L’Engle on motherhood

I sat down last night to write my Tuesday Book Review on A Circle of Quiet, by Madeleine L’Engle, but then realized I didn’t have much to say about it. It’s a mishmash of a book, part memoir, part reflections on teaching and religion.  Someone recommended it to me when I was talking about books on being a mother.  (I thought the recommendation was a comment on this blog, but can’t find it any more.)

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book.  I did, especially the parts where L’Engle tells specific stories about her life.  It’s somehow deeply reassuring to read that L’Engle wrestled with what we’d today call "work-family balance" –

"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.  When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered.  I couldn’t make decent pie crust.  I always managed to get something red in with the white laundry in the washing machine, so that everybody wore streaky pink underwear.  And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially."

But I didn’t really have much else to say about the book.  And then today I read (via Mother Shock), the question posed at Literary Mama:

"As a child, were there literary mothers of whom you were especially fond? How did those mothers inform your idea of what motherhood is? How were they the same or different than your real-life mothering examples? Do they have an influence on you now?"

And I realized that the answers that jumped into my head were both from L’Engle books:  Mrs. Murry, Meg’s mother (from A Wrinkle in Time) and Mrs. Austin, Vicky’s mother (from A Ring of Endless Light).  (Do we know their first names?  If so, I’ve totally forgotten them.)

Thinking about what made them attractive, I see that they are both clearly loving mothers, mothers whose children can talk to them about the things that matter, mothers who believe in the redemptive power of hot chocolate, but they also both clearly have a life beyond their children.  It’s Mrs. Murry who makes the children nervous by cooking meals on the laboratory bunsen burner, right? 

It makes me wonder how much of herself L’Engle poured into these characters.  I like that even though they seem like very much idealized figures, they’re not perfect.

In googling to research this post, I discovered that Madeleine L’Engle is still alive, at 86 years old.  In spite of my resolution, I haven’t been writing letters to authors.  But I think I’ll write this one.

30 Responses to “L’Engle on motherhood”

  1. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    I adore L’Engle and would have happily moved in with her mother characters. But her potraits raise some problems for contemporary readers. Even as a child, I boggled a bit at the line in The Moon By Night where Vicky Austin says, “Daddy doesn’t like women in pants, so Mother never wears them…”

