazotz is often understood as L'Engle's response to the Cold War.

Sequels A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986), and An Acceptable Time (1989) expanded on Meg and the Murry family's story. The series is known as the Time Quintet. Characters from the Austin family series sometimes appear in the Time Quintet, and vice versa. In what critics have called "the long dream" of L'Engle's fiction, there are a few unifying elements and themes. These include gifted children, communication with the supernatural, a loving family, and the search for an absent father.

Meg, one of science fiction's first notable heroines, is moody, impatient, and stubborn, but also caring, curious, and devoted to her family. "Of course I'm Meg," L'Engle said. She made the character semi-autobiographical on purpose. L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Voiklis sees the resemblance, saying L'Engle acted "in the same impetuous, passionate, stubborn, loving way" as Meg.

Family Life and Autobiographies

L'Engle and her family moved back to New York City in the 1960s. She worked as the librarian and writer in residence at New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

Although she is best known for her fiction, L'Engle wrote in multiple genres. She had what one critic called "a peculiar splendor" in her body of work. Her writing includes plays, poetry, spiritual meditations, and autobiographies.

L'Engle's memoirs, The Crosswicks Journals, were divided into four books: A Circle of Quiet (1972), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974), The Irrational Season (1977), and Two-Part Invention (1988). Other works of nonfiction include The Genesis Trilogy (2001). The memoirs often contain "idealized," or fictional elements.

L'Engle claimed her real truths were in her fiction. According to her family, L'Engle's blending of fiction and nonfiction spilled over into real life. Some family members say her many works of autobiography are more imagination than fact. Her children feel she reinvented their childhoods for her memoirs, presenting an inaccurate portrayal of their lives.

L'Engle's children have complicated feelings about "a mother who was not just a celebrity but an institution." They feel she didn't always relate well to reality. L'Engle's gifted son, Bion—the inspiration for A Wrinkle in Time's precocious character Charles Wallace—died of alcohol-related complications. L'Engle's daughter, Maria Rooney, said Bion struggled with being "the magic child." L'Engle, Charlotte Voiklis claimed, refused to acknowledge the reason for Bion's death.

L'Engle believed there was little difference between fiction and nonfiction in writing. Recalling her struggle to get publishers to understand A Wrinkle in Time, L'Engle said, "It's very difficult for people to understand ... a story can be truthful and not factual."

Influence and Legacy

Women who read L'Engle's work in the 1960s often describe her—and her revolutionary character Meg—as important formative influences. Meg was an intellectual oddball and a heroine in an era in which women had few fictional role models. Leonard S. Marcus, who wrote a biography of L'Engle called Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle in Many Voices (2013), said L'Engle's memoirs offered "guidance through the minefields of mid-twentieth century American womanhood."

L'Engle's approach to writing has also inspired fans. When she wrote, she felt she was taking dictation for her subconscious. She said fantasy authors should tap into "something both deeper and wider" than their own experiences. However, her connection between storytelling and faith went beyond Christianity. Stories, said L'Engle, indicate "faith that the universe has meaning ... that what we ... say or do ... matters cosmically." Showing her love for scientific metaphors, L'Engle compared a book to a star in its "explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly."

L'Engle died on September 6, 2007, after having written over 60 books. The St. James Guide to Children's Writers called her "one of the truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades."

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