Madeleine L’Engle has been one of my top favorite authors ever since I was about 10, so of course I bought this for the library as soon as I heard about it. I’m hoping some other L’Engle fans at the library will find it soon.
Listening for Madeleine by Leonard S. Marcus
Listening for Madeleine is a pointillist portrait of the Newbury Award-winning author. It starts off with a short biography by the editor, but is mostly composed of lots and lots of thoughts by individuals who knew her, gained from letters and interviews. They are divided up by how people knew her: from childhood, as a writer, matriarch, mentor, friend or icon. They include friends from childhood, editors and publishers, writers like T.A. Barron and Mary Pope Osborne, her daughter, granddaughters, and former son-in-law, and lots of people whom she was friends with or mentored over the years. Many people referred to an unflattering profile of L’Engle that was published in the New Yorker in 2004, which I hadn’t read, but which I was able to pull up on Gale’s Biography in Context without any difficulty. (“The Storyteller”, by Cynthia Zarin.) Family members acknowledged the frustration of living with a writer whose published version of their life together – the writer’s perspective, warts airbrushed out – became the version that readers everywhere believed was true; the fictional works inspired by family life felt more true to reality than those published as nonfiction. Outside the family, people were generally horrified that family members were willing to air as much dirty laundry as they did while L’Engle was still alive. But the fact that these discussions are in the book give me the comforting feeling that this isn’t a hagiography, even though most of the people contributing to the anthology cared about her. For all the painful things voiced by her relatives, they were still there caring for her in her increasingly dependent old age. Balancing that were the many, many tales of her writing from the publisher’s side and of her support for young and aspiring writers especially.
The most negative profiles came in the Icons section. These, dealing with L’Engle’s writing, were perhaps ironically tougher for me to read, as a devoted fan of her writing who never met her in person. Jane Yolen, a writer whose work I also love, wrote about her horror at L’Engle’s spoken belief that there is magic in the world, as opposed to Yolen’s use of magic as metaphor in her books. Library professor and lesbian Christine A. Jenkins wrote about how she had to discourage her students from writing about L’Engle because L’Engle fans were almost universally unable to look at her work with anything but uncritical adoration. (Probably guilty as charged, I’m afraid.) She’s offended at how all of L’Engle’s characters are world-famous scientists, doctors, or artists – here I think that L’Engle was so used to being surrounded by world-famous people that it didn’t occur to her that someone could be a good doctor or scientist without becoming world famous. Worse, she wrote about L’Engle’s terrible treatment of GLBT people in her books, especially in A House Like a Lotus (1989). In that book, Vicky, our protagonist, is mentored by an older lesbian couple, and is shocked when she finds out that they’re in a relationship. Her father tells her that it’s ok, as long as they keep private about it. Later, one of the women gets drunk and makes a pass at Vicky, causing Vicky to run out and have a one-night stand with an older cousin who’s been taking her out on dates, while being clear that he’s in a serious relationship with another woman.
In my head, L’Engle had mind-blowingly modern attitudes about homosexuality, and I had to do some thinking to reconcile this. This is what I think: Jenkins, an adult lesbian in 1989, was justifiably offended at that portrayal of lesbians. I wouldn’t recommend it to teens today as any kind of accurate portrayal of lesbians or how they should be treated, and certainly wouldn’t pass in on to my own lesbian friends. However. L’Engle was born in 1917. Her basic attitude that homosexuality should be tolerated but not made public was, I’m sure, progressive for what she would have been taught as a child. In 1989, I had just started high school after attending a conservative Lutheran elementary school, where we were taught that both homosexuality and sex before marriage were sins. For me, at that time, A House Like a Lotus was liberal enough to blow my mind open. A treatment more in line with my current beliefs, or something that Jenkins would have found satisfying, would likely have been more than I could handle at the time. Does that make me uncritically adoring?
In any case, the legions fans of L’Engle’s works will enjoy this broad and varied look at her from so many perspectives. And I would enjoy thoughts on her, adoring or not, from you.