  2. Jody Says:

    Ah, the L’Engle books. I adored the L’Engle books. And I still do. The Austin family was the successor to the Ingalls family as far as my idealized version of what motherhood and family Should Be. (I completely missed all the disturbing aspects of both series, and keep wondering: why didn’t I worship Mrs. Murry more? Mrs. Murry was a single abandoned parent with a developmentally delayed child and a real job. She’s kick-ass. And she does cook meals on the bunsen burners, but in “Many Waters,” I think/hope/kinda remember that the boys aren’t so much worried about this as anxious to see if there’s anything good brewing….)
    I’ve also really loved some of L’Engle’s adult women’s fiction, even though it’s heavy-duty on the Christian stuff.
    But I also wish I hadn’t read a piece on L’Engle in the New Yorker, back on 12 April 2004. Here are some excerpts:
    “L’Engle’s children and grandchildren-who love her deeply, but with a kind of desperate frustration spliced with resentment-revile “Two-Part Invention.” Indeed, L’Engle’s family habitually refer to all her memoirs as “pure fiction,” and, conversely, consider her novels to be the most autobiographical-though to them equally invasive-of her books. (Naturally, L’Engle’s children are not the only writer’s children who feel that by using them as copy their mother or father has mortgaged their privacy.) When Josephine Jones [one of L’Engle’s two surviving children] read “Two-Part Invention,” she thought, Who the hell is she talking about? Alan Jones, the dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, who was married to Josephine for many years, told me, “The matriarch of the family is the guardian of the family narrative, and if that person is a writer . . . One of the things Madeleine used to say to me is ‘It’s true, it’s in my journals,’ which was a hilarious statement. Some of her books were good bullshit, if you don’t know the family. Spaghetti on the stove, Bach on the phonograph, that’s all true. But there was this tremendous fissure.””
    The L’Engle family adopted a daughter, Maria, after her parents died suddenly. Now remember Maggie in the Austin books:
    “Into this happy world springs disaster. A little girl the Austins know, Maggy Hamilton, is orphaned, and comes to live with them. Alas, poor Maggy, whose only relation is a distant, rich grandfather, is spoiled, deceitful, and destructive. She tells lies and tears Rob’s beloved stuffed animal, Elephant’s Child. Darkness is unleashed: the children argue, Dr. Austin snaps at his wife, Vicky breaks her arm. Mirabile dictu, by the second Austin book Maggy is made to disappear through a second, convenient adoption.
    “Meet the Austins” has been continuously in print since its publication. Maria Rooney [the daugher who inspired Maggie] told me, “I hated the Austin books. Everyone who reads them says, ‘How could she have done that?’ ”
    Rooney, who recalls her childhood relationship with her mother as difficult, is now married to an architect, and has two teen-age boys of her own. In recent years she has collaborated with L’Engle on a series of photography books about mothers and their children. She shook her head, and said, “No, I’m not filled with bitterness now. She’s such a storyteller that she gets confused about what really happened.”
    … Once, when I’d asked L’Engle about the gestation of Maggy Hamilton, she said, “Maggy has always been Maggy, not Maria. People have always tried to identify her with Maria, but it’s not true. We didn’t have a large family, and that was perhaps just as well; my characters are more alive to me than the people they are based on.”
    Now, she looked at me sternly over her teacup. “However, I don’t like this current spate of children exposing their parents. I don’t think certain things need to be discussed. Why should I care about anyone’s bedding down? You know more about Tolstoy from walking through his books.” She took a sip, and then said, “Well, Maria. The universe proved itself unreliable when her parents died, so she imagined she could do whatever she wanted in an unreliable universe. I read ‘The Bad Seed,’ and I got it out of the house because I was afraid she might read it.” Later, she told me, “I think I put in a disclaimer somewhere where I say that, of course, real people are more complicated than they are in books. Didn’t I do that?””
    “When I mentioned to Charlotte Jones that Vicky is stuck in time, and asked why L’Engle never shows us who Vicky became, she said simply, “Gran can’t. I’ve asked her about it. Vicky is the character who’s closest to her, to who she was as a child, and it would mean looking at her own life in a way she’s not prepared to do. Or not willing to do.”
    Charlotte paused. “One thing I respect about Gran is that she’s seamless. She is able to put many complicated things together and make them whole, but she wasn’t able to do that with Vicky, or with Charles Wallace, ultimately, or, of course, with Bion, who to her was a combination of Charles Wallace and Rob Austin. She will not admit he died of alcoholism. She will not budge, and she will not talk about it. Bion loathed and detested the Austins.”
    Bion Franklin, who wanted to be a writer, lived for almost all his adult life at Crosswicks with his wife, Laurie, a doctor. According to the family, he is the person for whom L’Engle’s insistence on blurring fiction and reality had the most disastrous consequences. L’Engle’s former agent, Theron Raines, who met Bion when he was four or five, remembers him as beautiful and sweet. Everyone in L’Engle’s family is large-they’re big-boned people-but in the snapshots taken of Bion in the years before he died, he is beyond big, or just heavy: he looks smeared. “It’s hard,” Maria Rooney said, “to be the magic child.”
    It was a stormy June day. I had gone to Crosswicks with my children to visit L’Engle. Laurie Franklin, Bion’s widow, and Josephine Jones showed me a room above the garage, where L’Engle used to write. No one had cleaned it in a very long time. Outside, beyond a meadow, were the Murrys’ woods, and the star-watching rock from the Austin-family stories. Jones said, “I have a feeling still that this is forbidden. I’m not supposed to be up here, and once in a while I still get this hit.”
    During the year, Jones, who lives in her own house in northwest Connecticut, travels to New York City every other weekend to see her mother. She said, “I went through a time fairly recently when I wanted my mother to know that I knew her parents hadn’t been good parents to her. I often wonder if she had grown up in a different family, rather than in a family that was emotionally deprived, what kind of childhood we would have had.”
    “Bion wouldn’t read her books,” Franklin said.
    “Bion would not leave home,” Jones added.”
    “When people tell her, “You’ve helped me grow up, you’re my mother,” [L’Engle] tends to brush it off: her job, as she sees it, is to write stories, not to be known. (About her own children, she has said, “My children want Mama to be Mama, and if I’m known it takes me away from them.”)”
    I don’t think readers are required to take on a writer’s children’s issues with their parents. But I confess, I have a harder time reading the Austin books now than I did before I read this damning, damn piece.
    (Sorry just to quote it on and on. I didn’t know how good your access to Lexis-Nexis would be.)

