Tag Archives: Madeleine L’Engle

allowed to fail

Sticking my neck out has been something I have learned to do. And I think it’s a good thing.

[…]

Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail. If an ant fails, it’s dead. But we’re allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures. And that’s how I learn, by falling flat on my face and picking myself up and starting all over again. If I’m not free to fail, I will never start another book, I’ll never start a new thing.

—Madeleine L’Engle
in Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery
and Invention (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
via Brainpickings

19: The Joys of Love

The Joys of LoveThe Joys of Love by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

From the Spring 2011 library book sale:

VPL Spring Book Sale

Well, this was a surprise. A new Madeleine L’Engle book? Now there’s dedication. Not even death could stop her writing!

It turns out The Joys of Love was one of the first novels she wrote, back in the 1940s, but it was never published. She shared it with her granddaughters when they were young and they arranged for it to be published posthumously.

The story is based on MLE’s experiences working in the theater as a young woman. The protagonist is Elizabeth “Liz” Jerrold, who is 20 years old and has just graduated from college. Although this was published by Farrar Straus Giroux books for young readers and is probably classified as young adult, it occurred to me that it fits right into the “New Adult” category some publishers are currently trying to make happen. She always was ahead of her time 🙂

It’s August 1946. The setting is a summer theater somewhere on the east coast, near New York City.

Liz’s first love is acting, but her Aunt Harriet (her guardian after her father died) disapproved. Harriet promised that if Liz majored in chemistry (chemistry! I wish more had been done with this) and graduated with honors, she could work at a summer theater. Liz graduates cum laude.

She finagles a scholarship to work as an apprentice* actor, but she still must pay $20/week** room-and-board. Because she doesn’t have any money of her own, Liz is dependent on her Aunt Harriet to pay her room-and-board.

*This position is kind of like an internship, but most apprentices pay for the privilege. So in some ways it’s more like a summer class/workshop that takes place in the real world. At any rate, it’s full-time and doesn’t leave any time for Liz to get a second (paying) job.

**Sidenote: this is not cheap! I did a conversion and apparently this is equivalent to $236.12 in today’s dollars, which is pretty spendy for a bed in a room shared with 3 other people and meals that leave them perpetually hungry.

Liz is infatuated with Kurt, the director, and bffs with Ben, another scholarship apprentice. Kurt, naturally, is a player who’s more interested in one night stands in his dressing room than having a girlfriend. Ben, naturally, would prefer Liz was his girlfriend rather than his bff. Liz is oblivious to Kurt’s fickleness and Ben’s true feelings. Everyone else is not.

The scholarship apprentices are portrayed as serious about acting; the paying apprentices less so.

The inciting incident is Aunt Harriet changing her mind about letting Liz spend the summer doing theater and ordering her to come home. Of course, Liz is an adult and she doesn’t have to do what Harriet says, but she also doesn’t have the $20/week she needs to pay her room-and-board.

It’s not the most original story ever, and modern readers might find Liz a little innocent/naive for a college graduate, but the setting and atmosphere are well done.

I couldn’t help comparing The Joys of Love to Ilsa, the second novel MLE published, which was written around the same time. Ilsa took place over many years and meandered all over the place with a huge cast of characters and various soapy plot developments. In contrast, TJoL is fairly tightly written. The focus is on a small core group of characters and the entire story takes place over a weekend. (In keeping with the theater theme, the chapters are designated as acts: Act I Friday; Act II Saturday; Act III Sunday; Act IV Monday.) I think The Joys of Love is the better story.

Speaking of Ilsa, perhaps the biggest surprise reading TJoL was that  Ilsa herself appears in it. It’s in flashback, when Liz recalls going to her mother’s funeral. Her mother, Anna, spent her final months living at Ilsa’s boarding house. Her propensity for crossover characters has always been one of my favorite things about MLE’s writing, so that was awesome.

Changing Forever

When I was about ten a pen pal came to visit from all the way across the country and I didn’t notice her for a few days after discovering a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins in her suitcase.

“Want to go swimming?” she would ask.  “Want to ride bikes?  Want to watch TV?”

No.  I was reading.  I was busy becoming an Austin.  There were four kids in that family and in my family there was only me, but for the duration of the book and all subsequent readings, I owned those brothers and sisters.  I had to make sure Vicki recovered from her fall off her bike, that Maggie didn’t get Suzie into too much trouble, that nobody froze during the ice storm.  A beloved pen pal paled in comparison.

That’s what reading used to feel like: changing into something better, or at least different, for a short time.  Becoming the characters.  Changing forever.

