L’Engle’s Cosmic Catechism

Drawing of Madeleine L’Engle by Tom Bachtell
Madeleine L’Engle; drawing by Tom Bachtell

Madeleine L’Engle, a fixture in the lives of generations of American children and teenagers as the author of the classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, looked back on the 1950s as her “decade of failure.” After finding critical success in the 1940s with fiction for both young readers and adults, she had a run of persistent bad luck. One novel went unpublished; the next found a home only after years of effort. She and her husband had moved from New York City to run a general store in rural Connecticut, where many knew her simply as “the grocer’s wife.” After she received a rejection letter for another book on her fortieth birthday, in 1958, she wondered if she ought to give up writing and focus on being a housewife and mother to her three children: “Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie,” she told herself. A practicing Christian who was active in the local Congregational church, she also had begun to struggle with her faith.

During the summer of 1959, L’Engle and her family embarked on a cross-country road trip. At night, after the children had gone to bed, she read books of higher math and physics by flashlight. As she recalled in “How Long Is a Book?,” a lecture from the early 1970s that is included in the second volume of the Library of America’s recent collection of her writings, she was seeking a light in the dark: “Not just to learn the various theories of the creation of the universe, the theories of relativity, of quantum [mechanics], but because in the writing of Sir James Jeans, of Einstein, Planck, I got a vision of a universe in which I could believe in God.” In the work of scientists and mathematicians, she continued, she found “a reverence for the beauty and pattern of the universe, for the mystery of the heavenly laws which argued much more convincingly to me of a loving creator than did the German theologians.” Driving through the Painted Desert in Arizona—an environment “as much out of this world as any of the planets” she later imagined in her fiction—she turned to the children and announced that she was going to write a new novel about three characters whose names had just come to her: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. (L’Engle deliberately left off the period after the “Mrs” in their names, to emphasize that they were “extra-special as well as extra-terrestrial.”)

The book that L’Engle wrote after returning home was, of course, A Wrinkle in Time, which was published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux after being rejected by at least two dozen publishers. It won the 1963 Newbery Medal and has become one of the best-loved, as well as best-selling, children’s books of the last…

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