  3. LPF Says:

    Wow. I certainly didn’t know all of that about L’Engle. I loved her books as a child, and love them still–definitely prefer the Murry series to the Austin series. I liked that while they weren’t overly melodramatic a la teen romance series, they dealt with life’s realities–death, desertion, moving, etc, etc. I had a fairly tumultuous upbringing and while I would have adored having calm, serious Mrs. Murry for my mother, just reading about how she and Meg dealt with life made it better for me. Though I never did like the twins. ;)

  4. Genevieve Says:

    I loved and re-read almost all of the L’Engle books.
    Mrs. Austin’s name is Victoria, but I can’t remember Mrs. Murry’s name.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Ack, I wrote a long response before, and the computer ate it.
    A Ring of Endless Light is the only one of the Austin books that I’ve read. No, that’s wrong, I read the one where they live in NYC, but didn’t think it was very good. I read Ring at just the perfect age, and thought it was written just for me. Looking it up, I see the first ones were published in the early 60s, which might explain some of the gender role issues.
    I should have remembered that Vicky is named after her mother. I do think that the children liked Mrs. Murry’s cooking, but worried that she’d forget which pot was which, or fail to scrub one out thoroughly before using it for a different purpose.
    Thanks for sharing the article, Jody, although it’s pretty depressing. I feel badly for Maria. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Bion’s alcoholism on his mother’s writing, though.
    The comment that the novels were more real than the nonfiction is interesting. In Circle of Quiet, L’Engle tells a long story about a family new to the village, called the Brechsteins, and how they rubbed people in the village the wrong way, but there was also an element of anti-semitism in the way people disliked them. And then she admits that there was never a family by that name. She writes: “Thinking about the Brechtsteins, attempting the not-quite-possible task of separating fact from fiction in this sketch, teaches me something about the nature of reality. On one level, one might say that the Brechtsteins are not real. But they are. It is through the Brechsteins, through the world of the imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.”

  6. amy Says:

    really, people should never read about writers if they need to like them. I’ve met very few “lovely human being” writers, and who knows what they were like at home. No reason why writers should be lovely human beings, anyway. Have to be obstinate, selfish, and half-nuts to do the work in the first place, and then you go stripping out all the careful blurring people do to make life tolerable.
    I liked many of L’Engle’s books very much. Image that’s stayed longest is the children bouncing balls in unison on Camazotz.

  7. ElizabethN Says:

    I’ve only met her myself briefly once, but one author that by all accounts does seem to be a lovely human being is Connie Willis. If you haven’t read her and you’re in the mood for fiction, Elizabeth, I think you’d really like The Doomsday Book. Not that one so much, but many of her short stories are “about” motherhood in one way or another – one of her gifts is to make the housewife protagonist really interesting and sympathetic (e.g., in “Chance,” part of her collection _Impossible Things_).

  8. amy Says:

    Eh. Her husband claims that if she couldn’t write she’d be a serial killer; in jest or not, it’s true enough to most writers I’ve known that I bet there’s something to it.
    Company manners don’t count. ;) Being interviewed is definitely company manners, unless you’re Edie Brickell. Though I used to have a fantasy of being interviewed by, say, somebody from _People_, offering lots of cookies but denying absolutely that I wrote the book and claiming reading made me sleepy. And bellowing at kids in the yard, then asking sweetly if the interviewer wouldn’t have some more coffee, and asking where she got her skirt.

