Saturday, September 08, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle died on Thursday at age 88.

AmoXcalli has a round up of news and blog postings.

In my drafts pile are reviews of the Time Quintet books.

Like many readers, I loved L'Engle. Hearing of her death is like hearing of the death of someone I knew. I want to pull out all her books and reread them. I want to revisit her strong girls like Meg Murry and her complex women like Katherine Forrester. And I both hope, and fear, at what will come next. Do I want her journals published? Do I want to read whatever fragments exist of the grown up Meg Murry story?

I'm trying to recall whether the first book of hers I read was A Wrinkle in Time or Meet the Austins. A Wrinkle in Time was part of one of those boxed sets of Newbery books, and I read it because I was bored. And just adored it; adored smart, grumpy Meg Murry, her family, the adventure. I was a bit on the young side, because when I went to read the sequels right away they didn't do anything for me; I waited a few years, tried again, and liked those, also. It was because of the "tried again" approach to L'Engle that I read most of her work as a young teen (so am quite amused by the Times calling her a children's writer.) And it was one of the ways I learned that some books are read too early.

Meet the Austins; such a different book, yet at it's heart, another great main character and family. As an adult, I sympathize with the charges made that sometimes L'Engle's families are a little too perfect. As a child, most of the dated references went over my head or I ignored them. It was only on rereading that I discovered that Mrs. Austin had been a singer and the Austins met during the war. And it's a little sad that while L'Engle was obviously referring to World War II, we've had enough wars that the reference doesn't date the book.

I do have problems with some of the dated information; most noticeable, The Moon By Night, where Mother doesn't wear pants because Daddy doesn't like women in slacks. It jarred me when I read it; bothers me still; but helped to temper my view of those "perfect" families. I adore The Moon By Night because it first gives us Zachary Gray. Even tho Zachary Gray helps to mess up the L'Engle timeline, especially when viewed in context with A Severed Wasp.

A House Like A Lotus is one of my favorite L'Engle books. Oh, the questioning, the smart characters, the sense of purpose, along with the loneliness and isolation and seeking... Plus, a character who loses her virginity for reasons other than love? I'd never read that before. And the struggles of Polly O'Keefe... isolated, lonely, despite the large family. Those who say the family life in L'Engle's books is idealized should remember how unhappy Polly is here. Sadly, while I'm sure L'Engle strove to make the lesbian couple real and true, the scene of the drunk older woman making an awkward pass at Polly doesn't hold up.

I have to laugh at remembering how Ellen Emerson White's books interrelate and how I love it and how I also know it has given EEW a bit of a headache (my word, not hers) as she wonders, can Rebecca's daughter be in a book about Dana if Dana babysat Rebecca's children. Long before Sarah Dessen, Madeleine L'Engle was using the same characters in different books and series, and it would be great fun for us to try to figure out a timeline for that! Quite simply, at some point I think she stopped worrying about the years and just wrote.

I met Madeleine L'Engle at a conference once; it was the mid 1980s and her husband was still alive. I wrote to her afterwards, and somewhere I have a lovely note from her in response. For several years, I received the Christmas newsletter she sent out. (All in boxes, somewhere.) She was, as one would expect, lovely, charming, friendly.

As I continue to think about her books and her writing, I realize how many things L'Engle did has influenced what I like in a book. I like a good story. I like believable characters who are smart. I like questions. And I like it when the books create their own universe, with the same people revisited, either in a big way (with a sequel) or a small way (Philippa's portraits appearing in a book.)

Oh, wow! And as I write this, I realize this is something else that Ellen Emerson White has done that L'Engle did: take a teenaged character from a YA/children's book and revisit them as an adult in a book for adults. A Severed Wasp continues the story begun in The Small Rain; A Live Coal in the Sea continues the story of Camilla. It's been a while since I read these; but what strikes me is, if her children's/YA books tend to idealize certain family traits, her adult books are full of betrayals and disappointments. While Meg Murry never got the long-promised adult book of her own, the stories about her daughter, Polly, hint at some of Meg's own disappointments and choices.

The New Yorker did a rather fascinating, if brutal, article on L'Engle several years back. I found it uncomfortably unforgiving in tone; yet it did provide interesting insight into an author, and how a writer shapes her world. (Full text is here.) The article was discussed by The Lipstick Librarian here and here.

I include the negative article here, because it's good to show both sides; and because it does raise interesting questions about creativity. And because the discussion here includes people who know L'Engle writing in her defense, so has some lovely memories of this wonderful woman. And if that portrait made L'Engle more human; so what? We should not idolize our heroes, but realize they are just as human as we are. (As I reread that story, I'm struck by how the author omits any references to L'Engle's adult books. Her adult books are a must read to get a full picture of L'Engle as a writer.)

I think, as a writer, L'Engle shaped her books to tell a good story and to tell the stories that she needed to tell as a person and a writer. And if in doing so she changed facts, so what? Especially if the books are fiction or memoir. It reminds me of the end of The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, actually: "So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone's older brother, and someone's older sister - they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear. There is always a brave, lost brother - and a little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them.''

L'Engle used her life, her creativity, her talent and gave us invented dreams. I am thankful for it. I am thankful at how many books she did leave.


Melissa Wyatt said...

Wah! Link to full text of New Yorker article didn't work. Do you have it? I'd really like to read it.

Liz B said...

Thanks for the heads up; I fixed it. And here is the full URL just in case:'Engle.htm

It's a fascinating article; but I think the author is much harsher than she needs to be. But, even with that, I am intrigued by the ways people retell their own stories, their own histories. I'm also curious at how many people on reading this felt almost betrayed; as if L'Engle and her family not being perfect was a personal insult. So a daughter divorced; a son was alcholic. That's life; it's all our lives and families.

Paige Y. said...


You wrote a beautiful tribute to my favorite writer when I was young. I continue to reread her books and love them. A Wrinkle in Time and A Rind of Endless Light are my favorites. Several years ago my sweet husband gave me a first edition of her first book. I treasure it. I will always treasure her books.

Melissa Wyatt said...

Really fascinating. I don't understand the fuss. Is she being held responsible for her son's alcoholic death somehow weirdly through her writing? It's a strange lack of understanding of where fiction comes from and that a writer is and isn't her work.

Pilgrim said...

Her work was a gift.