Who Was Madeleine L'Engle?
Madeleine L'Engle published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945. Four years later, she published her first children's book, And Both Were Young (1949). After struggling for several years, L’Engle began a series of juvenile fictional works about the Austin family with 1960's Meet the Austins. Two years later, she earned acclaim for A Wrinkle in Time, introducing a group of young children who engage in a cosmic battle against a great evil that abhors individuality; it spawned four sequels, as well as a 2018 big screen adaptation. L'Engle also wrote several books of fiction and poetry for adults.
Early Life and Career
Born on November 29, 1918, in New York City, L'Engle was the only child of Charles Wadsworth and Madeleine Barnett Camp, a writer and a pianist. L'Engle began writing at a young age, producing her first story when she was only five years old. "I've been a writer ever since I could hold a pencil," L'Engle told Humanities magazine.
At the age of 12, L'Engle moved with her parents to Europe and was enrolled in a Swiss boarding school. She returned to the United States a few years later and attended Ashley Hall, a boarding school in South Carolina. When she was 17, L'Engle lost her father. He served in the military during World War I and had been exposed to mustard gas, which caused health problems for the rest of his life.
'The Small Rain,' 'Ilsa'
A budding writer, L'Engle went to Smith College. There she earned her bachelor's degree in English in 1941. Moving to New York City, L'Engle found work in the theater as a writer as well as sought to publish her own work. Her first novel, The Small Rain, came out in 1945. L'Engle drew on some of her boarding school experiences for the story. While that book was a success, her second effort, Ilsa (1946), didn't receive as warm of a welcome. L'Engle, however, did find personal happiness around this time. She married actor Hugh Franklin in 1946. The couple met while working on a production of The Cherry Orchard and had two children together, daughter Josephine and son Bion. They also later adopted a child, daughter Maria.
'And Both Were Young' to 'Meet the Austins'
L'Engle soon published what is considered her first book for younger readers, And Both Were Young (1949). After a few more novels, she hit a professional roadblock. L'Engle wrote several books that she couldn't get published. During much of this difficult time, she lived in Connecticut where she and her husband ran a general store. Her slump ended with the publication of A Winter's Love in 1957, but her career really began to take off with 1960's Meet the Austins. The novel is regarded as groundbreaking in the field of children's literature for its honest and candid discussion of death. The story focuses on a family who adopts a girl after her parents die. L'Engle revisited the Austin family in several more books, including The Moon by Night (1963) and The Young Unicorns (1968).
'A Wrinkle in Time'
L'Engle's children were the first audience for her best-known work, A Wrinkle in Time (1962). She read them the story while she worked on it. After dozens of rejections, L'Engle was finally able to find a publisher for this innovative tale. A Wrinkle in Time follows the adventures of Meg Murry as she travels through time and space to find her missing scientist father. She's accompanied on this journey by her brother Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin O'Keefe, which is made possible by the assistance of three unusual beings known as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. For the book, L'Engle drew inspiration from such varied sources as Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and works of William Shakespeare.
'A Wrinkle in Time' Becomes a Banned Book
The following year, L'Engle won the prestigious Newbery Medal for A Wrinkle in Time. The novel, however, was not without controversy. Over the years, it has been one of the most banned books because some believe that it is anti-Christian or that it promotes occultism.
Madeleine L'Engle's Religion
The anti-Christian accusation seems especially odd as faith was always important to L'Engle. L'Engle was Episcopalian and believed in Christian universalism, which insisted that everyone will ultimately be saved by God. She meditated on religious issues in such books as And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings (1983). L'Engle also worked at St. John the Divine in New York City as a librarian and writer-in-residence for more than three decades.
'A Wrinkle in Time' Sequels
A Wrinkle in Time inspired L'Engle to write several sequels, creating what has become known as the Time Quintet. Other titles in this series in A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986) and An Acceptable Time (1989). L'Engle launched a related series of books, which feature the descendants of Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe, in 1965 with The Arm of the Starfish. The two later titles in this trilogy are Dragons in the Waters (1976) and A House Like a Lotus (1984).
In addition to fiction, L'Engle also wrote poetry and numerous nonfiction titles, including several volumes of memoirs. She also produced two books, Mothers and Daughters (1997) and Mothers and Sons (1999), with her daughter Maria Rooney.
Death and Legacy
L'Engle remained devoted to her writing throughout her life. In Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth (2002), she reflected on the influence and power of the narrative. She also pursued another creative form with Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L'Engle (2005). By this time her health was in decline. She won the National Humanities Medal in 2004, but she was unable to make the award ceremony.
Madeleine L'Engle died on September 6, 2007, at a nursing home in Litchfield, Connecticut. She left behind more than 60 works, ranging from science fiction to memoirs to reflections on religion. Her final work, The Joys of Love, hit bookstore shelves in 2008. Today L'Engle lives on through her work. Her best-known novel, A Wrinkle in Time, remains popular with readers and is now a major motion picture, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling.
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