Refracting a person’s life through the subjective lenses of family, friends and colleagues is an inspired form of biography. Leonard S. Marcus uses this multifaceted approach in Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, a collection of some 50 interviews he conducted with people who knew the iconic writer. Published as the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time—winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal—Marcus’ fascinating portrait of the artist as a complex woman clarifies some of the myths and half-truths surrounding this beloved, larger-than-life writer.
From these interviews, which vary greatly in length and include the observations of both intimates and those who knew her casually, we come to see that L’Engle was an amalgam of seeming contradictions: generous and prickly, intellectual and religious, extroverted and private. She began her adult life as an actress, and she drew on an innate theatricality in shaping her public persona: the confident doyenne of children’s literature. But, as is usually the case, the truth is more complicated and more interesting.
The only child in a genteel family (Marcus aptly describes her as a “poor-little-not-quite-rich-girl”), young Madeleine spent her childhood in New York City, Europe and the South, shuffled about by her parents’ wanderlust. Her father was a sometime journalist and mystery writer, her mother a classically trained pianist. Madeleine was often sent away (unhappily) to school—one story mentioned more than once in the book concerns a time in Europe when Madeleine’s parents told her they were going for a ride and then dumped her without warning at a Swiss boarding school—or fobbed off on relatives in Jacksonville. She went on to Smith, then to New York to try her hand at acting. There she met her husband, the actor Hugh Franklin, and eventually turned her focus to writing.
The family, which came to include three children, divided its time between a (by all accounts) monumentally large Upper West Side apartment and a house in Goshen, Connecticut. Madeleine became deeply immersed in theology, an active member of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and a spiritual advisor to many. Her religious beliefs would seep into much of what she wrote, but so, too, would her fascination with science and mathematics. She also became an ardent activist for other writers and their rights, a foe of censorship and a well-traveled speaker.
The portrait one gets from Listening for Madeleine is largely favorable, but happily this is no hagiography. We see a woman more nurturing with other children than her own, a compulsive writer who needed the strong hand of an editor (and was usually, if not always, willing to accept sage editorial advice), a generous spirit who nonetheless could hold a grudge (particularly toward the many editors who rejected A Wrinkle in Time). The most striking fault, perhaps, was that this great fabulist of the page was also a seasoned fabulist in her own life, reinventing the truth and covering over the darker realities of her childhood, marriage and motherhood.
The content of these interviews is repetitive at times, which does serve to verify certain truths, but overall Listening to Madeleine provides a satisfying trip deep into the life of a grandly original writer.