Astonishing Research–Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L'engle letter found 36 years after mailed, astonishing research, Wheaton College Special Collections library, Francis Schaeffer

A Madeleine L’Engle letter astonished me in 2013 at Wheaton College.

I had traveled to Wheaton College’s Special Collections Library to research  Oswald Chambers.

While I waited for the archivist, I noticed a table full of pamphlets detailing other writers whose manuscripts and letters also were in the collection.

Wheaton has quite a selection: Francis and Edith Schaeffer, C. Everett Koop, Irina Ratushninskaya, Susan Howatch, Frederick Buechner and, there she was, Madeleine L’Engle.

After I introduced myself to the librarian, I laughed about Madeleine L’Engle. “Gee, I wonder if you’ve got the letter I wrote her a long time ago.”

Archivist Keith Call smiled. “Maybe.”

Hunting in an archival box

Caught up in Oswald and Biddy Chambers’ writing–including the thrilling moments I held their Bibles–I didn’t think again about Madeleine L’Engle until I wondered if maybe I could take a photo of Madeleine’s Bible and write a blog post on Bibles perhaps? I see it, too, references Ms. L’Engle).

I asked about her Bible while Keith examined an archival box at another table.

“I haven’t got it. But I have found her letters from 1977.”

I froze.

He smiled. “You probably didn’t have the same name then, did you?”

“It sent it the summer before I got married,” I stuttered.

“Does this number sound familiar? 1525 Fifth Street?”

My word.

He found my letter.

Holding a piece of my past

Tears blurred my eyes as I took the blue stationery, words written in my then-loopy handwriting on both sides. I swallowed.

I remembered writing the letter (see this post) but not the length.

Madeleine L’Engle had saved it, along with the envelope and a carbon copy of her response. I Letter to madeleine L'englesuppose that’s what you do when you’re a famous author and you get a lot of fan mail.

I lost my copy  long ago and I’d not seen my handwritten letter since I dropped it in the mail box.

Here it is, written two weeks after I graduated from UCLA.  I cringe to read this now, recognizing my youth. I remembered my earnestness and desire to connect with someone I admired.

(You’ll note I addressed her by her married name–I knew information like that. Still, I was surprised to see the publishing house forwarded my envelope to “Mrs. Hugh Franklin”).

My letter

September 7, 1977

Dear Mrs. Franklin,

I don’t know how many times I’ve been tempted to pick up my pen and write you how much I appreciate the stories and people you’ve shared with me in your books. And each time, except this one, I’ve put the pen aside and said, “No, I don’t want to bother her with something unimportant. I don’t really have anything to say.” But, too bad this time, I want to write and tell you I’ve loved your books.

I’m moving through A Circle of Quiet now for about my fifth time and it’s a new joy each time I read it. I feel like I know you, as if I were one of your young friends chancing in on a conversation at the Cathedral and it’s fun!

I remember the first time I found out you were “struggling to be” a Christian. It was Christmas time three or so years ago (before I’d read A Circle of Quiet or Lines Scribbled on an Envelope.)

We were casually circulating through the bookstore at our church when I saw a book of Christmas poems (I can’t remember the title, but I suppose you know it anyway). Your name was on the cover with a bunch of others and a light went on in my head as I gasped joyfully, “She’s a Christian!”

The next summer, following my first year at college, I read everything you’ve written, many for the umpteenth time. And I could pick out hints of your love for the goodness, the LOVE, and your fearful determination to face the darkness of evil.

I love the light too and I share a horrified knowledge of the blackness coming over the world. And that’s why I’m so glad so many people, so many children, read your works and remember that some love does exist in the world; whether it be family, agapé or Godly.

There are a lot of “I”s in this letter and I (!) feel a little self-conscious because of it. This wasn’t intended to be gushy, but rather a confirmation of appreciation. You’ve taught me so many things and made me really THINK about ideas and attitudes. Your desire to express the vitality of the English language is one I shout amen to. I also love the way you keep mentioning your fallibility. It’s nice to think you’re human too!

When I was in New York a couple weeks ago I had a free day before I caught my plane back to LA. I sat down and tried to think what I’d really like to do now that I was in this important center of so much. I jumped up and thought, “I’ll go find Madeleine L’Engle!”

But the city is large and it was summertime and no one really knew what I was talking about when I asked where the Cathedral was so I never found you. Perhaps another time in the winter.

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter and thank you for enduring those long ten years without an acceptance. I appreciate your struggles.