Andi Diehn

You know I had to quote this. I was just so surprised to see someone else mention Meet the Austins this way.

I suppose it’s funny to list Meet the Austins as a Book that Changed My Life, but it was. (Perhaps the first?) I was 12, the book was a gift/prize from the school librarian for some aborted contest I’d entered (random!), and after meeting the Austins I was addicted to MLE to the point where seeking out all her books was a quest for me for a long time. (I even found/read the elusive Ilsa.) And, arguably, MLE was my entry into literary fiction. So, yeah, defining moment.

November 29, 1918 – September 6, 2007

Madeleine L’Engle died yesterday. She was 88.

Something to think about: L’Engle’s career didn’t really take off until the 1960s, when she was already over 40. A Wrinkle in Time was finally published (after many rejections) in 1962. She continued to publish prolifically into her 80s.

ETA: I made a Madeleine L’Engle category. (Includes my three-part review of the elusive Ilsa.)

Also found this in an old writing file:

Back in the day, I kept my Madeleine L’Engle books on a separate shelf and called them my “special books.” Every time I went into a new library, I’d look to see if there were any books listed that I hadn’t heard of and every time I entered a bookstore, I’d head to the Ls to see if they had any books I hadn’t read.

But I never wrote her a letter.

In fact, the idea didn’t even occur to me until I was out of university and found her book A Circle of Quiet. In the book, she writes about finding an apartment on West End Avenue. She wrote the address. I thought, I wonder if she still lives there? Curious, I headed to the library and looked her up in the NY phone book (on microfiche!) It was listed, not under her name, but under that of her late husband, Hugh Franklin. Imagine that. A reasonably well-known actor and a writer with a listed phone number. So now, I had her address. I even had her phone number. I could write her a letter. I could call. But I didn’t.

I tried to write a letter, but it just came out sounding dumb. You’re my favorite author! I’ve read everything of yours that I could get my hands on! Why is Ilsa out of print? Will you ever write about Vicky as an adult? etc. I couldn’t bring myself to send something so dorky. Eventually I deleted it from my hard drive.

And that was the closest I got to writing a fan letter.

ETA Part 2: Since nearly every tribute I’ve seen begins and ends with A Wrinkle in Time, I thought I’d add this: Madeleine L’Engle’s bibliography and my personal L’Engle collection:

Austin Family. This is my favorite series; The Moon by Night is my favorite of her fiction books.

Meet the Austins, 1960 The Moon By Night, 1963 The Young Unicorns, 1968
A Ring of Endless Light, 1980 Troubling a Star, 1994

Murry – O’Keefe Family. My favorites are A Swiftly Tilting Planet and The Arm of the Starfish.

A Wrinkle in Time, 1962 A Wind in the Door, 1973 Many Waters, 1986 A Swiftly Tilting Planet, 1978
The Arm of the Starfish, 1965 Dragons in the Waters, 1976 A House Like a Lotus, 1984 An Acceptable Time, 1989

Katherine Forrester. The Small Rain was her first novel.

The Small Rain, 1945 A Severed Wasp, 1982

Camilla Dickinson.

Camilla, 1965 A Live Coal in the Sea, 1996

Miscellaneous Fiction.

Ilsa, 1946 And Both Were Young, 1949 A Winter’s Love, 1957
The Love Letters, 1966 The Other Side of the Sun, 1971 Certain Women, 1992

Autobiographical. A Circle of Quiet is my favorite of her non-fiction books. Must-read for writers.

A Circle of Quiet, 1972 The Summer of the Great Grandmother, 1974 The Irrational Season, 1977 Two-Part Invention, 1988

Miscellaneous Non-Fiction. Miracle on 10th Street is a mixture of non-fiction & fiction. Contains two Austin family stories: The 24 Days Before Christmas and A Full House.

Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980 Miracle on 10th Street, 1998

6: Star Gazing

Star Gazing: Charting Feminist Literary Criticism by Andrea Lebowitz

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This was mentioned in my Methods class. At only 69 pages, it’s closer to a booklet than a book, but as far as the yearly book tally goes, it counts!

I got a few good ideas for my thesis from it.

