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Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters

Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters

by Charlotte Jones Voiklis, Lena Roy


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This middle-grade biography explores the life and works of Madeleine L'Engle —written by her granddaughters.

This elegant and insightful biography of Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) was written by her granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy. Using never-before-seen archival materials that include photographs, poems, letters, and journal entries from when Madeleine was a child until just after the publication of her classic, A Wrinkle in Time, her granddaughters weave together an in-depth and unique view of the famous writer. It is a story of overcoming obstacles—a lonely childhood, financial insecurity, and countless rejections of her writing—and eventual triumph. Becoming Madeleine will speak not only to fans of the icon’s work, but also to anyone interested in writing.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374307646
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,119,018
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Charlotte Jones Voiklis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and manages Madeleine L'Engle's literary legacy. She lives in New York City.

Léna Roy works with young writers in Westchester and Connecticut as the Regional Manager for Writopia Lab. She is also the author of the young adult novel, Edges. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt


Before Madeleine

Madeleine's mother, Madeleine "Mado" Hall Barnett, grew up in Jacksonville, a city in northern Florida on the Atlantic Ocean. She was a classically trained concert pianist who had studied in Berlin.

Madeleine's father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a novelist and journalist. He was born near and educated at Princeton University, "up North" in New Jersey.

In many ways they were opposites. Charles at twenty-eight was gregarious, confident, and handsome — over six feet tall, with thick fair hair. Mado was much more reserved. She had always felt herself to be an ugly duckling, and at twenty-six she was considered an old maid.

They met when Charles came to Jacksonville for his sister's wedding. Mado was standoffish at first, unsure that his attentions were sincere. But they quickly fell in love and married in 1906, and Charles whisked her off to New York City.

Mado and Charles settled in a two-bedroom apartment on East Eighty-Second Street. Charles reviewed plays, wrote novels, and later was a foreign correspondent for magazines such as Collier's and The Century. He traveled abroad frequently for his work, taking steamships across the ocean to places like London and Paris as well as Cairo and Shanghai, and was often accompanied by Mado. Charles's work also meant that he and Mado rubbed elbows with both high society and a world of artists. Although they loved to entertain, they couldn't afford to throw lavish dinner parties, so they instituted a tradition of simple Sunday-night suppers. Their friends would pile into their tiny apartment, a few of them would cook a meal, and Mado would play the piano while they all sang. Everyone had a glorious time. (Mado enjoyed playing for friends and at small gatherings, but she was terrified about playing in public.)

Then came the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Charles went to Europe twice for magazines — first to cover the war in France in 1914, and then to report on the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. He also wrote a nonfiction book about that experience called War's Dark Frame, published in 1917, just before the United States entered the war.

Charles enlisted in the army as a second lieutenant and was sent to fight in France in 1918.

His war experience, as both a journalist and a soldier, had a deep impact on him that reverberated throughout his and his family's life. When describing her father, Madeleine recalled that he was horrified and repelled by the destruction and devastation he had witnessed. Later, Madeleine said that the war had killed him; it just took him seventeen years to die. She, too, had a lifelong terror of war.

Mado and Charles both desperately wanted children, and had been trying for more than ten years. Charles, the youngest child and only boy in his family of six girls, was eager to have a boy to carry on the family name. When Charles was deployed in early 1918, Mado was two months pregnant. Even though Armistice was declared later that year, on November 11, Charles was still on active duty when, early in the morning on November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, Mado went into labor.

It must have been a difficult delivery, because Mado wasn't able to write to Charles until two weeks later.

December 13, 1918

My dearest husband —

If you could see your little flower of a daughter, I am sure you would forgive her for not being a boy. Oh my dear, I am so thankful that she is here and healthy and perfect and I wouldn't exchange her now for all the sons in the world.

She is considered a perfect miracle in the hospital and every one is interested in us, and so if you were only here to share my happiness. It is worth all the long months of waiting and the hours of agony at the end. Dear one, I have been pretty sick and am hoisted up in bed for the first time this afternoon. Baby is two weeks old today. [A cousin] phoned yesterday that your mother had sent you a cable yesterday afternoon. I wonder if you have had mine sent November 30 and if you know what a proud father you should be? It seems so strange not to have heard from you yet. I got your letter of Nov 21 a day or two ago. There was nothing between that and the one of Nov 13 I received Thanksgiving Day, so I must have lost one at least.

I do hope you have had a nice time on your leave and that your cold is gone. I have worried over your ears, dear. Never mind about the promotion dear. It is hard luck but lots of others have been treated the same way and I am so happy that you are safe and whole. Nothing else matters. Have you any idea yet when you are coming home? It can't be so long, yet every week will seem an eternity now.

I have two good nurses dear. My day nurse is the very best in the whole world I am sure. I just love her dearly and she is good to me and the baby. I hope you approve of baby's name — Madeleine L'Engle. I think it just suits her and thought you would want her named Madeleine. I must stop now dear. I'm pretty wobbly but very very happy.

