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The Creepy Authoritarianism of Madeleine L’Engle

In her monthly column, YA of Yore, Frankie Thomas takes a second look at the books that defined a generation.

Madeleine L’Engle (Photo: Sigrid Estrada / FSG)

The date December 16 is seared into my brain. Every time I see it on a calendar I snap to attention, thinking, just for a second, That’s the big day! This is a complete neurological accident. There is nothing significant about December 16, except that in 1996 I saw it on a flier in the lobby of my elementary school. The flier announced that Madeleine L’Engle, the Newbery-winning author of A Wrinkle in Time, would be visiting my school for a book-signing event.

Madeleine L’Engle. I was going to meet her.

I was nine years old, too young to keep a calendar or manage my own schedule or do much of anything except read. I stood in the crowded lobby and read the date over and over and over, burning it into myself so I’d never forget: December 16. December 16. Madeleine L’Engle is coming on December 16.

*

To me, she was so much more than the author of A Wrinkle in Time. In fact, I felt about A Wrinkle in Time the way Beach Boys superfans feel about “Surfin’ USA”: it was beginner stuff. I was a L’Engle completist, or as much of a completist as was possible for a nine year old in the pre-internet era. If a book of hers was still in print, I owned it and had read it multiple times. If it was out of print, like the underrated Prelude, I had borrowed it from the library. I had also borrowed an authorized children’s biography of L’Engle herself, so I knew she’d been a writer even as a child. That excited me. We were the same.

My family bought its first home computer for Christmas in 1995, and I quickly commandeered it for afternoon use, spending hours on end writing novels on ClarisWorks. Having managed, against all odds, to hang on to those files, I can report confidently that they are almost entirely plagiarized from Madeleine L’Engle. Often I am able to identify verbatim L’Engle phrasing: my heroine is always “pushing at her glasses in a characteristic gesture,” “lavishly buttering her roll,” disparaging her little sister as “twelve going on forty-two.” But beyond the wording, beyond the spelling of gray as grey, beyond the use of dashes to punctuate thoughts (—is that a quirk unique to L’Engle?) the real giveaway is my heroines. They are all, in one way or another, Vicky Austin.

The Vicky Austin books are not L’Engle’s best-known work. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time and its sci-fi sequels, the Vicky Austin books are domestic realism, though I use the term “realism” loosely. The Austins are a perfect family living in a rambling farmhouse in rural Connecticut. Their hobbies include saying grace, having family sing-alongs, reading aloud from Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets, and discussing the theological implications of an Einsteinian universe. Daddy is a country doctor; Mother is a gorgeous housewife who’s always cooking elaborate meals while playing Brahms on the phonograph. The four Austin children are all gifted in various ways, but Vicky, an aspiring poet who narrates the novels, is the most gifted of all. Adults love her to pieces. Here is a nonexhaustive list of things adults say to Vicky:

“You have an artistic temperament, Vicky … That’s empathy, and it’s something all artists are afflicted with.” —Vicky’s beloved Uncle Douglas, Meet the Austins

“I think the trouble is that you have too many talents … You’re on your way to being a real beauty, child, but it’s all in what’s behind your face. Right now everything’s promise.” —Uncle Douglas again, painting her portrait in The Moon by Night

“You are to be a light-bearer. You are to choose the light … You already have. I know that from your poems.” —Vicky’s minister grandfather, A Ring of Endless Light

“I said, ‘Maybe our intimacies are more precious if we know they may be taken away.’ Daddy looked at me and smiled and nodded slightly. Aunt Serena said, ‘You are wise, my child.’ ” —Troubling a Star

“I swore I’d never love or marry again. Your poem helped, Vicky.” —Some woman named Siri who learns to love again thanks to Vicky, Troubling a Star

Rereading the Austin books now, I’m struck by how often Vicky’s praise comes at the expense of another child, a lesser child. It’s not enough that, in Troubling a Star, Vicky’s poem wins second prize in a school contest; Aunt Serena must also point out that Vicky’s poem “was much better than the one that won first prize.” Vicky’s younger sister, Suzy, who is “thirteen, going on thirty,” is allegedly beautiful and smart and popular with boys, but she mostly functions as a straw man for the older characters to compare unfavorably to Vicky. “Suzy’s got plenty going for her, you’re right,” a sophisticated college boy concedes in A Ring of Endless Light (in which, to reiterate, Suzy is thirteen), “but it’s all out there, on the surface. I prefer to dig for gold.” Throughout the series, as far as I can tell, Vicky has no friends her own age.

How I longed to be adored like Vicky Austin! More than anything, I wanted Madeleine L’Engle to love me the way she loved Vicky—that is to say, the most.

