Madeleine L'Engle's time-hopping heroine transported sci-fi into a new dimension.
(Image credit: Byron Eggenschwiler)
Madeleine L'Engle sat in front of her typewriter in the Tower, her private workspace in her family’s isolated, 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse. It was her 40th birthday—November 29, 1958—and she was at a crossroads. Though she had published five novels since her mid-twenties, she was far from a household name, and lately she was having trouble selling her work. She considered her thirties a “total failure” professionally. “Every rejection slip—and you could paper walls with my rejection slips—was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre,” she wrote. While her career floundered, her husband had temporarily given up his acting career and started running the local general store.
Now, her latest manuscript, The Lost Innocent, was out with a publisher. Two editors were enthusiastic, another “hated it,” and a fourth was still to be heard from. At midday, her husband called. He had gotten the mail. The book had been rejected.
The blow felt like “an obvious sign from heaven,” she wrote, “an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.” L’Engle covered her typewriter, vowed to abandon it forever, and walked around the room, sobbing.
Then, suddenly, she stopped crying. In her despair, she realized she was already considering turning this moment into another book—one about failure. She would write. She had to write. Even if she never had another work published. “It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not,” she wrote. And the novel that lay around the corner was about something far greater than failure.
In October of 1936, an urgent message had arrived at Ashley Hall, a private girls’ boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina. It was addressed to Madeleine, a senior, and it bore the news that her father, Charles Camp, was ill with pneumonia. He’d recently attended his Princeton reunion, where he appeared the picture of health, but upon returning home to Jacksonville, he’d begun to deteriorate. L’Engle grabbed a trusty copy of Jane Eyre and boarded a train for Florida. She arrived too late to say goodbye.
Her father had traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, worked as a freelance writer and critic, and written mystery novels. The family moved repeatedly: from New York City to France, and then to Florida. At each juncture, L’Engle was sent to boarding schools or placed in the care of a nanny. “My parents had been married for nearly 20 years when I was born,” she wrote in her memoir Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, “and although I was a very much wanted baby, the pattern of their lives was already well established and a child was not part of that pattern.”
Early on, she sought company in books and writing, penning her first story at the age of 5, and at 8 starting a journal. She played the piano and lived in an “interior dream world.” At school, she was the odd girl out. A limp made her bad at sports. Classmates and teachers called her stupid. One teacher accused her of plagiarizing a poem that won a contest (her mother brought in a pile of stories from home to prove she hadn’t). Those experiences, along with her father’s death, left a rift that she would confront again and again in her fiction. From the beginning, her novels centered on teenage girls who don’t fit in. Her work abounds with lost and estranged parents, family conflict, and the trials of young adulthood.
She kept writing while attending Smith College, where she edited The Smith College Monthly (there, things got heated with Bettye Goldstein, the future Betty Friedan, who turned the literary magazine into an outlet for political debate) and published short stories in magazines like Mademoiselle and The Tanager. When asked by her first editors how she’d like her byline to appear, she chose “to be known not as Charles Wadsworth Camp’s talented daughter but rather, in a cleaner victory for her, as ‘Madeleine L’Engle’” (her great-grandmother’s name), writes Leonard S. Marcus in the biography Listening for Madeleine.
After college, she moved to New York City and published her first two novels within a year of each other. She also pursued a short-lived career in acting, winning spots in the Broadway and touring productions of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. On tour, she fell in love with a cast mate, Hugh Franklin, who, years later, would become famous as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children. They married in January of 1946 and lived in Greenwich Village (downstairs from Leonard Bernstein) before purchasing a farmhouse in Goshen, Connecticut. They had two children and adopted another, and immersed themselves in the community and their local Congregational church.
It seemed idyllic, but tensions were bubbling. In her thirties, facing repeated rejections from publishers, L’Engle privately wondered if her professional aspirations had compromised her personal life. “I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother,” she later wrote in her memoir A Circle of Quiet, “and with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.” She yearned for proof that her divided attention to career and family had been the right choice. Instead, on her 40th birthday, she got another “no.”
A year later, she went on a 10-week cross-country camping trip with her family. As they drove through Arizona’s Painted Desert, an idea popped into her head. It started with three names: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. “I’ll have to write a book about them,” she told her kids.
On a “Dark and Story Night” (L’Engle’s first line winks at English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous purple prose), a troubled young girl named Meg Murry can’t sleep in the attic bedroom of her family’s big, drafty farmhouse. She goes downstairs to find her younger brother, the genius, mind-reading Charles Wallace, already warming milk for her cocoa. Their father, a government scientist, has been missing for more than a year, and at school, Meg’s classmates tease her about it.
Then, out of the storm appears Mrs Whatsit, who will in time prove to be a celestial being. She shocks Meg’s mother by mentioning a mysterious word: tesseract—the method of time travel Meg’s father was working on before he disappeared. Soon, Charles Wallace and Meg, along with Calvin O’Keefe, a popular boy from Meg’s school, are dashing through time and space with Mrs Whatsit and her two pals, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Their aim: To combat a darkness threatening to take over the universe and find Meg’s dad, who has been engaged in the same battle.
