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By Charlotte Jones Voiklis
I was about nine years old, curiously but quietly poking about my grandmother Madeleine L'Engle's manuscripts so as not to disturb her writing and risk losing the privilege of keeping her company in her "Ivory Tower" while she worked. The Tower was just a room over the garage in the eighteenth-century New England farmhouse where she and my grandfather had lived and raised three children during the 1950s and where they still spent weekends, holidays, and long stretches of summer. I'm not sure who christened it "the Tower," but the name was used ironically by both her and the rest of the family, an acknowledgment of the privilege of solitude and time. The manuscripts I was poking about in were housed in repurposed ream boxes with words like "Eaton" and "Corrasable Bond" on the sides, and in black three-ring binders whose leather casings were beginning to crack. There were dozens of boxes and binders, including ones with A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish, and A Wind in the Door written on them, but I wasn't interested in the manuscripts of stories that could be read as real books: I was more curious about the scraps and stories and studies in the other boxes. I came across "Gilberte Must Play Bach" in one of those. I'm not sure why I stopped to read this particular one, but I liked the French name in the title, and the imperative. The story was strange to me, and sad, and although the girl in the story was named Claudine, I understood it to be autobiographical. The sadness of the story—and its unresolvedness—shook me and gave me a glimpse at the depth of things we might discover about the people we love.
When my grandmother died in 2007, there were papers and manuscripts distributed among three different houses and an office. It's taken time to organize and inventory those materials, and it's also been a considerable emotional journey for me to read, assess, and come to the decision that these stories should be shared publicly.
When I read "Julio at the Party," an onionskin manuscript held together with a rusty paper clip and folded in half, tossed in a box of artifacts, books, and papers, I thought at first that the story must be by some other writer who had given it to her in a class, or over tea or coffee for comment. However, on a second read I recognized details—the nickname Horrors, the malapropisms of the title character—that convinced me it was indeed hers. I later found that the short story had been taken from an unpublished novel manuscript, written and rewritten several times in the 1950s, called Rachel Benson (or, alternatively, Bedroom with a Skylight).
More exploration over time into the loose-leaf binders and manuscript boxes revealed more than forty short stories, most written in the 1940s and 1950s, when she was first an aspiring playwright, then a promising novelist, and then a despairing writer who struggled to find a publisher. All but one were written before A Wrinkle in Time, the 1962 classic that made her career, and I date that one story post-Wrinkle because of the unique typeface of the typewriter she used—oversized, square, and sans serif. It was an early electric typewriter and I remember the satisfaction and mastery I felt when my fingers were strong enough to prevail over the resistance the keys provided. That story, called "That Which Is Left," shocked and shook me, too, because of the narrator's selfishness.
The earliest stories were written for college creative writing classes. The manuscript for "Gilberte Must Play Bach" has teacher's comments and a grade (A–). Some have more than one version, reworked over time, and there is one bound manuscript of collected short stories called Stories from Greenwich Village, which was compiled in the early 1940s when she was working as an understudy and bit player. She lived with a rotating band of roommates in the Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village, which at the time was an affordable haven for artists and "bohemians."
The stories collected here are arranged in a loosely chronological order, and you can see her growth as a writer. The first five are the earliest, and in each the protagonist gets progressively older, almost a cumulative coming-of-age narrative. Many of these earliest stories were re-imagined and revised and appeared in other forms in later work. In particular, her novel Camilla has a scene similar to "The Birthday," The Small Rain incorporates much of "The Mountains Shall Stand Forever," and "One Day in Spring" is a scene that is later revised in The Joys of Love. Later stories, too, were incorporated into other books: "A Room in Baltimore" and "The Foreigners" were revised as episodes in Two-Part Invention and A Circle of Quiet (which also mentions Julio's party).
Several of these stories were published in Smith College's literary magazine. "Summer Camp" was published in New Threshold, a national journal of student opinion, and it was that story that caught the attention of an editor at the publishing house Vanguard, who wrote to Madeleine and asked her if she was working on a novel. She wasn't, but she quickly got to work on The Small Rain. "Please Wear Your Rubbers" was published in Mademoiselle, and "Madame, Or…" in The Dude: The Magazine Devoted to Pleasure. "Poor Little Saturday," a story that combines Southern gothic and fantasy, has been anthologized a number of times. Some stories have multiple drafts, and those collected here are from the most complete and finished versions.
A great deal in these stories is autobiographical, especially in those that carefully observe an intense emotional crisis. One doesn't have to be familiar with Madeleine's biography to enjoy them, but it does add a layer of interest and understanding to know that her childhood was marked by loneliness, that her adolescence was spent in the South, that she was an actress and a published writer before she married, and that her early years of motherhood were also years that she described as being a decade of intellectual isolation and professional rejection.
The most surprising story to me is "Prelude to the First Night Alone," which I understood only after learning more about her friendship with Marie Donnet while my sister Léna Roy and I were doing research for our middle-grade biography Becoming Madeleine. Marie was Madeleine's best friend in college, and together they moved to New York City to pursue theater careers. The friendship frayed as their circle enlarged and they had different opportunities and rewards. Their breakup was devastating to Madeleine, and "Prelude," written shortly after, is raw and imperfect and fascinating for this reason.
The rest of the stories are in a variety of genres: there's satire, horror, and science fiction, as well as realism and the careful observation of human interaction and moments of change or renewal. In "Summer Camp," the protagonist fails a moral test. "That Which Is Left" has an unreliable narrator. In "Madame, Or…" and "Julio at the Party" there are subtle adult sexual themes. "The Foreign Agent" has a protagonist who struggles against a controlling writer mother, and "Poor Little Saturday" and "The Fact of the Matter" have elements of fantasy and horror that highlight Madeleine's skills at pacing and suspense.
