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Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918 – September 6, 2007) was an American novelist and memoirist best known for her award-winning fantasy and science fiction series for young adults and children of all ages. She’s particularly well known for A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels.
L’Engle’s writing life that can be described as one of perseverance. She recorded in detail the long years of rejection of her work as “too dark and difficult for children.” Hers is a story of triumph following years of silence and frustration. She persisted because she felt compelled to, though she had nothing to show for her labors except rejection slips.
Born in New York City, L’Engle, was the only child of creative parents who encouraged her talents. Her mother was a pianist; her father was an actor. Though her writing ability emerged early, she was labeled shy and dull-witted in school. In fifth grade, she won a poetry contest, but a teacher accused her of plagiarism, claiming that she wasn’t smart enough to have created the poem. Experiences like these had a lasting effect on her self-esteem.
See also: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Trying her hand in theater
Madeleine L’Engle’s first career choice upon graduating from Smith College in 1941 was to be an actress. She soon found modest success in Broadway roles. By 1945, she had written a handful of plays that were produced, as well as a published but largely forgotten first novel, A Small Rain. While acting in The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, she met Hugh Franklin, who she would become her husband.
After these early triumphs, L’Engle’s career hit a wall in the 1950s when she struggled to reconcile her ambitions with the return of more traditional gender roles in post-World War II America. She and her husband started a family, moved to a country house that they dubbed Crosswicks, and ran a general store.
Madeleine often wrote of the struggles of what the called the triad of “mother-wife-writer.” When she was writing, she felt guilty that she wasn’t doing enough for her children, and when she was mothering, she felt awful that she wasn’t writing. She shared this in one of her memoirs:
“I’m often asked how my children feel about my work, and I have to reply, ‘ambivalent.’ Our first-born observed to me many years ago, when she was a grade school child, ‘Nobody else’s mother writes books.’ But she also said, around the same time, ‘Mother, you’ve been very cross and edgy with us lately, and we’ve noticed that you haven’t been writing, and we wish you’d get back to the typewriter.’ A wonderfully freeing remark. I had to learn that I was a better mother and wife when I was working than when I was not.’
Overall, though, Madeleine considered her family a blessing and in later years enjoyed the company of her three children, several grandchildren, and numerous godchildren.
Madeleine L’Engle and her husband
in the early days of their marriage
Long years of rejection
C.S. Lewis set the stage for juvenile fantasy literature exploring darker themes with The Chronicles of Narnia, first published in the early 1950s. However, this didn’t seem to pave the way for L’Engle when it came time to submit A Wrinkle in Time.
She knew that a book for children that explored good and evil was risky; and though she was crushed each time it was turned down (and it was turned down many, many times), she held fast to her belief in it. She wrote much of her long years of facing rejection.
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Keeping the Faith: Madeleine L’Engle’s Long Years of Rejection
“A Wrinkle in Time was almost never published,” L’Engle later reflected. “You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. When we’d run through forty-odd publishers, my agent sent it back. We gave up.”
After some time, L’Engle made contact with John Farrar of Farrar Straus Giroux through a friend of her mother’s, and the rest is publishing history. Published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is still in print, with millions of copies sold. It has the distinction of having won some of the most prestigious publishing awards, as well as being one of the most frequently banned books of all time. It not only opened a path for more complex children’s literature (think: Harry Potter), but put its author on the literary map.
Though her name is almost synonymous with Wrinkle (and its successors, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and others), L’Engle was the author of many other books and series for young adults.
Memoirs and legacy
She also shared both philosophical musings and practical writing advice in her memoirs, including Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and A Circle of Quiet. As extensions of her personal journals, her memoirs recounted years of bruising rejection, the challenges of raising children while literary ambition burned, and her Christian faith. She was a devout Episcopalian.
Staying with what she believed and honing her craft, L’Engle he was rewarded not just with sales of her books, but also more then a dozen honorary degrees and numerous other awards. Madeleine L’Engle died in Litchfield, Connecticut in 2007.
You might also enjoy: Quotes on the Writing Life by Madeleine L’Engle
More about Madeleine L’Engle on this site
- Keeping the Faith: Madeleine L’Engle’s Long Years of Rejection
- 6 Valuable Writing Tips from Madeleine L’Engle
- Dear Literary Ladies: Do you have a good rejection story for me?
- Quotes on the Writing Life by Madeleine L’Engle
- Quotes from A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle’s literary output was prodigious, and included YA as well as general fiction, poetry, essays, and memoir. She classified her books by series, often going back to them over the course of many years
The Time Quintet
- A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
- A Wind in the Door (1973)
- A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)
- Many Waters (1986)
- An Acceptable Time (1989)
The Austin Family
- Meet the Austins (1960)
- The Moon by Night (1963)
- The Young Unicorns (1968)
- A Ring of Endless Light (1980)
- Troubling a Star (1993)
The O’Keefe Family
- The Arm of the Starfish (1965)
- Dragons in the Waters (1976)
- A House Like a Lotus (1984)
- An Acceptable Time (1989)
Autobiography and memoir
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