Will try to write again in a day or so.

Your loving wife, Madeleine


A New York City Childhood

When Charles finally returned to New York in May 1919, he and Mado were thrilled that the war was over, that they were back together, and that they had their much-longed-for child. Charles resumed his work as a journalist, reviewing plays and writing his own plays, novels, and short stories.

Madeleine's parents loved her, but the pattern of their married life had already been well established over the twelve years they had been together before she was born: dinner at eight, adult conversation, evenings out, and sleeping in. Even as a young child, Madeleine was content eating alone in her room — with her feet on her desk and her plate on her chest — and going to bed before her parents sat down to their more elegant grown-up dinners.

They often went to plays, operas, and symphonies, and they would come and kiss her good night before they left, her father in top hat and tails, smelling comfortingly of Egyptian tobacco, whiskey, and starched linen, and her mother also elegantly dressed and smelling deliciously of expensive perfume.

Her parents still had those casual Sunday-night suppers, and Madeleine would sometimes sneak out of bed and listen from the hallway to the music and the conversation. While some children might have observed and fantasized about being a grown-up someday, Madeleine saw it as fascinating and curious, but not something she wanted for herself. She sensed that childhood was only very short in the scheme of things, and she wanted it to last.

Her parents, however, disagreed about how to raise her. Mado hadn't had much formal education, spending her childhood in Florida with lots of cousins and play. She thought childhood should be carefree. Charles had had a much more traditional school experience and therefore wanted a more structured upbringing for his daughter. Charles usually won their disagreements, and he was insistent about sending his daughter to the best schools, whether his daughter liked it or not, and whether he and his wife could afford it or not. (His pocketbook, Mado was fond of saying, "waxed and waned like the moon.")

Charles was prone to depression and sometimes withdrew from his wife and child. When he emerged from his darkness and turned his attention once more toward his daughter, it was as if the sun were shining on her again. His moodiness did not stop Madeleine from adoring her father, and being a little bit in awe of him. He was a force in the world: charismatic, confident, and charming. She watched him writing, absorbed in his creation of stories — real and fictional — and saw that it gave him both pleasure and frustration. He wrote a first draft in longhand and then typed it out on a typewriter. As a war correspondent, he typed his dispatches directly. When Madeleine was ten, he gave her his old typewriter, which she used into the 1950s.

One of the ways her father shared his love of stories with his daughter was through opera. The first time he took her was when she was around eight. It was a production of Madame Butterfly. Madeleine had no idea what to expect, but she was immediately drawn into the story and the music. It started like a beautiful fairy tale, a love story between a naval officer and a young Japanese woman. But when tragedy befell Cio-Cio-San at the end, Madeleine was deeply shocked and upset. She didn't want to disappoint her father, so when he asked if she had enjoyed the opera, she said that she had, and he had no idea that she was traumatized by the sad ending. The next time he took her to see an opera — Pagliacci — she asked him as they sat down if this story had an unhappy ending, too. When he told her it did, she began to cry and did not stop until her father took her home, before the curtain even rose.

Madeleine spent more time with her mother, who was often home practicing the piano for hours at a time or writing daily letters to the family and friends she had left behind in Jacksonville. The two would visit Jacksonville several times a year, traveling on the overnight train. They stayed with Madeleine's grandmother Caroline Barnett, whom Madeleine called "Dearma." There were lots of cousins there, too.

Like Charles, Mado was a wonderful storyteller. Many of the stories she told Madeleine were about Mado's grandmother, the first Madeleine L'Engle, who had had not only a glamorous adolescence in Spain in the 1840s as the daughter of the U.S. ambassador, but also adventurous early days of marriage to an army doctor traveling throughout America's western territories and across the Isthmus of Panama before there was a canal. Then, widowed early during the Civil War, Mado's grandmother had worked as a nurse at an army hospital and eventually settled in Jacksonville. Mado would also recount stories that her father, Bion Barnett, had told her about his wild childhood in Kansas. He would tell his children the stories after dinner, while he smoked a cigar, and Mado always kept an eye on his lengthening ash, knowing that when it fell, the stories were over for the evening.

Madeleine and her parents traveled by ship to Europe several times when she was young, visiting Grandfather Bion, that cigar-smoking storyteller, and his common-law wife, Louise, whom Madeleine and her cousins called "Gaga." Grandfather Bion was a wealthy banker who lived in various places in France and Monte Carlo. Later Madeleine would recall idyllic wanderings around the French countryside, provisioned with bitter chocolate, sweet butter, and sour bread, which she said taught her how to mix flavors and textures in both her cooking and her writing.

