Madeleine L'Engle

Author of 'A Wrinkle in Time'
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The Independent Online

Madeleine L'Engle Camp, children's writer: born New York 29 November 1918; married 1946 Hugh Franklin (died 1986; two daughters, and one son deceased); died Litchfield, Connecticut 6 September 2007.

The author of over 60 books, mostly written for children, Madeleine L'Engle was an original whose distinctive voice captivated generations of readers. Her best-known title, A Wrinkle in Time (1962), has sold more than eight million copies. Ingeniously mixing scientific and religious speculation, this fine novel and its sequels for many stand equal to C.S.Lewis's Narnia series.

A Wrinkle in Time followed the pattern of so much innovatory children's literature by being rejected by more than 20 publishers. Breaking all the unofficial but customary rules about maintaining a carefully controlled vocabulary and choice of subject matter, this splendidly readable tale started out by repeating Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous opening sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night." It then proceeded to quote from Horace andÎ Dante in their original languages, not to mention Shakespeare and the Bible. Also included were diagrams explaining the exact meaning of the term "tesseract" when it comes to understanding travelling in the fifth dimension of time according to the theories of Einstein and Max Planck.

Its heroine, angry and unpopular 12-year-old Meg Murry, was based very much on L'Engle at that age. With her baby brother Charles Wallace and schoolfriend Calvin, Meg sets out to find her physicist father, missing for over a year. This quest takes them to the planet Camazotz and is enabled by three middle-aged guardian angels, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Finally finding her father is not an unmixed blessing for Meg, in that he shares some of the same acerbic qualities of L'Engle's own deceased parent. But, in a memorable showdown, Meg defeats IT, the disembodied brain ruling Camazotz, by using the only tool it has no knowledge of, the power of love, and rescues her brain-washed younger brother into the bargain.

Born in 1918 in New York, L'Engle was the only daughter of the writer and journalist Charles Wadsworth Camp and his pianist wife Madeleine. A much-wanted child, she soon became a bone of contention between parents who had utterly different ideas about how she should be brought up. The end result was a long line of governesses and then boarding schools, most of which L'Engle hated. Coming to believe that she was stupid as well as clumsy, she soon retreated into writing, "to keep myself company, to make myself happy". She wrote her first story aged five and started keeping a journal three years later.

Later, moving around Europe in search of cleaner air for her father, who had been gassed during the First World War, L'Engle continued to attend the exclusive boarding schools he wished for her where she at last began to find some happiness. Majoring in English Literature at Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts after the death of her father in 1935, she had at no time in her education attended any science lessons, making all her later discoveries in that area for herself.

Some theatre acting on Broadway and more writing followed, with her first novel, The Small Rain (1945), drawing on her unhappy experience at a Swiss boarding school. The next year she married a fellow actor, Hugh Franklin, beginning a 40-year union she was later to describe as "an unmitigated miracle". A daughter was born in 1948 and then a son four years later. Giving up the theatre, L'Engle now concentrated on her writing, while her husband bought a general store in the village of Goshen, Connecticut which he ran for the next nine years. During this time the couple adopted Maria, the seven-year old daughter of some friends who had died. They also took in their pregnant teenage babysitter.

When they moved back to New York, Hugh Franklin's return to acting coincided with his wife's first literary success, Meet the Austins (1960). Set in a noisy, affectionate and cerebral family, this was the first of nine titles in which serious issues from death to drug-taking are explored against a background of parental love, and an understated but ever-present sense of faith provided by L'Engle's life-time adherence to the Anglican church.

Her next novel was A Wrinkle in Time (1962), which won the John Newbery Medal for the outstanding children's novel of its year. L'Engle produced a series of children's stories, poetry, plays and books on prayer for the next three decades. Sequels to her greatest success included A Wind in the Door (1973), which uses cellular biology to explain the universe within, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), about the dangers of nuclear war. Another story, Many Waters (1986), takes two members of the Murry family back to the days of Noah.

In 1986 she also lost her husband to cancer. "It was as though I had been amputated or split in two. But death – unless it is murder, accident, suicide – is not an unnatural part of the whole journey of life. Death cannot take away anything two lovers have had. Grief can be acute, and yet clean."

Affectionate and uninhibited, with an interest in everything that came her way, L'Engle was never popular with Christian fundamentalists. She was upset by the many attacks on A Wrinkle in Time over the years – it was one of the most banned books in the United States. Disliking the linking of Christianity with myth and fantasy, and seeing the character of the benign Mrs Which as somehow linked to a belief in witchcraft, her critics were dismissed by the author with an airy "Ah, the hell with it. It's great publicity, really."

Nor was she in any more emollient mood interviewed a year before her death when she was already suffering from poor health and living in a nursing home. "I sometimes think God is a shit and he wouldn't be worth it otherwise. He's much more interesting when he is a shit." Asked if her faith was a comfort, her reply was vintage L'Engle; "Good heavens, no. it's a challenge." Her opinion on a Harry Potter book she had read was, "It's a nice story but there's nothing underneath it." This could never be said of her own novels.

Nicholas Tucker

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