Madeleine L’Engle: A New Perspective on Science and Girls

Madeleine L’Engle, author of the groundbreaking children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, was a clumsy girl, born to older parents who loved her and wanted her but weren’t sure quite what to do with her after twenty years of childless marriage. Her father, Charles Camp, was a journalist who had been exposed to mustard gas during WWI and caught pneumonia frequently. Her mother was often in frail health. When Madeleine was born in New York City in 1918, antibiotics hadn’t been discovered. Madeleine was over-protected and sent off to boarding school for most of her lonely childhood.

Madeleine struggled in school during her elementary years. One of her legs was shorter than the other due to a childhood illness. Madeleine recalls that any sports team she was on was bound to fail and she took the blame for it. Even worse, her schoolwork was often used as an example of what not to do. When she won a poetry contest with her original work she was accused of plagiarism. She was an unattractive, bespectacled misfit and infamous daydreamer.

When she was fourteen, Madeleine was enrolled in a school in South Carolina where for the first time she made friends, became involved in student government and drama, and wrote poetry. On the strength of her writing, she gained admission to Smith College where she majored in English. She started a literary magazine and wrote poems, short stories, and plays. After graduation, she set about earning a living as a writer, supplementing her income by acting. She met and married Hugh Franklin, an actor. The two spent many years living hand to mouth as artists—she writing and he acting. She wrote every day even if it was repeatedly typing “I can’t write today.” She would put their baby to bed when Hugh left for work, write all evening, and then wake up the baby when Hugh got home and they would play with her at 2 am.

They bought a dilapidated 200-year old house in Connecticut and fixed it up. In search of stable income, they purchased and ran a general store in the rural town of Goshen. They had another child and adopted a third. All the while Madeleine wrote, using her great grandmother’s name, L’Engle, meeting a mixture of success and crushing failure. She even got a rejection on her fortieth birthday. They were not content as merchants. They sold the store and moved back to New York City where Hugh had resumed his acting career.

In late 1959 she finished A Wrinkle In Time—a novel she’d written in “a white heat.” Madeleine saw her latest book as a turning point in her career. The problem was, no one wanted to publish it.  A Wrinkle in Time was too different with its female protagonist, too obscure because it included physics, and in her own words, “too peculiar.” The disappointment left her numb. The novel garnered thirty rejections before John Farrar decided to publish it. He liked it and on occasion took a risk and published something out of the ordinary. He cautioned Madeleine not to expect too much. Audiences liked the average. But the world was much different when it was published in 1962 than it had been in the late 1950s when Madeleine first sought a publisher. A Wrinkle in Time was an immediate success and was awarded the Newberry Medal in 1963.

She went on to write over sixty books, even when crippled with arthritis and nearly blind from uveitis and glaucoma.  She was a delightfully honest public speaker, willing to talk about success, failure, and questions that have no answers. L’Engle was a proponent of her Episcopalian faith, the environment, science, and of the uplifting power of the arts.  She saw these things as being intertwined. She wrote extensively on writing. Some of her tips for fiction writing can be found here. Most importantly, her physically flawed and intelligent female protagonists who question society’s rules brought new perspective to the world of science fiction and fantasy and have delighted readers for over fifty years.

Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Haustein. Catherine is a chemist and the author of the science-based novels Mixed In and Natural Attraction as well as a “green” lab manual.

Find out more…

Read A Wrinkle in Time, you can buy it or read a free PDF copy like this one here!

L’Engle’s granddaughters are writing a biography of her due to be published in 2018. For information on this, the movie, and the author visit http://www.madeleinelengle.com

Her obituary in the NY Times

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