Aside from her parents, the adult who meant the most to her was Mrs. O'Connell. Mary O'Connell — whom Madeleine called Mrs. O — came several times a week to the Camps' New York apartment to help Mado with the cooking and cleaning, and she took a special shine to the young Madeleine. And Madeleine adored her. Next to her strict and formal parents, Mrs. O was a breath of freedom and a glimpse into a wider world. Mrs. O, who thought Madeleine was overprotected, would often bend the rules.

For example, Madeleine was confined to her Upper East Side neighborhood, but Mrs. O took her on the subway to other parts of the city — on adventures to Greenwich Village and even to the Bronx, where Mrs. O lived. A devout Roman Catholic, Mrs. O would sometimes take Madeleine to church to attend Mass or to light a candle for someone in pain or trouble. But Madeleine and Mrs. O agreed to keep these outings a secret because they knew her parents would not have approved.

Madeleine also loved exploring her Upper East Side neighborhood with her parents or Mrs. O — the tree-lined streets; the tall, elegant buildings; and especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She visited its galleries whenever she could, enthralled by the creativity and history on display. Her girlhood memories of New York City remained strong throughout her life, and she always thought of it as her home.


Trouble at School

Madeleine enjoyed school in the early grades, but things changed in the fourth grade, when she switched schools, and going to class started to become a painful, diminishing experience. With one leg slightly shorter than the other, she didn't have the same athletic prowess as her classmates and so was always picked last for any team. She quickly gained a reputation for being both clumsy and stupid, for she was shy and reticent. Her peers treated her badly, and her teachers graded her to their own expectations instead of Madeleine's actual performance. Thus Madeleine learned that making an effort for the teacher simply wasn't worth it. When she went home, instead of doing homework, she turned to her own reading and writing. Grandfather Bion sent her books and magazines, and she wrote stories. After all, that's what her father did. She also wrote poetry.

One day that first year at her new school, Madeleine's French teacher refused to let her go to the bathroom even though she asked repeatedly to be excused. And so she wet her pants. When questioned by Mado and the headmistress, the teacher defended herself by lying, saying that Madeleine had never asked to be excused. But Mado believed Madeleine, and that was a comfort, although watching an adult lie and get away with it was devastating to Madeleine.

The next year, in fifth grade, there was a poetry contest that was open to the entire school and judged blindly. Madeleine entered one of her poems. When it won and she was revealed as the writer, her teacher insisted that Madeleine couldn't possibly have written such a good poem and accused her of plagiarism. Outraged and indignant, Mado took samples of Madeleine's poetry to the school and showed them to both the headmistress and the teacher, who was forced to concede that Madeleine was a good enough writer to have written that poem after all.

When Madeleine wasn't reading and writing after school, she was taking art and piano lessons. She was also forced to take dance lessons, which she detested so much that her instructors proclaimed she was "unteachable." It was a pretty miserable — as well as formative — few years: from then on, Madeleine carried with her the feeling that she was awkward, inadequate, unattractive, and stupid, feelings that made her acutely grateful for any acts of kindness and affection that she did receive from others.

Madeleine did have one friend with whom she played occasionally. April Warburg, the daughter of a wealthy banker, was as much of an outcast at school as Madeleine was, and just as dreamy. Sometimes Madeleine would go over to April's house, a mansion on Fifth Avenue. April's parents weren't around, but there were multiple servants — butlers, ladies' maids, governesses — and Madeleine was struck by the different kind of isolation April endured: one in which she was not alone, but lonely. She saw how removed her friend was from her parents and from affection of any kind, and she was thankful for her own relatively close relationship with her mother and father.

Then Madeleine's father's health started to fail. When he was in the army, his unit had been gassed by enemy forces during the war, and the effects of the mustard gas had left him prone to severe and life-threatening bouts of pneumonia. He also smoked and drank heavily, which exacerbated his fits of coughing and his headaches. Mado was worried about Charles's health, but he seemed more concerned with the fact that his writing work was drying up — it was difficult to support a family as a freelance journalist, and his fiction wasn't selling as it had before the war. He caught pneumonia and was warned that he should find a more healthy place to live: the dirty, smoggy air of New York City might kill him. Could they possibly leave the city? Their life was there. If it was difficult getting writing assignments in New York, how much harder would it be elsewhere?

And then the stock market crashed in October 1929, and a great many people were in financial trouble, including Madeleine's parents. They decided they had no other choice: the summer after Madeleine finished sixth grade, they packed their clothes; put their furniture, piano, dishes, and silver into storage; and moved to the French Alps, where there was clean mountain air and where, at that time, it would be less expensive to live.


Excerpted from "Becoming Madeleine"
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Copyright © 2018 Crosswicks, Ltd..
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 3

Before Madeleine 7

A New York City Childhood 15

Trouble at School 23

Switzerland 29

From Child to Teen 41

The Eustace Affair 57

Senior Year 65

The College Years 75

The Best School for a Writer 85

Making a Living 101

Work and Love 109

Marriage and Children 117

Making the Leap 139

Epilogue 151

Authors' Note 161

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