Personal: Hugh Franklin on Madeleine L'Engle, and a New Book
For the first time since her death last September, I've had the heart to pick up one of Madeleine L'Engle's books again, starting reading her again most sensibly, perhaps, with her first novel, the critically-acclaimed 1945 effort, The Small Rain. I went online a bit ago to look something up about her and I discovered this lovely little bit on her, published back in 1963, by a fellow who never quite mentions up front that he is married to her. Along with this was the discovery that a new work of hers has been published through the efforts of her granddaughters, The Joys of Love, which apparently is a story she had written in the early 1940s.
AFTER READING Madeleine L'Engle's novels people may think they see a similarity in some of her teen-age heroines — the gangling, awkward ugly duckling trying to find her way through adolescence — and may think the author has written of her own childhood. Well, if Meg Murry and Vicky Austin have bits and pieces of the young Madeleine L'Engle, their mothers have large chunks of the mature Madeleine Franklin, chief cook and bottle washer for a husband, daughters, fifteen and thirteen, a son, eleven, a collie and a cat, all living with joyful noise in a rambling old apartment near Columbia University. The hubbub of the home, with the hi-fi blaring out Bach, Brahms, and Bernstein, the telephone always jangling, the doorbell clanging, the dog barking, is a much more faithful backdrop for this tall, statuesque woman ("I have the same dimensions as Gypsy Rose Lee—or I used to") than her shy and sensitive heroines would have us believe.
The shy and sensitive girl, if ever she was that, has developed into a volatile, dynamic woman. With an interest in and a curiosity about everything except newspapers ("I don't have time — you're supposed to tell me when there's an article I should read") she is ready every morning, as soon as she wakes up and her feet hit the floor, to discuss anything from Aristotle to Zen Buddhism, to the bewilderment of a cantankerous husband who can't even comment on the weather until he has had his second cup of coffee. She devours books ravenously, thinks it immoral to pass a bookstore without buying something, and is always eying the walls of her home for space to build new bookshelves. Impetuous, she believes in doing immediately whatever she thinks has to be done, to the consternation of a procrastinating husband. And she still has enough of the child in her to relish Christmas as few people do. Starting on Thanksgiving Day, she replaces Bach with carols, and during Advent she adds decorations to the house each day, some of them out of her childhood, worn with age but rich in nostalgia. If ever she was inhibited she has outgrown it. Trying to find a taxi, especially when traveling with the whole family at rush hour, she has been known to throw herself on her knees on the pavement of Park Avenue, with hands upraised, hoping some taxi driver with a sense of humor will stop, a practice frowned upon by her husband. Prone to exaggeration ("Of course I exaggerate — I'm a writer"), she can't resist making everything a little bigger than life, with hundreds becoming thousands and thousands becoming millions. She even refers to Chekhov's Three Sisters, as Four Sisters, and Orwell's 1984 as 1985. She can't help it.
She claims that her graduation from Smith cum laude was a mistake, that she slipped through on the gift of gab. ("I'm not intellectual—I'm instinctual.") She tells of going to an exam in Survey of the Novel and finding such questions as "What color dress was Jane Eyre wearing when she met Mr. Rochester?" at which she marched to the front desk, grabbed a handful of blue books, and scrawled, "Dear Miss C- - - -: These are silly questions and I don't know the answer to any of them. But I have read the books, loved them, and shall now proceed to tell you what I think of them." She got an A.
After Smith she decided that if she wanted to write plays the best place to learn was in the theater. She got an audition with Eva Le Gallienne and Margaret Webster and won a small part in Uncle Harry ("They were sick of hearing Lady Macbeths and Juliets — I used my own material, which was fresh to them"), followed by a small part in The Cherry Orchard. In the latter play she met an actor. A year later he got up the courage to propose and they were married in Chicago while on tour with Ethel Barrymore. ("It was so romantic—we met in The Cherry Orchard and were married in The Joyous Season.") Shortly thereafter her retirement from the theater was announced to her by her husband, who felt one actor in the family was enough, wrote out her resignation from Actors' Equity, made her sign it, and told her to get back to the typewriter.
