A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

Is it too repetitive to tell you that A Wrinkle in Time changed my life?  It opened up the world for me, both the world of literature and my life.  I was camping, with my parents, right before my sister was born, and I remember trying to explain to my mother what A Wrinkle in Time was like.  She is not a reader and I think she was baffled, but she nodded and smiled as I described to her what it was like to be in Meg’s world.  I want to read everything she has written, but I don’t ever want to run out.  Slowly I’m reading her books that I’ve never read.

In any case, when I found myself wandering around a used bookstore a few weeks ago and I found a large portion of the shelf devoted to Madeleine L’Engle books, I purchased almost their entire stock.  Included were the first two books of The Crosswicks Journals, A Circle of Quiet being the first one.

This book was like sitting down with Madeleine L’Engle and having a conversation.  She talked about everything, from society, to her past and present life with her husband and children, to sex and marriage, to religion.  She states very plainly at the beginning of the memoir, “I will undoubtedly contradict myself, and that I will mean both things” (32) and I took that to heart throughout the reading, because L’Engle often contradicts herself or believes contradictory things, but she never apologizes for it.  And reminds us that “an acceptance of contradiction is no excuse for fuzzy thinking.  We do have to use our minds as far as they will  take us, yet acknowledging that they cannot take us all the way” (32).

The Crosswicks Journals are a series of memoirs that begin with A Circle of Quiet, detailing several summers at the Crosswicks cottage, Madeleine and her husband Hugh’s summer home.  L’Engle repeatedly discusses ontology, something I admit I had to look up:

thephilosophical study of the nature of beingexistence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations (from Wikipedia).

In that sense A Circle of Quiet is an ontological study of L’Engle herself, by herself.  If that sounds self-indulgent, maybe it would be if L’Engle’s thoughts weren’t so interesting.  She has an opinion about everything, and I would be lying if I said I agreed with absolutely everything she wrote about.  I don’t, but I never doubt that if I’d had the chance, we could have had a lively debate with no hard feelings.  I was very interested, as I imagine many readers are, of L’Engle’s religious beliefs.  Unlike other authors, say CS Lewis, who have a distinct doctrine in their texts, L’Engle’s books always had an air of religion, but nothing explicit.  And frankly, if you’re looking for some direct answers, most of L’Engle’s contradictions are when she talks about religion.  But I kind of liked that, because who really has all the answers about something so big as religion or religious beliefs?  If someone says they do, I have to admit, I’m not going to believe them.

Madeleine gives advice throughout the memoir, on everything from relationships and raising children to writing.  I treasured especially her advice to writers, young and old, experienced and inexperienced.  Some of my favorites:

Inspiration does not always precede the act of writing; it often follows it.  I go to my typewriter with reluctance; I check the ribbon; I check my black felt pens; I polish my collection of spectacles; finally I start to put words, almost any words, down on paper.

Usually, then, the words themselves will start to flow; they push me, rather than vice versa. (162)

Why do you write for children?’  My immediate response to this question is, ‘I don’t.’  Of course I don’t.  I don’t suppose most children’s writers do.  But the kids won’t let me off this easily.

If you want to raise my blood pressure, suggest that writers turn to writing children’s books because it’s easier than writing for grownups; so they write children’s books because they can’t make it in the adult field.

If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children.  If a book is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended and I am dishonoring books.  And words. (198)

This book was published in the 70s and the world has undoubtedly changed a lot since then.  L’Engle made some predictions for the future and I would love to be able to hear her reactions in relation to those predictions and how the world actually turned out.  I wish I could have known L’Engle.  I wish I had written her a letter when I was that 9 or 10 year old girl whose whole  world changed when she read one slim book.  But this memoir is as close as I’m going to get and I guess I will have to be satisfied with that.  At least I still have two more to read…

A few more favorite quotes:

The language of logical argument, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate.  But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith. (194)

Probably my favorite passage from the entire book:

During one dinner, Alan mentioned that men who feel  that it is not God who is dead, as some theologians were then saying, but language that is dead.  If language is to be revived or, like the phoenix, born of its own ashes, then violence must be done to it.

This seemed to me to be a distinct threat.  If language is dead, so is my profession.  How can one write books in a dead language?  And what did he mean by “doing violence to language”?  I began to argue heatedly, and in the midst of my own argument I began to see that doing violence to language means precisely the opposite of what I thought it meant.  To do violence to language, in the sense in which he used the phrase, is not to use long words, or strange orders of words, or even to do anything unusual at all with the words in which we attempt to communicate.  It means really speaking to each other, destroying platitudes and jargon and all the safe cushions of small talk with which we insulate ourselves; not being afraid to talk about the things we don’t talk about, the ultimate things that really matter.  It means turning again to the words that affirm meaning, reason, unity, that teach responsible rather than selfish love.  And sometimes, doing violence to language means not using it at all, not being afraid of being silent together, of being silent alone.  Then, through thunderous silence, we may be able to hear a still, small voice, and words will be born anew. (133)

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Rebecca Reads also wrote a post about A Circle of Quiet.  Did you?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll add your post here.

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8 thoughts on “A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

  1. I really loved A Wrinkle in Time as well, though haven’t managed to read many other of L’Engles’s works. I’ve loved all that I have read though. This sounds fantastic and definitely like something that I would like. Scurrying off to put it on my wish list now!

  2. […] Regular Rumination – “This book was like sitting down with Madeleine L’Engle and having a conversation . . . She has an opinion about everything, and I would be lying if I said I agreed with absolutely everything she wrote about.  I don’t, but I never doubt that if I’d had the chance, we could have had a lively debate with no hard feelings.” Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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