It’s a fantastical story featuring interstellar travel; alien planets; an evil, disembodied brain; and a world under siege from an unknown force. But ultimately, A Wrinkle in Time is grounded in human concerns that L’Engle knew all too well. “Of course I’m Meg,” she once said. Where the stories of Meg and her author diverge, aside from the interplanetary jaunts and interactions with mystical creatures, is that Meg saves her father. In doing so, she becomes empowered with the knowledge that she can take care of herself, even if she can’t save the world. “Indeed, the crux of the book rests on Meg’s coming to understand that her father cannot save her or Charles Wallace, or make the world a less anxious place,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke for Slate in 2007. “Part of the task she faces is, simply, accepting the evil that is in the world while continuing to battle against it.”
Editors, though, didn’t see what was special about the work. “Today I am crawling around in the depths of gloom,” L’Engle wrote in her journal after one suggested she cut it in half. Time and again, her manuscript was turned down. It dealt too overtly with evil, some editors said. Others couldn’t tell if it was for children or adults. L’Engle loved sharing her rejection story, Marcus writes, “varying the number of rejections she had endured—had it been 26? 36?— with each retelling.”
She told at least two stories about how it was finally accepted: In the most common, a friend of her mother connected her with John Farrar of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Soon she was signing a contract, but with low expectations: “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t do well,” they told her. In the second, more dubious version, Farrar was leaving the church where he and L’Engle worshipped when he noticed an envelope containing the manuscript on a pew and, in a publishing miracle, saved it. Finally, in 1962, two and a half years after the book’s inception, it was published.
The following year, A Wrinkle in Time was awarded the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in children’s literature. (When told the news, L’Engle responded with “an inarticulate squawk.”) She would go on to publish, on average, a book a year for the next 40 years. Financially stable from her writing at last, she also felt the professional validation she’d been craving for so long. Looking back at that fateful 40th birthday, she wrote, “I did learn ... that success is not my motivation. I am grateful for that terrible birthday, which helps me to wear glass slippers lightly, very lightly.”
Still, there’s no doubt that she felt euphoric on the night she accepted her Newbery award, even if not everyone present enjoyed the moment. After the speech, the story goes, an acquaintance went into the ladies room, where one of the many editors who had rejected the book leaned over the sink and drunkenly sobbed: “And to think I turned down that manuscript!”
The reception of Wrinkle was far from universally positive, though. It was a weird mashup of genres combining science fiction with fantasy and a quest; a coming-of-age story with elements of romance, magic, mystery, and adventure. There’s a political, anti-conformist message, and at its heart is the importance of family, community, freedom of choice, and, most of all, love. In some ways, there was too much room for interpretation in L’Engle’s themes. Secular critics deemed it excessively religious—L’Engle was a devout Anglican—but religious conservatives, who have repeatedly tried to ban it, argued it was anti-Christian.
The book, published at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, also carried a groundbreaking message: Girls could do anything boys could do, and better. A year later, The Feminine Mystique, written by L’Engle’s former classmate Betty Friedan, would emerge as a platform for the frustrated American housewife, and Congress would pass the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal to pay a woman less than what a man would earn for the same job. To some extent, Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time is already living the future: She’s a brilliant scientist who works alongside her husband and in his absence, too; later in the series, she wins a Nobel Prize. (Math whiz Meg would grow up to follow similar pursuits.) And Meg, a girl, is able to succeed where the men and boys—Calvin, Charles Wallace, and her father—cannot.
(Image credit: Flickr user Julie Jordan Scott)
With that character so like herself, L’Engle struck back against the 1950s ideal of the woman whose duty was to home and family (the same expectations that conflicted the author in her thirties). Instead of staying at home, Meg goes out into the universe, exploring uncharted territories and unheard-of planets.
At the time, science fiction for and by women was a rarity. There was no one like Meg Murry before Meg Murry, though she left a legacy to be picked up by contemporary young adult heroines like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger. Beyond creating this new type of heroine, A Wrinkle in Time, along with Norton Juster’s 1961 book The Phantom Tollbooth, changed science fiction itself, opening “the American juvenile tradition to the literature of ‘What if?’ as a rewarding and honorable alternative to realism in storytelling,” writes Marcus. This shift, in turn, opened doors for writers like Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin. In these fantasy worlds, as in the real world, things can’t always be tied up neatly. Evil can never be truly conquered; indeed, a key to fighting it is knowing that. It’s a sophisticated lesson children thrill to, and one in which adults continue to find meaning.
When asked why she wrote for children, L’Engle would often reply, “I don’t”—her stories were stories she needed to write, for whomever wanted to read them. But she also remembered what it felt like to be young, how endless the possibilities were, real or imagined. If anyone persisted in questioning her, she would sharply inform them, “If I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”
The article above, by Jen Doll, appeared in the September 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.