God bless you richly,

It amuses me to see those determinedly underlined titles, THINK in capitals and the accent mark on agapé. I so wanted to be “one” of hers.

Her influence

Reading it now, I see my youthfulness with different eyes and am surprised, delighted, amazed that some parts of this letter reflect who I still am.

I’ve long been conscious that I adopted some of the parenting traits L’Engle described in her book Meet the Austins. I act like the mother in that story every time I turn on classical music LOUD when I clean. The strange times I choose to paint things, is just like Mrs. Austin. The reading aloud, cooking, affectionate names–all were part of my mothering style that I did not learn from my mother.

While I was never a member of Madeleine’s young women friends, I have been the older woman to a delightful chorus of young women floating in and out of our house. I’ve talked long into the night on important issues–just as Madeleine used to. I’ve done stints in libraries.

It took me only seven years of waiting to be published–but I knew not to expect instant acceptance because of Madeleine L’Engle’s career.

I learned so much from her.

Madeleine’s reply

Madeleine L'engle letter found 36 years after mailed, astonishing research, Wheaton College Special Collections library, Francis Schaeffer

Madeleine L’Engle (Wikipedia)

Her response to my letter was generous and gracious.

September 25, 1977

Dear Michelle:

Thank you, indeed, for your wonderful sharing letter. The next time you are in new York, I do hope that you will find the Cathedral, which is at Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street. It will have to be in the winter, because I am seldom there in the summer.

It pleases me that you think A Circle of Quiet is a friend to you, and I hope you will read the two books which follow it, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother and The Irrational Season.

I have just finished a new fantasy, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which follows A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. It is the fantasies which stretch my thinking the most.

I think you might also like two of my adult novels, The Other Side of the Sun and The Love Letters, both of which contain a considerable amount of theological searching.

Thank you, again, for your letter.

Sincerely yours,

Madeleine L’Engle

She must have had some sort of a form–who could keep up otherwise? Like a good writer, she pointed to her other books–all of which I had read and loved.

My reaction?

I remember receiving that letter a week before my wedding–standing in the living room, shaking with awe she wrote back.

Of course I never looked her up.Madeleine L'Engle letter

But I’d touched a hero and she’d recognized me if only for a fleeting response. I hope I remember to be as gracious to others in my life as Madeleine L’Engle.

If you’re a Madeleine L’Engle fan, which is your favorite book? Click to Tweet

Mine?

A Ring of Endless Light.

For this exciting experience, thanks be to Keith Call. Thanks be to Madeleine L’Engle. Thanks be, of course, to God.

Tweetables:

Finding a long-lost Madeleine L’Engle fan letter. Click to Tweet

My fan letter as a Wrinkle in Time? Click to Tweet

Leave a comment

24 Comments

  1. Kim

     /  June 14, 2013

    Michelle, you never cease to amaze! What a great story!!!

    Reply
  2. JVoss

     /  June 14, 2013

    I always wanted to heat up dinner on a bunsen burner! Never did that, but I did let David do all kinds of science experiments in our kitchen. I like her journals, but “A Wrinkle in Time” is my favorite book.

    Reply
  3. I read every word of your post and of both letters, and find it so beautiful. Thank you for this window to your heart.

    Reply
  4. Gilda Weisskopf

     /  June 14, 2013

    Oh Michelle, you must have been absolutely thrilled. I get chills just thinking about it. To think that a letter you wrote years ago is archived in a library special collection. Although I know I will never find any of my letters any where (since I don’t remember writing letters), I do remember the thrill I got when I found my great grandmother’s application for A Civil War pension. i could only stare at it for the longest time. My great grandmother’s actual handwriting. Or was it? Could she actually write or was it filled in by someone else? I don’t know. But I will always believe it was her handwriting. Your blog is always full of exciting posts and information. Thank you for being such a diligent researcher and writer. Gilda

    Reply
  5. Michelle, thanks for sharing your treasured experience with that fabulous writer. I felt a kinship with you from the first post I read. Your enthusiasm is great. Glad you stuck your neck out to contact Ms. L’Engle; it’s the sort of thing I do from time to time, and then I always wonder if I just got carried away. We need to be not so inhibited.

    Reply
  6. Wow. Kindred spirits.

    I love A Ring of Endless Light too.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, Michelle.

    Reply
  7. Oh Michelle, Thank you so much for sharing this, two blessed writers whose hearts opened up before us because you shared your letter and Ms. L’Engle’s in this post.