  9. terrill Says:

    Mrs. Murry’s Name ist Katherine (Kate).

  10. Liz Swift Says:

    Having just re-read The Summer of the Great Grandmother and finding a lot of it apt as I care for my senile mother-in-law and her not quite as senile sister I was struck by how adamant Madeleine was against nursing homes. It seems ironic that she is now confined to one herself. But reading the comments of her children make me wonder how true the story of the great grandmother was. How much did she leave out? What was the real impact on the family of living out great grandmother’s last days with her? Right now things are not a pretty picture around here and I’ve already done this trip with my own mother (whom we did place in assisted care). Was SOGG a romanticized version of the events? Did the family really and truly agree about how to deal with Gracchi?

  11. christian girl Says:

    These comments about L’Engle are fascinating.
    Some of you evidently believe L’Engle to be a Christian.
    Many people do.
    But her books are not Christian books and her beliefs are aberrant.
    Her children’s books promote occultic beliefs and practices.
    She and her writings are praised by those at Wheaton College to their shame.
    She has deceived many.

  12. Bonnie Says:

    I would like to know what “christian girl” means by “aberrant beliefs” — and I challenge her to cite anything in Madeleine L’Engle’s books that promotes occultic beliefs and practices. These are tired old canards that denigrate a fine writer and a practicing Christian.

  13. Jennifer Says:

    I have read and re-read Madeleine L’Engle for over twenty years, having discovered her writings as an adult. I love them all and have been inspired over and over by fiction and non-fiction alike. For many years she has served as a sort of “spiritual director” for me, which ultimately led me to the Episcopal church. Her beliefs as a Christian so closely parallel mine, struggling with disbelief and discouragement about God, yet always with an underlying faith. She is a very human Christian, not hesitating to admit her doubts, yet full of wisdom. Today’s ultra-fundamentalist Christians who profess to have all the right answers and want to dictate how the rest of the world believes, are the ones who ring false to me. “Christian Girl” could never convince me that Madeleine is not Christian or that her books are not full of Christian truths.

  14. Jennifer Says:

    I have read and re-read Madeleine L’Engle for over twenty years, having discovered her writings as an adult. I love them all and have been inspired over and over by fiction and non-fiction alike. For many years she has served as a sort of “spiritual director” for me, which ultimately led me to the Episcopal church. Her beliefs as a Christian so closely parallel mine, struggling with disbelief and discouragement about God, yet always with an underlying faith. She is a very human Christian, not hesitating to admit her doubts, yet full of wisdom. Today’s ultra-fundamentalist Christians who profess to have all the right answers and want to dictate how the rest of the world believes, are the ones who ring false to me. “Christian Girl” could never convince me that Madeleine is not Christian or that her books are not full of Christian truths.

  15. MaryMactavish Says:

    And now she’s gone…
    But I’m glad this post is here. Madeleine’s writing was a bit part of my spiritual growing up, in young adulthood, helping me move through and beyond certain beliefs, and deal with the needs I had at the time. At the same time, I’m glad a post like this is here — she was human, after all.

  16. Denise G. Says:

    So sorry to hear about her death. I was very moved by her poetry especially the poems from the viewpoint of Mary the mother of the Christ, and the ones about her her husband. “To a long loved one” comes to mind.
    I envision her, having passed over, delighted to see the ones she loved here. I believe that the things we are here to learn are behind all of them now and they receive her with joy and understanding for all that she was and wasn’t.
    May she dance with her long loved one tonight.

  17. Elizabeth Says:

    I just reread this post, because of the new comments that have been added since her death. And I’m so pissed at myself because I never wrote the damn letter.

  18. Cindy Nelson Says:

    I remember hearing Madeleine L’Engle read one evening at Carleton College from the sequel to Camilla which she was working on.
    I wrote occasionally, urging her to finish it and get it into print. Finally she wrote me that she had, but wasn’t sure I would like it. I did, but it was not certainly not the manuscript she read from at Carleton.
    The following morning she spoke at Chapel. I think she crammed an entire four credit course into that speech, and it was wonderful.
    I have read and read and read her books. She was a very special human being.
    As to whether she was Christian or not, it would be difficult to find a more accurate picture of love than Meg’s freeing Charles Wallace from IT (Christ excepted, of course.)

