THE MOMENT OF TENDERNESS
By Madeleine L’Engle
In “A Wrinkle in Time,” an adolescent girl’s fury is nothing to be renounced — instead, it’s ammunition to be stockpiled in the battle against evil.
“‘Stay angry, little Meg,’ Mrs Whatsit whispered. ‘You will need all your anger now.’” Mrs Whatsit’s words are radical, written as they were decades before the Riot Grrrl and Girl Power movements and their celebration of female wrath. Meg Murry helped pave the way for Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior. With some heavy-duty extrapolation, one might say that Murry’s spirit can also be found in the environmental activist Greta Thunberg (mocked by the president of the United States for being “very angry”), Parkland’s gun control advocate Emma González (called an unimpressive “skinhead lesbian” by one Republican candidate) and countless other young women who have harnessed their outrage into political movements against powerful forces.
When asked, Madeleine L’Engle once admitted, “Of course I’m Meg.” For years, L’Engle fought a culture that scorned girls’ emotions and intelligence. She also faced off against a myopic publishing industry. “A Wrinkle in Time” — a book of speculative fantasy woven through with physics, metaphysics and theology — was rejected by 26 publishers before it found a home. Editors questioned whether the audience would be adults or children. The story was not what people expected from middle-grade fiction; perhaps most galling, the book was not just one thing at all. Meg — and maybe Madeleine — could be angry, but also impatient, loyal, insecure, determined, underachieving. Of course a girl — a person — is never just one thing either.
After L’Engle’s death in 2007, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter, found 40 stories spread among three houses. “The Moment of Tenderness” is a collection of 18 of these works dating from the 1940s and ’50s, the years leading up to the writing of “A Wrinkle in Time.” Taken together and arranged largely chronologically (both in terms of when they were written and the protagonists’ advancing ages), the stories are more postcards from a writer’s beginnings and her artistic, spiritual and emotional evolution than full-fledged narratives in their own right.
[ Read an excerpt from “The Moment of Tenderness.” ]
L’Engle never hid the autobiographical nature of her fiction. Raised on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and later South Carolina, she was the shy, reflective only child of a writer father and a pianist mother. The first pieces in this collection are quiet stories of girls individuating within the family or at school. In “Gilberte Must Play Bach,” a young girl listens uneasily to her mother play the E minor Toccata on the piano in a desperate effort to distract herself from the German occupation of Paris, where the family used to live. L’Engle’s signature protagonist soon emerges, a begrudging nonconformist, often an unpopular, lonely girl not afraid to hit others or cry with abandon. “It’s good to have something to cry about sometimes. That’s how you grow,” one girl is told by a camp counselor in “Summer Camp.”
L’Engle would come to learn that the sting of loneliness and, yes, anger could be mitigated by self-acceptance and wonder, a retraining of one’s gaze outward to nature. Set in the time of the Civil War, “White in the Moon the Long Road Lies” features a young Southern woman who plans to move north to teach and anticipates missing the dunes and porpoises of the shoreline near her home, if not the “narrow-minded” people who disapprove of her plan. Her brother tells her, “You clung to the ocean and all its moods because it’s really the only thing you have to cling to, except the family — and you don’t really fit with us, either.”
In some stories, the philosophical and uncanny are tethered to the ocean and the cosmos. Some of the earlier stories read more like fragments and incidents than complete narratives. In L’Engle’s parlance, they appear to the reader like stars. They flicker, not fully visible, but stirring nonetheless.
As the book progresses and the protagonists move beyond childhood, L’Engle explores the interplay between men and women, often humorously. Many stories feature young women trying in some way to recreate themselves in order to escape a sense of oppressive smallness. Themes of ostracism — mostly that of intelligent young women — emerge anew; some of the characters want to become actresses, but don’t fit in with their fellow actors or meet the casting director’s needs. L’Engle herself spent six years playing small roles on Broadway, and used the time between scenes to write her first novel, “The Small Rain.” She met her husband, Hugh Franklin, during this time.
The title story is set in a fictional, insular small town in Vermont, where newcomers rankle old-timers. A married woman newer to the town becomes fixated on the warmth of a welcoming local doctor’s touch, something she has missed at church and in the country club: “It is not love I want from him, just those little moments of tenderness.” A couple of the stories were later revised and turned into passages of memoirs. L’Engle and Franklin moved from New York to an old farmhouse in a small Connecticut town. Always religious, L’Engle became the choir director at her local church. In “The Foreigners,” characters named Madeleine and Hugh find themselves caught between newcomers and old-timers, and Madeleine questions whether she will ever feel truly at home anywhere.
The trajectory of a writing career typically bends toward confidence and risk-taking, and L’Engle’s was no different. “The Fact of the Matter” edges closer to the fantasy and science fiction elements of her later work. This story also shows her affection for old women — and a sense that with time and perspective, young anger can morph into hard-won wisdom, as well as humor and mischief. Old Mrs. Campbell fears her daughter-in-law’s nefarious motives and finds herself drawn to the Church of Satan. In “Poor Little Saturday,” which dabbles in Southern Gothic, a lonely teenage boy meets a witch woman of indeterminate age — she may be as old as 100 — who “was the most extraordinary woman I had ever seen. I felt that she must be very beautiful, although she would never have fulfilled any of the standards of beauty set by our town.”
“A Sign for a Sparrow,” the final story, shows L’Engle fully at ease blending disparate elements. The story is an odd mix of prayer, travel narrative that recalls “Star Trek,” strikingly lovely poetic language and political statement. Set in a future of war and disarray, it features a cryptologist preparing for a space journey to find a more habitable planet than Earth. Scientists and men of God are pitted against each other, and the cryptologist and his wife struggle to hold onto their faith. He tells her, “I have to keep on trying for the kind of world I would want your baby to grow up in.” At times, the story is eerily prescient. It also leaves the reader primed for L’Engle’s most popular novel.
“The Moment of Tenderness” reflects not only L’Engle’s growth as a writer but her search for her own personal philosophy, one that ultimately recognized opportunity and authenticity in nonconformity. When encountered in this particular moment, her comfort with duality — with writing for children and adults, joining realism and fantasy, science and theology — evokes nostalgia for a time when science and religion were not so regularly and blatantly weaponized for political ends. The label of “New Age” be damned, L’Engle shared with her readers her great capacity for wonder, and her refreshingly earnest desire to tunnel deep inside the human heart and expose its power to generate and regenerate hope and love — even in the face of eviscerating darkness.