The Wildness of Christianity

THE LEGACY OF MADELEINE L'ENGLE

The remarkable Madeleine L’Engle died in September, at the age of eighty-eight. The book that made her famous and won her the Newberry Award in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time-the tale of a homely, brainy fourteen-year-old girl who ends up saving the universe-remains beloved by many today. But L’Engle’s accomplishment can’t be measured by a single work. For nearly seven decades she wrote erudite and soulful fiction, essays, and poetry, building an eclectic oeuvre grounded in a love of both literature and science, and in an abiding Christian faith.

Born in 1918, L’Engle was very much a child of the past century, a typical member of the Greatest Generation, the cohort that came of age during WWII and the 1950s. “They were a dull generation,” Lillian Hellman wrote of them, dismissively, while Flannery O’Connor observed that they “had the moral sense bred out of them the way the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them.” O’Connor was a pre-Vatican II Catholic and had, for better or worse, a unified worldview from which to glower at the banality of America in the 1950s. Madeleine L’Engle was Episcopalian, with a life history that bears out O’Connor’s joke: “Scratch an Episcopalian and you’re likely to find almost anything.” In the High Church-the closest to Roman Catholicism in liturgy and yet in some ways the furthest from it in sensibility-aestheticism counts for much, and some attitudinizing is a given. Communicants include a large share of gifted misfits, hence O’Connor’s dig.

L’Engle’s mother, a professional pianist, came from aristocratic Huguenot stock in the Deep South. Her father was a writer of murder mysteries and a frontline correspondent during World War I. Fobbed off on an English nanny, L’Engle spent her childhood reading adult literature while her parents entertained famous friends at their Upper East Side address. She suffered in expensive boarding schools in the United States and Europe, went to Smith College, did a stint as a struggling actress in New York City, then married actor Hugh Franklin (later known as Dr. Charles Tyler on the soap opera All My Children), and in 1951 moved to a farmhouse in rural Connecticut, where she raised three children.

In the world of the 1950s, L’Engle was exceptional, and she spent much of her adult life learning to be an ordinary small-town wife and mother. She chose to be a perpetual student, rather than a true teacher, and her self-image as acolyte owed a great deal to gender expectations of the era. “All-aroundness” was the key, and it extended to faith; a Christian woman’s job was to bring the Incarnation to bear on her immersion in dailiness, and if she was an intellectual, to provide a model of the all-around good life. Viewing herself as a writing housewife-much in the mold Sylvia Plath wanted to fit-and a theologian as well, L’Engle achieved a snug synthesis of her different parts in the two series of books based on her own family: the “Murry” books, beginning with A Wrinkle in Time, and in the more realistic “Austin” books, starring the adolescent L’Engle surrogate Vicky Austin.

L’Engle always wrote with an audience in mind, and if she was partly addressing the grown women of an earlier generation, the more obvious objects of her interest were gifted children. Gifted children in L’Engle’s world are the best reminder of the human relationship to God. By and large they turn into gifted adults: musicians, writers, and scientists of great fame and talent populate her fiction, often intermarrying across volumes, and nearly always learning that a harsh destiny lies in wait. The gifted of the 1940s and 1950s were expected to sublimate their individuality to the demands of society at large, and though L’Engle celebrates nonconformity, she also insists upon Christian discipline. Her 1968 young-adult novel, The Young Unicorns, takes its title from an aphorism of St. Macrina: “In their early days they were like the unicorn, wild and uncommitted, which creature cannot be caught by the hunter, no matter how skillful.” And The Ordering of Love attempts to reconcile a free-spirited, proto-New Age imagination with the Christian framework that gives it some toughness. L’Engle’s heroines were adolescent girls on whom she lavished wise advice and attention for their specialness, even as she spiked that attention with what O’Connor called “a nasty dose of orthodoxy.” “No, Vicky,” another character scolds a depressed Vicky Austin in A Wrinkle in Time, “You are to be a light-bearer.”

Like O’Connor, L’Engle wrote self-consciously for a culture that, as O’Connor put it, “breathes unbelief,” and the fiercest anger in her work is directed at materialistic mediocrities. From her late forties on, as librarian of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, she grew in faith thanks to her spiritual director, Canon Edward Nason West. In High Anglicanism, holiness is too often a matter of sensibility, but under West’s tutelage, and to her credit, L’Engle did not take refuge in incense and Gothic architecture. Instead, she applied herself to the question of how holiness, of whatever kind, might be experienced by the largest number of people. Like so many writers of her generation, she found her answer in the Cross. L’Engle was fascinated by pain. Very early for an American writer, she portrayed a concentration-camp survivor in her 1949 teen romance And Both Were Young (and again in her fine novel A Winter’s Love), and the experiences of her fictional characters present an impressive catalogue of disaster. She sought to find unity amid her parts, linking elitism and humility, conformity and individualism, through the bond of the Incarnation and a large dose of pain.