    Reply
  8. Wow. How cool is this?

    Reply
  9. Two weeks after this experience, I still have not sorted out my feelings. I’m still astonished, bemused, a touched embarrassed, awed and thankful. And yes, Gilda, it does remind me of the marvel of holding a piece of paper with my long-dead ancestor’s handwriting.

    This is real. It’s connected to me. I’m the same. I’m different. I can’t believe it.

    And yet, as my husband and I sort out a challenging situation in our current life, I go back to the incredible surprise of finding a letter I wrote 36 years ago. If God can give me back that brush with my past, how hard can it be to solve the current problem?

    🙂

    That fills me with hope and faith; I’m very grateful.

    Reply
  10. This is astonishing indeed! Everything you shared really spoke to me about the power of touching the life of a young reader. I went after a stack of reader mail this morning with new enthusiasm thanks to your beautiful story, Michelle. Thanks for posting all the lovely details of your discovery.

    Reply
    • Ah, Robin, and you more than most have seen (read) the affect on young people because of your books. Including my own daughter! Blessings to you, as always.

      Reply
  11. rockinlibrarian

     /  June 17, 2013

    OOOO! (Here via a tweet from the Madeleine L’Engle twitter feed). What an amazing experience. Now I’m wondering if she would have saved the letter I sent her in 2001, or if by that time she’d gotten so much fan mail over the years and had become much too frail to deal with any unnecessary cataloging anyway– if she didn’t throw it away, would probably just have ended up in a huge bag of undifferentiated letters. And I can’t imagine she saved a copy of the response (of course by then it was done on computer, so it wouldn’t have been a carbon copy anyway). Mine WAS mostly form letter– a kind of general response to people who said similar things about A Wrinkle in Time I guess– with a one-sentence individualized response in thick pen at the top. That alone was enough to make me frame it, and years later hang it in the room of my daughter whom I’d named Madeleine, three guesses why! It was so touching to know that someone I’d never met, who nonetheless meant so much to me, had thought about me long enough to share that one sentence with me! How much more amazing to find out your letter had been well-kept-track-of!

    Reply
    • I agree, I can’t imagine how she could have written, or at least dicated, all those letters, but it was a wonderful to have received one for the same reasons you mentioned! I’m awed at the time writers took even then to keep in touch with their readers.

      Reply
  12. I never wrote to a famous author (unless you count writing to a few as their editor), but after Mom died, we discovered she had saved all her cards and her letters. I assume she also reread some periodically. It made me glad I’d written to her often through the years! And it made it seem more important that I had done so, and more important that I continue to write periodic handwritten letters to people I love.

    Reply
  13. I, too, wrote to Madeleine L’Engle. As part of a grad class in 1988, I was asking her questions about the importance of family in her novels, especially the interconnected stories of the chronos and kairos time series. She was gracious in her response to me, as well. I met her in Ft Wayne that year and took my 5th grade class to see her at the library. I think I was more excited than they! Later, in the late ’90’s (not sure of the year… Child raising blurred my time compass back then!) she came to Hawaii and led a writing workshop or something like that. I was given the opportunity to sit with her for a few moments and for the life of me, couldn’t even tell you what we talked about. All I remember was the odd sense of familiarity I felt as we sat together, .almost as if all those years spent reading every single book she ever wrote was a family connection,. Somehow I became Vicky and Poly and Emily and Camilla for a moment. Not to mention how moved I was the years spent reading The Summer of the Great Grandmother and Circle of Quiet.
    Thanks for the memory, Michelle! I knew we shared our love of L’Engle at some point during your Hawaii years.

    I wonder if my letter is in the collection…..

    Bless your during this time of unsettling.

    Reply
    • I never met her, so you’re way ahead of me, Nancy! But I knew we were kindred spirits all those years ago so your comments don’t surprise me at all. The power of her writing is the characters remain with us–one of the reasons I finally read Anna Karenina is because Mrs. Austin suggested it!

      She provoked strong reactions, too. I detested House Like a Lotus–I actually threw away my copy–and when I went back to reread it years late, could better see what she had done but I still don’t like that book. There are several novels that I think are off. But her narrative non-fiction was always very encouraging and enjoyable.

      I also appreciated her comment that she needed her editor. She could only write so far and then she needed help. I’d like to know who that editor was who helped Madeleine make her books so wise and beautiful.

      Mahalo!

      Reply
  14. Just WOW.

    Reply
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