On collaborative work:

[A]nother constant of feminist literary criticism is the success of collaborative work. Feminist literary criticism has put to rest the cliche that good writing must be the work of one person. (p. 6)

And the Other:

[F]eminists have questioned the binary opposites of our culture which see so many things as opposed and mutually exclusive … This type of thinking sees one thing as ‘other’ and inferior to its binary opposite. (p. 7)

Oh, and interestingly: Lebowitz writes that “the two most important precursors” to feminist literary criticism are Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. A Room of One’s Own and The Second Sex “have formed the basis of feminist literary critics’ thinking about gender and writing.” (p. 11) I guess this is not particularly surprising, but what’s interesting about it is that I went through that whole de Beauvoir / Woolf phase and I’ve read AROOO and parts of TSS (it’s long!). I mean, it’s sort of vindicating that some of the stuff I read during that time fits with what I’m doing now. Now that everything is starting to tie together, it feels like there really is a point to it all.

Once I wrote up a list of “books that changed my life.” Meet the Austins (the book that hooked me on Madeleine L’Engle) was on it, as was Writing Down the Bones (the book that got me started writing again). Also on the list: de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.

But I digress. On alternative/indie press:

[Feminists] have created alternative publishing and distribution networks and have founded many presses, journals and magazines. Some of these address an academic audience, while others speak for and from alternative cultural spaces. (p. 15)

On the novel:

[A]re there limits to what stories the novel can tell? … Does its structure, plot, narrative and closure keep women from writing stories other than the old familiar plots? (p. 19)

vs. “sub-literary” forms:

[L]etters, diaries, journals, sketches … have been widely used by women … studies into secondary forms have raised another fundamental question about evaluation. Why are some forms seen as superior? Conversely what makes a form inferior? (p. 20)

[I]dentity is not determined and fixed once and for all, but is rather in process. More fluid and fragmentary forms may offer ways of expressing this condition. … In autobiography and life writing more generally, the author is often not expressing a life already shaped and complete as she is using the writing as a way to express and make a life. (p. 21)

[I]t is not sufficient to use the old forms for new knowledge. We cannot simply reverse male stories, literary forms or critical criteria. Rather, language and form have become places for revision and experimentation. Most notably the private, fragmentary and intimate forms of expression have found a place alongside the public, completed and logical modes of expression. (p. 41)

Ooh. Well, that gives me something to chew on for a while.

Revisions

Writer Cody talks about changes to his novel ‘Ricochet River’

[T]his new version of the coming-of-age novel is missing certain sexual references and profanity that Cody thinks caused some high schools to ban it from their classrooms.

In one, the book’s main characters — all teens — spend the night in a hotel room in The Dalles. It’s a comic scene that has been one of Cody’s favorites for out-loud readings. But it involves alcohol and sex, and Cody understood parents’ and teachers’ discomfort with the messages the scene might send to high schoolers.

Cody removed this scene and toned down another that occurs in the woods near some mating salmon. He also replaced a few expletives.

Caveat: I don’t know this book.

That said, hmm. He says he did it because he understands teachers feeling uncomfortable with those bits in the classroom, not because of right-wing pressure / book banning.

Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t it the stuff that’s uncomfortable that’s most important to deal with–not avoid?

Alcohol and sex is the reality of high school for a lot of people. Aren’t we better off acknowledging and dealing with it directly that than pretending it doesn’t happen?

And seriously, profanity? Profanity is the reality for everyone.

A lot of people seem to want childhood/adolescence to be something that simply doesn’t exist. That never did exist. I think it must be true that when most people grow up, they forget what it was like to be 7, 10, 15.

In one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books (I think it’s Circle of Quiet) she talks about how when she’s writing about being 15 (or a character who’s 15), at that moment, she is 15. When I first read that, it was an “aha” moment for me. I realized that when I was telling a story of something that happened when I was 13, I’d go back there, I’d be 13 again, if only for a moment (people would sometimes comment on how worked up I could get about things that happened years ago, and I guess I wondered if I was weird for still being able to feel my 13yo pain). I think that ability is essential for a writer, but I guess not everyone has it.

Editorial Nudging

Sallie started a discussion at TC about Anne Rice and her aversion to having her work edited. Apparently she thinks she’s so beyond that. As in, she’s not in need of an editor because her work is sheer perfection. Ya, right. Now, it’s true, I’ve never read Ms. Rice. However, there isn’t a writer out there who couldn’t use the assistance of an editor from time to time. So you can probably figure out what I think her swelled head needs. *kick*

I much prefer what Madeleine L’Engle had to say on the subject of editing. From Two-Part Invention:

[M]y first novel [A Small Rain] was optioned by Vanguard … I was fortunate at Vanguard to have a fine young editor, Bernard Perry, who later founded the University of Indiana Press. Bernard somehow managed to make me understand what I needed to do with the shapeless mass of material I had given Vanguard, to refine it and tidy it until it became a novel.