*

And then it was December 16, and I was going to meet her. What would I wear? Not pants, that was for sure: in The Moon by Night, Vicky narrates cheerfully that “Daddy doesn’t like women in pants,” and neither did L’Engle, if her outfit descriptions were anything to go by. I squeezed myself into a pleated skirt, sweater, and tights. It was uncomfortable. But I wouldn’t let it show. In A Ring of Endless Light, as Vicky grieves for her dying grandfather, her mother reprimands her: “Don’t scowl. You’re getting lines in your forehead.”

To distract myself, I raided my leftover Halloween candy. Only the bad candy was left, so I ate an entire box of green Nerds. Then I looked in the mirror and saw, to my absolute horror, that my tongue was stained green.

My mother tried to reassure me. “She won’t notice,” she said. “You’re not going to stick your tongue out at her, are you?”

But that wasn’t the point. To meet Madeleine L’Engle, I needed to be perfect.

*

As an adult I find it hard to ignore the sinister authoritarianism of the Austin books. There is a violent undercurrent to the adoration of Vicky. In Meet the Austins, the Austins take in a recently orphaned ten year old named Maggy, and I don’t believe there exists in all of children’s literature a less sympathetic portrait of a child who has just lost her parents. Maggy is rude, disruptive, “spoiled rotten”; she is scolded for “bragging” about her parents’ deaths and for waking the household with her screaming night terrors. (L’Engle’s real-life adopted daughter, Maria, who came to live with L’Engle’s family after the sudden death of her own parents, was not a fan of Meet the Austins.)

Finally Maggy misbehaves one time too many and gets spanked. The spanking occurs offstage. This is how Vicky narrates it:

There’s a family story about me when I was Rob’s age or younger. I’d done something I shouldn’t have done, and I’d been spanked, and I climbed up onto Daddy’s lap that evening and twined my arms around his neck and said, “Daddy, why is it I’m so much nicer after I’ve been spanked?”

Well, Maggy was ever so much nicer for a long time after that.

In 1996, however, I did not find this chilling. The Austins seemed exquisitely literary, and I so wanted to be literary. That December, I was writing a novel about a fourteen-year-old aspiring poet who is precociously accepted into a writing class for adults, where she is immediately hailed by her teacher, the famous Virginia Percher, as the best writer of them all. “As I went home,” my heroine narrates, “I was flying. Virginia loved my work. Even the adults weren’t as good as me.”

This plotline is plagiarized from A House Like a Lotus, which is only an honorary Vicky Austin novel: L’Engle rewrote it, according to that biography I read, after deciding that it “didn’t fit Vicky’s personality.” The rewrite doesn’t appear to have been extensive. Vicky has become Polly; Dr. and Mrs. Austin are now Dr. and Mrs. O’Keefe; beloved Uncle Douglas is beloved Uncle Sandy; pretty younger sister Suzy is pretty younger cousin Kate, and so forth.

All the adults adore Polly, but A House Like a Lotus is specifically about the adoration of Polly by an aging heiress and artist named Max. In the first half of the novel, Max takes the sixteen-year-old Polly under her wing, painting her portrait and serving as an all-purpose mentor. Here are some of the things Max says to Polly:

“I’ll take you over Kate, any day.”

“You have elegant bones … Beautiful slender wrists and ankles, like princesses in fairy tales. Bet Cousin Kate envies them … What splendid eyes you have, like bits of fallen sky, and wide apart, always suggesting that you see things invisible to lesser mortals.”

“I love you, Polly, love you like my daughter. And you love me, too, in all your amazing innocence.”

Max is a lesbian. (This novel was where I learned the word lesbian.) Polly is uncomfortable with this, but her parents urge her not to think about it; the novel, which was published in 1984, initially looks like a rather clumsy call for tolerance. But then, at the halfway point, Max gets too drunk and reaches toward Polly and … does something to her:

She bent toward me, whispering, “Oh my little Polly, it’s all so short—no more than the blink of an eye. Why are you afraid of Max? Why?”

Her breath was heavy with whiskey. Her words were thick. I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do, how to stop her. How to make her be Max again.

In the next flash of lightning she stood up, and in the long satin gown she seemed seven feet tall, and she was swaying, so drunk she couldn’t walk. And then she fell…

I rolled out of the way. She reached for me, and she was sobbing.

The scene is written so vaguely that there’s no critical consensus on what exactly it is, how far it goes, whether it’s merely attempted or actually carried out. Whatever it is, Polly is so traumatized by it that she flees Max’s house, barefoot and sobbing, in the middle of the night, in a thunderstorm. She has nightmares and flashbacks for months afterward. She doesn’t want to see or speak to Max ever again.

