Op-Ed: Madeleine L’Engle’s midcentury version of ‘she persisted’
One hundred years ago, when Madeleine L’Engle was born — on Nov. 29, 1918 — no one had heard of the particular rallying cry “she persisted.” L’Engle’s story, however, and that of her masterpiece, “A Wrinkle in Time,” is exactly about female perspicacity.
In the 1950s, L’Engle — a married mother of three in Connecticut — had published a few books, but she was turning 40 and well into a self-described decade of failure. She felt “spasms of guilt” for trying to write rather than behaving “like a good New England housewife and mother.” After yet another rejection notice from yet another publisher, L’Engle covered her typewriter, sure she was done.
She uncovered it again, though, after what she recorded as a “moment of decision” in her journal: “If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing.”
‘A Wrinkle in Time’ made the rounds of publishers for two years, garnering ‘forty-odd rejections’ — each one ‘a wound.’
On a family camping trip to the Painted Desert, she had an idea for a new novel, inspired by something Albert Einstein wrote about the possibility that space and time might warp and wrinkle. When she finished the book, she tried it out on her then-editor, who rejected it. It made the rounds of publishers for two years, garnering “forty-odd rejections”— each one “a wound.”
L’Engle might have lost confidence in it, but instead she seized an opportunity through a friend to put it into the hands of John Farrar at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Two weeks later her young son appeared at her bedside, saying her agent was on the phone and had told him to wake her.
“A Wrinkle in Time” was published in 1962. It won the 1963 Newberry Medal, America’s top annual award for children’s literature, and went on to become the second most popular children’s book of all time, wedged between “Charlotte’s Web” at No. 1 and “Harry Potter” at No. 3.
L’Engle started writing at age 5 with a story about a little “gurl.” That her most famous book would come to her from reading something Einstein had written is remarkable, given that L’Engle’s grades in science and math were so poor she might not have graduated from high school with her class.
While still in school, though, she submitted poetry to Good Housekeeping magazine, garnering a form rejection slip of the kind familiar to most writers. She pasted hers in her journal and wrote beside it, “I got this delightful little refusal from Good Housekeeping today, & my poem was returned all dirtied. Someday Good Housekeeping will ask me to write poems for it!”
In college, L’Engle tried her hand at plays. After graduation, she ended up acting with a traveling theater troupe, still writing on the side. She finished her first novel that way, writing between scenes and while traveling city to city.
In 1946, she married Hugh Franklin, who described her to his parents as “not so much blond as light-haired,” with “a high forehead which she camouflages with bangs” and poor eyesight. “She hates to wear glasses, consequently can’t see well.” One of her legs was slightly shorter than the other, although her husband-to-be didn’t mention that.
Hugh was an actor who would eventually land a lifetime role on the soap opera “All My Children,” but he was getting only small parts or none at all as she was collecting rejections for “A Wrinkle in Time.”
One of the last publishers to reject it suggested the book should be cut by half. L’Engle was willing to rewrite but, she wrote, “I won’t destroy my book for money for some editor who completely misses the point.”
Even after “Wrinkle” was accepted, the men at Farrar didn’t expect much. One of their outside readers wrote about it, “I think this is the worst book I have ever read.” It was science fiction with a female protagonist when, as L’Engle herself said, “That just wasn’t done.” Her editor, Hal Vursell, in his letter seeking blurb quotes for it, said it would be a hard sell. Were young readers up to the dystopian setting and its complicated concepts?
The answer was a resounding yes. Young readers immediately took to the story of Meg Murry’s journey to find her father — transcending time, space and even the limitations of her own mind — in the company of her brother Charles Wallace, a boy named Calvin, and three supernatural old ladies named (without periods, to make them more otherworldly) Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which.
There are now more than 10 million copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” in print. A new audio version offers L’Engle reading it herself. It’s based on an old recording — L’Engle died in 2007 — but her deep, slightly gravelly voice lives on, full of the same love for Meg that readers feel. Also new this year is “Becoming Madeleine,” a biography written by her granddaughters that includes journal pages, photographs and a report card showing L’Engle’s Ds in algebra, Latin and geometry.
In L’Engle’s Newberry Medal acceptance speech, she said she couldn’t possibly explain how she came to write “A Wrinkle in Time.” “It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.”
And the best advice she ever received about writing sounds a lot like distilled persistence: “Just to write.”
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of six novels. Her latest is “Beautiful Exiles,” about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway.
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