Then a little later:

[M]y second novel [Ilsa] was accepted, with enthusiasm. But, alas, Bernard Perry was gone. There was nobody at Vanguard at that time to tell me that what I had submitted was an excellent first draft but that my manuscript needed work, a lot of work.

I have been blessed with editors who have pushed and prodded me, made me go back to the typewriter and rewrite and revise. This second novel needed that kind of editorial nudging and didn’t get it.

The End

Well, I finished it yesterday afternoon. A few things I forgot to mention:

There’s a scene in a drugstore when Henry first gets back from Paris. Three little girls are sitting at the counter. The first orders a chocolate sundae. The second orders a pineapple soda with chocolate ice cream. The third says, “I think I’ll have a douche. Mamma says they are so refreshing.”

I just thought that was funny because it showed more of a risque sense of humor than I would have expected from Miss M.

Also: they call Coke, er, Coca-Cola, “dope”. Anyone ever heard that before?

And just for Sal: she mentions scuppernongs without explaining what they are. Hee.

Anyhow, Ilsa & Henry went to the theater to see a touring company perform a bunch of plays. Ilsa had never seen a play before and she was enthralled. They ended up meeting the lead actor, Franz, and he & Ilsa hit it off. He obviously wanted Ilsa to go with him when he left, but she didn’t.

Shortly after Franz left, Ilsa went blind and Monty drank some bad moonshine and died an agonizing death, leaving Ilsa with a mound of debt.

Then we skipped ahead in time 11 years. Ilsa took in boarders and taught piano to make ends meet. Her daughter, Brand, was now 19. Henry continued to lurk about and do nothing of substance. Also, strangely enough, although 11 years had passed, he had only aged 9 years 😉 (He was 24 in the previous section and 33 in this one, LOL. I’m not terribly surprised with this discrepancy. Miss M often makes timeline errors. She says she is bad at math and I believe her!)

Anyhow, Cousin William’s adopted son, Lorenzo, has his sights set on Brand, but Brand is afraid to leave Ilsa on her own (she thinks she will attempt suicide). One of the boarders is Joshua, a young writer. He’s written a novel, which has been sent out and rejected many times. He’s working on a second, but has basically given up, and is hiding out, unwilling to return home (he’s a Northerner) because he’s a failure. At the end of the story, his first book is accepted, and he comes back to life. Another boarder is an old teacher of Henry’s, Myra. She drinks to numb her disillusionment and is going to pieces. She’s the only character who speaks of God, and it’s in a bitter, cynical way.

Franz the actor passes through town. He’s as unsuccessful as Henry is, but at least not as stagnant. He and Ilsa are still in love, but Ilsa won’t go with him, because it would cause a scandal, and that would ruin Brand’s chances of living happily in the town. Lorenzo got a scholarship to a University in Wisconsin. Everyone expects that Brand will marry Lorenzo. I guess they expect that he will return in 4 years and she will wait.

The only people who have turned out well are Silver & Eddie (who we never see because he’s always busy working).

Henry eavesdrops on Franz and Ilsa. He tells Silver. Silver is like oh, Henry you’re so pathetic, get off your ass, stop pining over Ilsa and do something with your life! She says Eddie can get him a job if he wants it. Henry takes her up on the offer.

Violetta has become nasty and gossipy but no one has the guts to tell her to shut up and shove off. She barges in just as Franz & Ilsa are saying goodbye and ruins it and yet no one smacks her. Which is what she deserved. A good hard smack. Instead Henry walks out into the rain and gets wet.

The End.

Okay, overall, what struck me about this book. First of all, I see it a classic second novel. Her first was also classic in that it was “autobiographical”, and by that I mean not that it was about her, but it was very much based on her own real life experiences. For this book, she put it in a familiar setting (her mother was from the south and she lived there with her grandmother for a time) and I’m guessing that some of the characters were based on IRL relatives & such, but it looks like a first real attempt at plotting. Hence, a lot of melodramatic soapy elements, while at the same time the characters don’t do a whole lot.

That said, I liked it. I mean, partly that’s because I can see the context, and as a writer, I enjoyed dissecting it. She wrote her first few books while she was working as an understudy. The theater influence comes through, not just in the obvious, but also I think in the way the characters speak and act. I found this book, like others from her early years, less censored than her later efforts. That she was disillusioned with religion at this point in her life is pretty clear. And that’s interesting, considering where she went later in life.