Here are some things adults say to Polly in the second half of the novel:

“Max is a dying woman. You can’t just drop her like a hot coal.”

“You have to allow even the people you most admire to be complex and contradictory like everybody else. The more interesting somebody is, the more complex.”

“The problem is, Polly, you made Max into a god. Can’t you let her be a little human?”

Eventually, Polly is worn down. She reminds herself that Max taught her everything she knows, that Max “saw potential in me that I hardly dared dream of.” She decides that Max must be “brilliant but flawed. Perhaps the greater the brilliance, the darker the flaw.” The novel ends with Polly calling Max on the phone to apologize for avoiding her. “Forgive me,” says Polly tearfully. “I love you, Max, I love you.”

As a child, I was disturbed by A House Like a Lotus, especially that ending, but I wasn’t sure why. I figured I would understand it when I was older. I pretended to love it.

In a 1963 New York Times article, explaining why she wrote for children, L’Engle remarked, “It’s often possible to make demands of a child that couldn’t be made of an adult.”

*

It was strange to go to school at night, and in a taxi with my father instead of on the bus. The book-signing took place in the elementary school gymnasium, noisier and more crowded than I’d ever seen it during the day; the event was open to the public and full of strangers. I carried two books for L’Engle to sign. One was my mother’s childhood copy of A Wrinkle in Time, which embarrassed me—surely everybody would bring that one!—but my mother had insisted. To correct for this, I also brought Troubling a Star, my favorite L’Engle novel and no one else’s. I hoped it would communicate to L’Engle that I was a different caliber of reader.

The line to meet L’Engle was so long, and I was so short. I couldn’t see her until it was my turn—then I was face to face with her. She was older than I’d expected. Her gray hair was cropped shorter than in her author photo. In my memory she looms quite tall even while seated at the book-signing table; I’ve always assumed this was the exaggerated perception of a very small nine year old, but apparently she was indeed very tall.

She smiled an impersonal smile at me, the same smile she must have smiled at thousands of other kids. She wrote her name, nothing more, inside my books. She did not say, “Wow, Troubling a Star? That’s an unusual choice!” She did not say “You are to be a light-bearer” or “You see things invisible to lesser mortals” or “I love you, Frankie, love you like my daughter.” If she said anything at all, I don’t remember what it was. The whole thing was over so quickly.

*

According to the literary critic Dale Peck, great writers “write stories which become part of our dreams, but cult writers are themselves dreamed about.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve dreamt about Madeleine L’Engle. In the summer of 1997, I discovered Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, and that was it for me and L’Engle: I became a George completist and never looked back. Until I began to write this essay, I’d never revisited the Vicky Austin books.

It turns out that when I’m not studying them as if cramming for a test on how to be the most lovable child in the world, I can barely get through them. On top of everything else, they’re boring.

*

One more thing I remember about the night of December 16, 1996: After the signing, there was a Q&A in the school auditorium. This was my last chance to impress Madeleine L’Engle. I raised my hand and raised my hand and got ignored so many times that when she actually called on me, I was caught off guard.

My mind raced for a question that would convey that I, too, was a serious writer. I blurted out, “How long does it take to write a book?”

She replied, “A long book like A Wrinkle in Time takes about a year.” That was all she said. Then she called on the next kid.

I shrank in my seat, abashed. Hadn’t she given a longer, more thoughtful answer to everyone else? Why had she been so curt with me? Why didn’t she like me best?

But even more than that, I was dismayed by her answer. A year? I could hardly believe anything took so long. Maybe I didn’t want to be a writer after all. Who had that kind of time?

*

After I slogged through the Vicky Austin books, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. And if the Vicky Austin books put me to sleep, A Wrinkle in Time jolted me wide awake. I’d forgotten how much I loved Meg Murry, not because she’s better than everyone else—she isn’t; she’s ugly and argumentative and weak—but because she’s so real, so human, so fully herself. She’s lovable in a way that suggests that everyone else must be equally lovable in their own way, if you only got to know them.

A Wrinkle in Time is astonishing, irreducible. The plot remains indescribably bonkers, perhaps even more so for an adult reader, but it rockets along so swiftly on the force of its own dream logic that I read the whole thing in one breathless sitting. When it was over, tears were streaming down my face; I was crying the way you sometimes wake up crying from a dream. I wasn’t thinking about Madeleine L’Engle at all. I was thinking only of her book.

I wish I’d understood sooner that I didn’t need anything from L’Engle that she hadn’t already given me. I wish I’d just let myself love the book, instead of trying to make the book love me.

 

Read earlier installments of YA of Yore here.

Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review