Madeleine L’Engle: Awesome or Annoying?

I just finished re-reading Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle, and I definitely revisited some of the great, warm-fuzzy moments of L’Engle’s books. Like, there’s the kind, sage grandfather, who lives in a converted stable surrounded by books, with wonderful poems painted onto the walls. And the home life described is wonderfully rich, with Mother cooking something delicious, and Bach playing on the phonograph, and children being terribly interesting, and all of that.

But then, there’s the other side — the side I find hard to bear. At some point in every L’Engle book, one of the characters — usually a child, who is terribly mature, will turn and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a nice family? And isn’t Mother so wonderful? And how nice, that in our very special family, the young sensitive child is valued, and  we appreciate God and we sing hymns when the power goes out, and everything is so terribly real — not like in other families? Yes, isn’t it nice that we are all so much more cultured, individualistic, close to our humanity and so on than other people who weren’t lucky enough to have this wonderful family?” …and so on.

Yes, it’s that part I find a bit hard to bear. And over the years, I’ve found there’s a bit of a club — the smart girls who devoured L’Engle when they were children, but who just can’t quite like her now. As my friend J. once said of the characters in those books, “Yes, they’re all a bit too…special. A bit too smug.”

That’s it: smug.

You see, children want to feel loved and accepted and appreciated for their own special selves, and as the reader of one of these dramas you are, in effect, the unofficial sibling to all the characters in these books. So when the young children in the books say —  in a way I have never heard any actual child speak ever — “Aren’t we lucky to have this perfect family with pot roast in the oven and singing and a lovely mother who calls me Megatron?” then you, as a child, sigh and say, “Ah yes, I would like that.” Because children really like things to be nice and pleasant and functional, and they’re more attentive about the pot roast, less so about the exact method of pot-roast delivery, as it were.

But for adults, seeing an adult who is so very self-congratulatory about it all — especially if they are self-congratulatory about how very enlightened they are — well, it’s just like nails on a chalkboard.

That said, Madeleine L’Engle books were such a thorough part of my childhood that they’re now, for all intents and purposes, part of my DNA.

And so, in honor of the good things I’ve gotten from them, here is a lovely poem which I first read in the Austin series, and whose phrase, “replete with very Thee” has stuck with me (inaccurately) through the decades.

The internet has some discussion on the proper author, so I am just going to quote the poem:

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — “This is not dead,” —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — “This is enow
Unto itself — ‘Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”

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