Another reason not to dismiss it, is that the writing is strong. The characters may not be doing anything, but she does a good job of describing them doing nothing 😉 Yes, it could use tightening, but this is mostly in the realm of using the same word/phrase too many times, not horrible grammatical errors or anything.
Problems with it: Henry is the narrator, but we don’t really see him do anything except for pine over Ilsa. He doesn’t appear to have any other interests. This makes him rather one-dimensional.

Also, this book was published when she was 27/28, so I’m assuming it was written a year or so before that. It’s almost as if she didn’t know what to do with characters when they got to be older than she was at the time of writing, so she killed them off, or had them “go away”.

But honestly, I’m perplexed as to why this hasn’t been re-issued. It’s really not that bad. Think about all the crap out there! And there’s also no reason why it couldn’t have a go-round with a good editor before being re-issued (a couple of her early books were re-issued in the 80s with changes). So I don’t know. Maybe she feels it doesn’t speak for her where she is now. But that’s kind of revising history, isn’t it? Obviously this is what she believed then.

More!

Okay, so Aunt Elizabeth’s lovechild was stillborn. End of that story, I suppose.

Ilsa married Monty & had a child. Later, she had a miscarriage, so no more kids for them. Silver married Monty’s brother, Eddie, and had 3 kids. Monty’s twin, Violetta had already married Cousin Anna’s son, Dolph. She had a miscarriage, so no kids for them. Apparently Miss M was under the impression that if one had a miscarriage, one could no longer have children.

Meanwhile, Henry was in Paris. He was gone for 8 years, through the war and after. Maybe he was hanging with Scott, Ernest, Gertrude & Ford Madox Ford. >ahem< He was supposed to be going to school & studying violin, but he was a dissipated youth, and instead took his monthly installment from daddy and spent it on the usual: wine, women, and song. Specifically, he hooked up with a distant cousin who was a nightclub singer & pawned his violin to buy her prezzies. He has a pleasant enough time with her, but naturally, he can’t get Ilsa out of his head.

So he comes home & his father’s all disappointed in him and people are variously changed and not. Monty’s letting his father’s law practice rot because he doesn’t like to work. Eddie OTOH is working his ass off. Dolph is bald. Ilsa & Monty’s marriage is unhappy, but there’s a spark between them and Henry thinks they would be happier if Ilsa was Monty’s mistress instead of his wife. They all seem kind of old & tired, but by my calculations, none of them are yet 30.

Oh yeah, and Ilsa’s going blind. They haven’t actually figured this out yet, but it will happen. Unless she dies (cough! cough! thud!) beforehand. Hee! It’s all quite melodramatic and dare I say, soapy.

Update…

I finally started reading it. The story so far…

It’s narrated by a boy named Henry Randolph Porcher. At the beginning of the story he’s 10, but where I am now, he’s 15. We jumped a few years. I’m assuming it’s going to jump ahead again at some point. It’s set in the south, near Charleston. And early in the 20th C. Where I am now there’s a comment about “you know there’s a war in Europe” and I’m assuming that’s WWI. Earlier, they were still using carriages & cars sounded like “newfangled” items.

Anyhoo– in the beginning Henry has “run away” from home & meets Ilsa Brandes & her father. He spends the day with them because he’s in trouble and he doesn’t want to go home. When they do take him home, they discover the town is on fire & Henry’s house ends up burning down. Henry & family end up living in a hotel somewhere else for 5 years until his mother croaks (literally, think cough, cough, thud) at the ripe old age of 37. Ancient, I tell you! Henry’s family is of the rich, old, inbred sort. They hate Ilsa & her father, because he was in love with one of the clan (Elizabeth), but they wouldn’t let him marry Elizabeth, because he was poor white trash, apparently, so he ran off to Europe and married Ilsa’s mother (who then promptly died in childbirth). Meanwhile, Elizabeth was >gasp< pregnant. Elizabeth is dead, dunno what happened to the baby yet.

So when Henry’s mother dies, they move back to their house, which has been rebuilt so it’s exactly the same as the old one. While they were gone, Ilsa’s father also conveniently died (no cough cough, he died of a mysterious fever), so she’s had to move in with Cousin Anna, who is I think, the only relative Henry likes. Henry’s cousin Monty has his sights set on Ilsa much to the chagrin of Henry’s sister Silver. Henry hates Monty so he’s pissed off on several levels because of course he likes Ilsa.

Well that’s about it so far. Possible controversial bits:

In the opening part, Ilsa & Henry go swimming… without bathing suits (she’s 13, he’s 10).

A lot of oblivious racism w/ regard to how the black characters are portrayed. So far there’s been a chain gang, a bunch of crazy people running away from the fire, and a lot of servants, who all talk with “Gone With the Wind” type phrasing.