Who is Madeleine L’Engle?
Madeleine L’Engle (/ˈlɛŋɡəl/; November 29, 1918 – September 6, 2007) was an American writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young adult fiction, including A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. Her works reflect both her Christian faith and her strong interest in modern science.
Madeleine L’Engle Camp was born in New York City on November 29, 1918, and named after her great-grandmother, Madeleine Margaret L’Engle, otherwise known as Mado. Her maternal grandfather was Florida banker Bion Barnett, co-founder of Barnett Bank in Jacksonville, Florida. Her mother, a pianist, was also named Madeleine: Madeleine Hall Barnett. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer, critic, and foreign correspondent who, according to his daughter, suffered lung damage from mustard gas during World War I.
L’Engle wrote her first story at age of five and began keeping a journal at age eight. These early literary attempts did not translate into academic success at the New York City private school where she was enrolled. A shy, clumsy child, she was branded as stupid by some of her teachers. Unable to please them, she retreated into her own world of books and writing. Her parents often disagreed about how to raise her, and as a result she attended a number of boarding schools and had many governesses.
The Camps traveled frequently. At one point, the family moved to a château near Chamonix in the French Alps, in what Madeleine described as the hope that the cleaner air would be easier on her father’s lungs. Madeleine was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. However, in 1933, L’Engle’s grandmother fell ill, and they moved near Jacksonville, Florida to be close to her. L’Engle attended another boarding school, Ashley Hall, in Charleston, South Carolina. When her father died in October 1936, Madeleine arrived home too late to say goodbye.
L’Engle determined to give up writing on her 40th birthday (November 1958) when she received yet another rejection notice. “With all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.” Soon she discovered both that she could not give it up and that she had continued to work on fiction subconsciously.
The family returned to New York City in 1959 so that Hugh could resume his acting career. The move was immediately preceded by a ten-week cross-country camping trip, during which L’Engle first had the idea for her most famous novel, A Wrinkle in Time, which she completed by 1960. It was rejected more than thirty times before she handed it to John C. Farrar; it was finally published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1962.
In 1960 the Franklins moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side, in the Cleburne Building on West End Avenue. From 1960 to 1966 (and again in 1986, 1989 and 1990), L’Engle taught at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s School in New York. In 1965 she became a volunteer librarian at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, also in New York. She later served for many years as writer-in-residence at the cathedral, generally spending her winters in New York and her summers at Crosswicks.
During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, L’Engle wrote dozens of books for children and adults. Four of the books for adults formed the Crosswicks Journals series of autobiographical memoirs. Of these, The Summer of the Great-grandmother (1974) discusses L’Engle’s personal experience caring for her aged mother, and Two-Part Invention (1988) is a memoir of her marriage, completed after her husband’s death from cancer on September 26, 1986.
Soon after winning the Newbery Medal for her 1962 “junior novel” A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle discussed children’s books in The New York Times Book Review. The writer of a good children’s book, she observed, may need to return to the “intuitive understanding of his own childhood,” being childlike although not childish. She claimed, “It’s often possible to make demands of a child that couldn’t be made of an adult… a child will often understand scientific concepts that would baffle an adult. This is because he can understand with a leap of the imagination that is denied the grown-up who has acquired the little knowledge that is a dangerous thing.” Of philosophy, etc., as well as science, “the child will come to it with an open mind, whereas many adults come closed to an open book. This is one reason so many writers turn to fantasy (which children claim as their own) when they have something important and difficult to say.”