How much of her writing is autobiographical only she can say. She was born and brought up in New York City (Camilla Dickinson) as Madeleine L'Engle Camp, daughter of Charles Wadsworth Camp, a critic, author, and playwright ("I didn't want to trade on his name so I dropped the Camp when I was first published"), and Madeleine Barnett Camp, a southern gentlewoman who gave her the family name of L'Engle. The Swiss-French family of L'Engles had come to Charleston and northern Florida in the 1700s. As a teen-ager she went to a boarding school in Switzerland (And Both Were Young) and came back to New York after college to make her way in The Arts (The Small Rain). In 1951 the Franklins left New York, her husband having given up the theater "forever," and moved to their summer home, a 1770 farmhouse in northwestern Connecticut (Meet the Austins). They bought the old general store in town, built it up for six years, found the dizzy pace of life in a small town too much, and returned to the peace and quiet of New York and the theater, first taking the family on a long camping trip (The Moon by Night). It's difficult to say how A Wrinkle in Time might be autobiographical; she has never explored outer space (though her husband wouldn't put it past her) but, without a foundation of characters she "knew," such a flight of fantasy would have no basis in reality and would lack its appeal.
Most of the young people who write Miss L'Engle want to know how one becomes a writer. Her answer is a simple "By writing." She explains that she always knew she was going to be a writer from the time she was able to hold a pencil, that writing is as essential a part of her as eating and breathing, and that she still gets cross if kept away from her desk more than a few days. Being unable to get words down on paper doesn't mean that she has stopped working, however; she always is turning over in her head various plots and characters, and her family has learned that unusual silences or absent-minded replies to their questions or extra time spent at the piano playing fugues means that she is in the middle of a scene and shortly will disappear into her room to write.
She also is asked by would-be writers how to get published. Her first advice is to start with what they know, with their own experiences, rather than trying too soon to make up plots and unfamiliar characters. Then she tells them not to start at the top in submitting their manuscripts but to try the small, non-paying magazines. It was in one of these that James Henle, then owner of Vanguard, saw a story by her and wrote asking if she had anything else to show. She replied that she just happened to be working on a novel, and when she finished The Small Rain, written in dressing rooms during Uncle Harry, he published it to critical approval.
Four of her eight novels have been for adults even though adolescents figure in most of them. When Camilla Dickinson came out in 1951 Harrison Smith in the Saturday Review compared it favorably as the female counterpart of a brand-new book, The Catcher in the Rye. Although none of her plays has reached Broadway, a few have been tried out in summer stock and the most recent one, Letters of a Portuguese Nun, will be made into a movie next year with Natalie Wood, and Miss L'Engle is at work on the scenario.
Lest anyone think a writer's life consists of nothing but cashing royalty checks, she always emphasizes that she has had her fair share of rejection slips and has never developed calluses to them. Each rejection is a personal affront, a biased opinion that her baby is a moron. Her family learned early that, when a manuscript is making the rounds and, instead of a phone call of acceptance, a small, thin envelope from a publisher arrives, there will be several days before the sun can shine again. They remember not too long ago when a publisher kept a manuscript three months (always a hopeful sign) and then returned it two days before Christmas, and they remember her brave but futile attempts to keep the joyous season joyous that year. The book? A Wrinkle in Time.
A recent article about her ended with "In the intervals between these activities she reads and leads a quiet life." ("HA!") Her quiet life consists of teaching three classes at the school her children attend, St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's, directing their Christmas pageant at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, working on their book bazaar, and helping on various committees. Otherwise, her time is spent answering telephone calls from friends who think books and plays spring full-blown from her forehead with no necessity for time to write. She has often threatened to rent an office, with no telephone, to which she can escape during regular office hours; but somehow the thought of being out of touch with the family, not being home when the children get out of school, not being able to do the marketing and get dinner started early, has kept this only a dream. No matter how essential writing is to her, her family always seems to come first. To the world of literature she may be a writer who happens to be a mother, but to three children she is Mother, a warm, exciting woman who happens to be a writer. And to her husband, even after seventeen years, she is still the most fascinating, most exasperating, most stimulating, most outrageous, the most understanding and the most fantastic wife he has ever had.
Hugh Franklin, during his acting career, has appeared on Broadway and in stock-company productions, in television plays, and in motion pictures. Oklahoma-born and Northwestern-graduated, Mr. Franklin has worked with such people as Helen Hayes, Eva Le Gallienne, John Gielgud, and the Lunts; and his recent theater appearances include roles in The Best Man, with Melvyn Douglas, and A Shot in the Dark, with Julie Harris.