Daughter of Charles W. and Madeleine Barnett Camp; married Hugh Franklin, 1946 (died); children: three
The only child of a foreign correspondent, playwright, and critic (her father) and a pianist (her mother), Madeleine L'Engle led a lonely, isolated city life until she was twelve, occupying her time with writing, drawing, and playing the piano. When her family moved to Europe, L'Engle was put in an austere and strict English boarding school in Switzerland, where she learned to withdraw into the world of the imagination for solitude. After graduating from Smith College with honors, she published some magazine articles and then returned to New York City to work in the theater, taking the family name of L'Engle. After her marriage to an actor, L'Engle gave up her stage career permanently for writing.
L'Engle's earlier works, intended for adults, feature adolescent girls and grew out of her life as a child in New York City, in boarding schools, and later in the theater. Some of these early novels were rewritten for young people in the 1960s. Sensitive and perceptive, these books are important in showing the development of the author's style and philosophy.
More highly regarded are L'Engle's stories for children and young people of family life and adventure about the O'Keefes, the Murrys, and the Austins. The episodic Meet the Austins (1960), which reflects L'Engle's Connecticut period, has 12-year-old Vicky telling of the family's problems when the spoiled orphan, Maggie, comes to live with them. Somewhat didactic, in incident and discussion it explores such matters as the nature of God and the meaning of death. Less convincing, but still distinctly above average for its type, is The Moon by Night (1963), in which the Austins camp in the West. The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas (1964, reprinted 1993), a picture-story book, introduces younger children to the Austins through the events of the Advent season. While characters are well differentiated and dialogue and details of family life ring true, the Austins solve their problems a bit too easily and seem a little too agreeable to be completely convincing.
The highly praised, family-centered fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1962, reprinted many times, the latest in 1998) was rejected by several publishers because it was so unusual for a children's book. It combines comedy and deep seriousness for exciting reading even though it suffers from a lack of unity and an overload of ideas. Adolescent Meg Murry "tesseracts"—takes a wrinkle in time—to go into space to rescue her scientist father from It, a disembodied brain. A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal. The complex and highly philosophical A Wind in the Door (1973, reprinted 1997) repeats the theme of the power of love with Meg rescuing her brother, Charles Wallace. Although the highly imaginative and innovative Wrinkle has received the most critical acclaim, three later books about the conflict of good and bad (The Arm of the Starfish, 1965; The Young Unicorns, 1968; and Dragons in the Waters, 1976) are less didactic and contrived.
The witty verse-drama, The Journey with Jonah (1967), a retelling of the biblical story, stands out among the versatile L'Engle's other writings, as does her 1969 collection of intense, personal lyrics reflecting her experience and observation of life. Her autobiographical works for adults, A Circle of Quiet (1972), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974), and The Irrational Season (1977), are not only thought-provoking and compelling as literature, they are essential for an understanding of her motivations and objectives as a writer.
Recurring themes in L'Engle's work are the conflict between good and evil and the problem of distinguishing one from the other, the nature of God, the dangers of conformity, and the necessity for giving love. A bold writer who dares to strike out in new directions and to challenge her readers, she obviously takes young people very seriously and regards them as being as worthy of intellectual stimulation as adults. In spite of her overconcern with ideas and her, at times, uncontrolled virtuosity, L'Engle's ability to tell a good story has earned her a number of awards. She is regarded as one of today's outstanding writers for children and young people.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, L'Engle continues to garner attention for her innovative fantasy A Wrinkle in Time. She has written several more novels for children, including new adventures for the Austin, O'Keefe, and Murry families. In A Ring of Endless Light (1980, reprinted 1995), the Austin family gathers to be with the dying grandfather on an island in Maine, and Vicky, the young protagonist, learns to come to terms with death. Polly O'Keefe, in A House like a Lotus (1984), experiences an almost devastating homosexual advance but eventually is able to put it in perspective. The Murry twins return to the days of Noah in Many Waters (1986) and the O'Keefes to prehistoric times in An Acceptable Time (1988, reprinted 1997).