  19. Denise G. Says:

    I would like to reply to “christiangirl” with something from Ms. L’Engle’s own writing:
    A friend of mine at a denominational college reported sadly that one of his students came to complain to him about a visiting professor. This professor was having the students read some twentieth century fiction, and the student was upset both at the language of this fiction, and the amount of what she considered to be immoral sex.
    My friend, knowing the visiting professor to be a person of both intelligence and integrity, urged the student to go and talk with him about these concerns.
    “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” the student said. “He isn’t a Christian.”
    “He” is a Roman Catholic.
    If we fall into Satan’s trap of assuming that other people are not Christians because they do not belong to our own particular brand of Christianity, no wonder we become incapable of understanding the works of art produced by so-called non-Christians, whether they be atheists, Jews, Buddhists, or anything else outside a frame of reference we have made into a closed rather than an open door.
    If I cannot see evidence of incarnation in a painting of a bridge in the rain by Hokusai, a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, in music by Bloch or Bernstein, then I will miss its significance in an Annunciation by Franciabigio, the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, the words of a sermon by John Donne.
    One of the most profoundly moving moments at [a spiritual conference] came for me when Jesse, a student from Zimbabwe, told me, “I am a good Seventh Day Adventist, but you have shown me God.” Jesse will continue to be a good Seventh Day Adventist as he returns to Africa to his family; I will struggle with my own way of belief; neither of us felt the need or desire to change the other’s Christian frame of reference. For that moment, at least, all our doors and windows were wide open; we were not carefully shutting out God’s purifying light, in order to feel safe and secure; we were bathed in the same light that burned and yet did not consume the bush. We walked barefoot on holy ground.
    from Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

  20. dave.s. Says:

    very sweet story about L’Engle: http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YzgwYWY0ZjQ4NWYwZjdiOTNhNWFkZjMyZTJlNGQyYzY=

  21. CarolLiller Says:

    Elizabeth…I’m sure that Madeleine is looking at us from Heaven along with Bion and Hugh and all the others she loved. Not to be too occult, write her your letter and burn it, and let the angels carry it up to her. I’m one that meant so many times in my life to tell her how her books changed my life; The Severed Wasp came at a time when I really needed it as did Two-Part Invention.
    As for her childrens’ memories-my stepsisters and I remember the last thirty years of our parents lives together so completely differently that it makes you wonder if we were all in the same room together. And Meg, Bec and Bets each have a different subset of their own memories.
    I also think you can’t blame Madeleine for Bion’s alcoholism…his grandfather, Joseph Camp, hit the bottle fairly frequently and went over the edge from social drinker in Madeleine’s lifetime. I believe there is a propensity, if not genetic.
    We all mourn her but of course she’s not perfect. She’s a writer. I’m a writer. I try to be as faithful to a situation as I can, but my friends or my son will correct me when they proofread my memories. I think she even writes about this in Certain Women
    I owe hearing “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” to Camilla Dickinson-Psalm 121 to The Moon by Night; finding God and the Tallis Singers- Conrad Aiken-being a bibliomaniac-and watching the stars all to her.
    What more could you ask for?

  22. CarolLiller Says:

    Correction to the above:
    her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp.

  23. @ Home in the World Says:

    Low Notes

    I’ve never been much of an opera fan, but listening to the excerpts of Luciano Pavarotti during the numerous NPR tributes to him, gave me the chills. I don’t think you have to be an opera fan to appreciate that

  24. Jon Says:

    After Many Waters came out, I went on a L’Engle kick and read everything I could find by her, including the Austen books, which were not really my cup of tea. Don’t remember anything about them really, just a few scenes. All the story says to me is something all bloggers should know. When you write about people you know, be very, very careful.
    And besides, I think her best are about the O’Keefes where plot and magic are most important.

