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Grown-Up Reads

Reflections on Faith and Art:
Madeleine L’Engle’s Search for Solace in Storytelling

by Charlotte Jones Voiklis

Some of my earliest memories are of resting comfortably on my grandmother’s lap, absorbed in the stories she told. I grew up on those stories — both “made up” stories and “true” stories about family, passed down from her mother and father and grandparents — and now understand that they were my first exposure to the various ways people live and love and make their way in the world. Her stories grew from her own exploration of a problem or conflict or question present in her own life. At the time I had no idea her explorations served larger audiences. She described her classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time, as her way of reconciling the pain and suffering in the world with her faith in a loving creator.

Gran, or more formally GrandMadeleine, was the only child of parents who, though loving, were busy and distracted. Partly out of loneliness, books became her companions. When she had gone through all the books in her nursery, she started writing her own, and her writing became her way of living courageously and expectantly. Fantasy and story were not her evasion of life, but a vital way of engaging and exploring relationships. In her writing she told and retold incidents and occasions, making and re-making her understanding of what had happened.

She often revisited one particular Christmas. It was 1931. During the summer, she had moved with her parents from New York City to France. They were seeking a kinder climate for her father’s lungs, which had been seriously damaged by mustard gas in World War I, and also looking for a less expensive life as the stock market crash made her father’s work as a freelance writer precarious. Her parents were unhappy and anxious about the move, although for her, at age 11, it was a grand adventure. Then, in September, without explanation, her parents deposited her at a boarding school in Switzerland, leaving her hurt and confused. To make it worse, the semester had already begun and the other girls had formed their groups. She, always shy and awkward, was excluded. She was not to see her parents again until Christmas vacation.

That Christmas vacation proved to be an important developmental step from childhood to adulthood. Instead of the happy homecoming she had imagined, she found her parents distant, preoccupied, and “blue as indigo” (a favorite phrase of her mother’s). As she took in the experience, she came to a new understanding of what it means to grow up. Those days taught her that, though love and circumstances would bind her forever to her parents, she had her own life to live, as they had theirs. It’s a theme she returned to again and again, including in A Wrinkle in Time: for part of what Meg learns is that parents can’t fix everything.

Everyone has those moments of moral growth when our worldview is shattered. Those moments come at all ages, and we’re truly fortunate when we can remake the world with a new understanding. For my grandmother, a writer from the earliest of ages, she made and remade worlds repeatedly, as part of her own search for meaning in the midst of chaos and confusion.

Those Christmas memories of her parents’ unhappiness were intertwined with memories of true, if poignant, happiness of her own: singing carols with her mother at the piano; long walks with her father in the snow; making tree decorations out of the silvery foil that lined the boxes for the cigarettes her father still smoked, in spite of his damaged lungs. And this, too, is part of how she felt about art, about writing: reconciling the pain and joy, through faith, that we don’t yet know the ending of the story.

Her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art is my favorite book of hers. In it, I hear her voice so clearly. In it she says, “…I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life … its tragedy and its glory. It is what makes me respond to the death of an apple tree, the birth of a puppy, northern lights shaking the sky, by writing stories.”

Charlotte Jones Voiklis manages her late grandmother Madeleine L’Engle’s literary business. She lived with her grandmother during college and graduate school, co-hosting dinner parties, helping answer readers’ letters, and earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. Charlotte has worked in academia, nonprofit communications and fundraising, and philanthropy. Together with her sister, Lena Roy, she has written a middle grade biography of Madeleine L’Engle to be published by FSG in 2018. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.