Two Part Invention (1988), the story of L'Engle's almost 45-year marriage to the actor Hugh Franklin, written after his death from cancer, chronicles the shared joys and difficulties of their marriage, as well as the silent communion developing between two people who live together for many years. The book is a tribute both to the memory of her husband and to L'Engle's faith as a Christian.
In keeping with her passionate belief in the strength of the human spirit, L'Engle has written the introductions to over two dozen volumes in a series called Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature. Critics are sometimes bothered by weakly drawn characters in L'Engle's works, overcrowded plots, and stories burdened by an excess of theological, scientific, and philosophical ideas. She is generally regarded, however, as an accomplished writer, admired for her virtuosity, her respect for the intelligence of young readers, her portrayal of caring families, her concern for individual dignity, and her insistence upon the redemptive power of love.
18 Washington Square (1945). The Small Rain (1945, reissued as Prelude 1969). Ilsa (1946). And Both Were Young (1949). Camilla Dickinson (1951, as Camilla 1964). A Winter's Love (1957). The Love Letters (1966, 1996). Dance in the Desert (1969). Lines Scribbled on an Envelope, and Other Poems (1969). The Other Side of the Sun (1971, 1993). Everyday Prayers (1974). Prayers for Sunday (1974). A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978). The Weather of the Heart (1978). Ladder of Angels (1979). The Anti-Muffins (1980). Walking on Water (1981, 1998). The Sphinx at Dawn (1982). A Severed Wasp (1983). And It Was Good (1984). Dare to Be Creative (1984). Trailing Clouds of Glory (with A. Brook, 1985). A Stone for a Pillow (1986). Cry Like a Bell (1987). Sold into Egypt (1988). This Day Forward (1988). The Glorious Impossible (1990). Certain Women (1992, 1993). The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth (1993). Anytime Prayers (1994). Troubling a Star (1994). Wintersong: Christmas Recordings (1996). Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols (1996). Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections (1996). Genesis Trilogy: Comprising And it was Good, A Stone for a Pillow, Sold into Egypt (1997). A Live Coal in the Sea (1997). Mothers and Daughters (1997). Miracle on 10th Street & Other Christmas Writings (1998). Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation (1999). Friends for the Journey (1999). Full House: An Austin Family Christmas (1999). Mothers and Sons (1999). My Own Small Place: Madeleine L'Engle's Thoughts on Developing the Writing Life (1999). A Prayerbook for Spiritual Friends: Partners in Prayer (1999).
Amison, M. V., A Study of Madeleine L'Engle's Early Life and Its Effect on Some Themes in Her Children's and Young Adult Fiction (Thesis, 1987). Chase, C. F., Madeleine L'Engle, Suncatcher: Spiritual Vision of a Storyteller (1995). Chase, C. F., Suncatcher: A Study of Madeleine L'Engle and Her Writing (1998). Datnow, C. L., American Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers (1999). Gonzales, D., A Biography of Madeleine L'Engle: Author of A Wrinkle in Time (1991). Hettinga, D. R., Presenting Madeleine L'Engle (1993). Hettinga, D. R., Madeleine L'Engle (1995). King, E. K., L'Engle's World of Ideas: A Study of Sources (thesis, 1989). Rountree, C., On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom (1999). Skog, S., Embracing Our Essence: Spiritual Conversations with Prominent Women (1995). Steele, C. E., Circles of Quiet: The Journals of Madeleine L'Engle (1997). Townsend, J. R., A Sense of Story (1971). Wytenbroek, J. R., Nothing Is Ordinary: The Extraordinary Vision of Madeleine L'Engle (1996).
CA (1967). CANR (1987). CLC (1980). CLR (1988). DLB (1986). More Books by More People (1974). More Junior Authors (1963). MTCW (1991). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965 (1965). SATA (1971, 1982). Women Writers of Children's Literature (1998). Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by 20th Century American Women Writers (1994).
First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors (recording, 1995). Language Arts (1977). Newbery Award-Winning Author Madeleine L'Engle (audiovisual, 1990). The Swiftly Tilting Worlds of Madeleine L'Engle (1998). A Talk with Madeleine L'Engle (audiovisual, 1993).
—ALETHEA K. HELBIG,
UPDATED BY MARY E. FINGER
AND NELSON RHODES