  25. Chris Kraft Says:

    Mrs. Franklin, as we knew Madeleine L’Engle at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School in 1966 and 1967, was then as she is now, a perfect Angel. Mrs. Franklin was the Speech, Creative Writing and Drama teacher as well as the faculty advisor for “The White Swan,” the School’s annual literary magazine. I was a high school kid who was transplanted from Webster Groves, Missouri, to NYC for my junior and senior years at St. H&H. Although Mrs. Franklin was not one of my teachers, I will never forget the boost she gave my morale after I got a “C” from my english teacher for a creative writing paper that I worked hours on and thought was pretty hilarious.
    Essentially, the paper was something along the lines of Tom Sawyer explores the world of Holden Caufield when Tom moves to NYC. (Dah) Somehow, Mrs. Franklin read it, found me and told me how much she liked it (would have given it an “A”) and included it in “The White Swan.” What a relief. That meant a lot to me then and still does.
    Last year, a student at an east coast school sent me a superb paper about buildings as monuments. She wrote it in reference to the monumental features of the USS Arizona (Pearl Harbor 1941) incorporated into the design of our new Student Union Memorial Center at the University of Arizona. The kid only got a “C” for her perfect insight into our design intent. Naturally, I paraphrased Mrs. Franklin’s words of encouragement and ran the student’s article right over to our alumni magazine for publication. And yes, I wrote Madeleine a letter thanking her again for her support in 1966 and letting her know that I passed along her kindness forty years later.

  26. Lisa W. Says:

    Just found this site today and want to thank you all for posting your comments and memories of my favorite writer. I knew she had been ill and that this day had to come, but I still burst into tears when my husband told me of her death. There has never been either a real person or fictitious character with whom I identified as much as I did Vicky Austin.

  27. cindy Says:

    She was and who she will always be..someone who tells us who we really are and loves us as ourself.THANK YOU because you made us so much better,Madeline, boy oh boy , will we miss YOU! Thank You God for sending Her, what a great gift and I willl miss her Wisdom.

  28. Sarah V Says:

    It is so interesting to read for the first time, as an adult, the “back story” of my favorite author. I’m glad I didn’t run across it earlier, but at this point in my life I’m finally able to accept that wonderful artists can have very complicated private lives!
    I was struck by all the posters who regretted not sending a letter to Madeline. I, too, make it a policy never to write letters to authors or other famous people. However, I have always had it on my life “to-do” list to write one to her, and to share a poem inspired by A Swiftly Tilting Planet that I had written when I was a teenager (oh, the melodrama!) Since it’s now too late to send it, posting here will have to do. Cross that one off the list of regrets…now on to climbing Kilimanjaro.
    For in these parlous times there is no end
    to darkness; it crowds out the force of light
    that fights for power. In far-off lands
    sit ones who hold the universe’s plight.
    This is the wintertime, with war as cold;
    our weapons of destruction dare we try?
    When God created worlds in days of old
    did he then know that they would one day die?
    We are not God, but only man, proud man,
    ourselves by brief authority not saved.
    By our own hand, spring may not come again
    but be forever lost. God’s well-made plan
    in peril hangs, held by a man depraved.
    Was all creation worthless, all in vain?

  29. Josie Bowman Says:

    I did write to M. L’Engle–twice. In reply to both letters I received warm personal answers. I have no question that she was a Christian–the type of Christian who makes it easier for those of us who wrestle with doubt to believe. Certainly, she was not perfect. We can not know that her daughter’s perception was not slanted. We are all mixtures and, of course, she would not be an exception.
    I don’t cry easily, but tears came to my eyes when I read L’Engle had died. I feel as if I’ve lost a friend.

  30. Carolyn Ledet Says:

    I had the wonderful privilege of hearing Ms. L’engle twice at our church conference center in the late 80’s. It was my first exposure to her and I fell in love with her books and her great wisdom. None of us remember our parents or loved ones in the same way, and all of my children have entirely different memories of their childhoods and their late father, (probably of me too), but as she always said; “just because its a story doesn’t mean its not true”.
    She was an inspiration to me at an important time in my life and to many others as well. Every one’s life is filled with highs and lows; even successful writers. I do know she loved her husband, her family and her God!! I am so sorry not to be able to look forward to another book from her!

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