As L’Engle aged, her answer to the problem of pain was more and more often “high and crazy,” even as her approach to it became more direct. In perhaps her most impressive fiction, A Severed Wasp, she marries the heroine to her piano teacher after he returns, crippled and literally castrated, from Auschwitz.

“Only on Love’s terrible other side / May be found the place where lion and lamb abide,” she wrote in her Southern novel, The Other Side of the Sun-in which a white woman shoots her African-American nephew to save him from a lynching. Too often in L’Engle’s works, the ugly, messy face people show as they go toward “Love’s terrible other side” is celebrated in general and dismissed in the particular. “He’ll be all right,” her heroine says of a widowed organist at the beginning of A Severed Wasp. “I can tell by his playing.”

Like so many of L’Engle’s theological musings, A Severed Wasp could have been co-written by the Sylvia Plath of Ariel and the Sylvia Plath of Letters Home-two different sensibilities, fiery darkness and sweet reasonableness. L’Engle’s answer might well be that such opposites coexist by virtue of the Incarnation. From a Christian perspective, this is true. Indeed, the comic vision of Flannery O’Connor depends in large part on this truth, and takes its stupendous moral authority from the holy horror of such juxtapositions. L’Engle’s weakness as a novelist compared to O’Connor lies in her humorlessness about her mission and in the occasionally smug synthesis of parts that stretches the boundaries of good taste. As O’Connor wrote to Betty Hester: “I have no doubt God could do it but he is not the author of this story.” Perhaps that is the best spirit in which to take some of the overreaching of L’Engle’s theodicy. The intentions compel awe, whereas the execution, at times, falls breezily short.

As a poet, writing for a much smaller audience, L’Engle felt less pressure to conform to the gender expectations of her age, and allowed herself to be exceptional, embarking on flights of fancy in which the real-life L’Engle, self-consciously grounded in domestic details, would not indulge. With no intention of writing for the professional poetry market, she was free to imagine her critics as Shakespeare, Pope Gregory the Great, and Sir Thomas Browne. Her simplest poems are also her most thought out, as in these lines from the title poem of her last collection, The Ordering of Love:

Peace is the centre of the atom, the core

Of quiet within the storm...

Peace is not placidity: peace is

The power to endure the megatron of pain

With joy, the silent thunder of release,

The ordering of Love. Peace is the atom’s start,

The primal image: God within the heart.

At times L’Engle approaches the wisdom of Teilhard de Chardin in her acceptance of the physical universe’s fury, doing justice to what she has called “the wildness of Christianity.” For her, pain is not always the consequence of evil; it is often just the manifestation of the laws of matter. Nor is evil simply the physical pain that comes of our fallen state. Flannery O’Connor’s treatment of theodicy remains superior to L’Engle’s because O’Connor had the discernment to contrast real evil to painful grace via the corruption of the flesh. One must only compare The Other Side of the Sun to O’Connor’s writing about race to understand L’Engle’s comparative immaturity. O’Connor took the history of the South as a microcosm of original sin, irresolvable in earthly terms, whereas L’Engle postulated a world in which racial harmony would follow from blacks being Christianized and giving up their savage gods. The Other Side of the Sun is a lovely novel in its own way, but manifestly not one that could be written today; O’Connor’s work, by contrast, is as contemporary today as when it first appeared.

Through all the decades of her writing, L’Engle never quite exorcised the ghost of all-aroundness, just as she did not quite succeed in ceasing to see herself as a gifted child. The poems to her late husband published in The Ordering of Love come close-dignified sonnets honoring a loss over which consolation has no power: “Dear love, if what I feel now is not true, / God never was, not God, nor I, nor you.” They are the most private poems she wrote, the least exceptional, and the least all-around. These and others of the best poems in this final collection transcend L’Engle’s lifelong sense of her calling as a “light-bearer.” Her fine poems on biblical themes, many written after her husband’s death, represent a final phase of her work in which L’Engle made peace with her own ebullient talent and stripped it down to a language for the “wildness of Christianity,” absent consolation. One example is a poem in the voice of a first-century astrologer, which may stand for L’Engle’s voice, and for ours, as we prepare our departure from the mortal vision:

O Truth, O small and unexpected thing,

You have taken so much from me.

How can I hear wisdom’s pain?

But I have been shown; and I have seen.

Yes, I shall miss the stars.

Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: 
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Tanya Avakian, a librarian, lives in Delaware.

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