In some ways only a tiny handful are what may be considered "vintage L'Engle," or the kind of story a knowledgeable reader might expect from her: one in which challenges are overcome and growing pains are real, but so, too, is the promise of joy and laughter. Even the title story in this collection is bittersweet, as the moment of tenderness becomes a memory and something apart from the main character's daily life. The final story, "A Sign for a Sparrow," is set in a post-apocalyptic future, with Earth no longer able to sustain life after nuclear war and civil society in disarray. The only hope for human beings is to find other habitable planets. The main character is a cryptologist who must leave his wife and child in order to find a better world for them and the rest of Earth's inhabitants. His journey and what he finds at the end of it recalls what she said of her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time: that it was her "psalm of praise to life," a story about a universe in which she hoped to believe.
In another way, though, all of these stories are indeed "vintage L'Engle" in that they resist fitting easily into "young adult" or "adult" categories. She always insisted that she was simply a writer, with no qualifications or labels. When A Wrinkle in Time was making the rounds of publishers she would be asked by skeptical editors, "Who is it for? Adults or children?" and she would respond in frustration, "It's for people! Don't people read books?" These stories, too, are for people, and while some feature younger protagonists, they also span a range of genres and styles. Additionally, most of these stories resist a resolution and a tidy triumph for the protagonist (a feature that some would argue is the necessary hallmark of books for younger readers). Taken as a whole these stories express a yearning towards hope—hope for intimacy, understanding, and wholeness. In moments of despair or seasons of doubt, that yearning and its depiction can feel more authentic and optimistic than more neatly resolved narratives or stories with overtly happy endings.
She couldn't sleep because tomorrow was her birthday. Tomorrow she would be a year older and it was Sunday and Mother and Father would be with her all day long and perhaps she could go skating with Father on the pond in the park if it was still frozen and there would be presents and she could stay up an hour later. She lay in bed staring up at the pattern of light on the ceiling from the rooms across the court, from the rooms of the people who hadn't gone to bed yet. Cecily slipped out of bed and stood by the window, shivering with cold and an ecstasy of anticipation. In one of the windows was the shadow of someone undressing behind a drawn shade, someone pulling a dress over her head, and then a slip, and bending down to take off shoes and stockings. What was she thinking while she got undressed? What did other people think? What did other children think when they weren't with Cecily? And that was funny. Cecily had never realized that they thought at all when they weren't with her. She felt very strange, and puzzled, and cold. She turned away from the window, shivering, suddenly frightened, because people must think when they get undressed at night, not only people across the court but strange people on the street, people she passed walking to the park and the children who played in the park. She turned on the light and stood in front of the mirror, looking at herself, frightened because people thought while they were getting ready for bed and didn't think about her because she wasn't the most important thing in their lives at all. All the people she passed in the street didn't know who she was and wouldn't remember that they had passed her, a little girl with long fair plaits. That was frightening. That was the most frightening thing she had ever known. She did not know why she had thought of it. Perhaps because tomorrow was her birthday. But if that was what happened to you because you had grown another year older, she did not want any more birthdays even if they meant presents and a party. She stared hard at the thin little face in the mirror for comfort, because here she was, and she was Cecily Carey, and this was her world. It was her world because she had been born in it, bought from a balloon man and guaranteed absolutely, Mother had told her so, and Mother and Father were hers and Mother and Father were the most important people to everyone in the world but she was the most important of all to them. She was Cecily Carey, bought from a balloon man with white hair and red cheeks and blue eyes, Mother had told her so—she was Cecily Carey and she was very frightened because the world had changed all of a sudden and it wasn't hers anymore and she didn't know who owned it.
She started to cry, and she ran and got back into bed and cried loudly, shivering and frightened. And no one came. Someone had always come when she cried. Mother had come and held her and comforted her and brought her drinks of water. She cried and she cried and no one came.
"Mother!" she called. "Mother! Mother! Mother!" She kept on calling, shrilly, and by and by the door opened and Mother came in and her face was very tired and drawn and she looked different. "Mother!" Cecily sobbed, "Mother!"
Mother sat down on the bed and held her close. "Hush, darling," she said, "hush, Cecily. You mustn't make so much noise." And her voice was different, too. Or was it because of the world being different? Cecily didn't know and she was frightened.
"Mother," she sobbed, but more quietly. "Mother, who does the world belong to?"
"What, baby?" Mother sat huddled on the bed, and she swallowed strangely when she spoke.
"Who owns the world, Mother?"
"God owns the world, dearest."
"Did he make it, too?"
"Yes, my sweet, God made the world, and he made you, too."
"Did God give me to you?"
"But I thought you bought me from the balloon man."
"The balloon man got you from God."
"Oh. And it's God who owns the world? Not anybody else?"
"No, dear. Nobody else owns the world." Mother was stroking her head, running her fingers through the long fine hair, but she was looking at the door as though she were listening. "Are you all right, now, darling? Will you be quiet and go to sleep now if I leave you?"
"Is it very long till morning? Is it very long before it's my birthday?" Cecily asked, becoming drowsy as the thin gentle hand ran over her forehead and back through her hair.
"The sooner you sleep, the sooner it will be your birthday," Mother answered, and kissed her, and stood up. "Will you be quiet now, baby?"
"Yes." Cecily snuggled down into the pillow sleepily, and watched Mother slip out of the room, and she was frightened because Mother swayed as she walked. But she was sleepy and tomorrow would be her birthday and she would have lots of presents and Mother and Father would be with her all day because it was Sunday.
She woke up very early because she always did on her birthday, and all the fears of the night before were gone and instead she had the lovely birthday feeling of anticipation and happiness and excitement and mixed up with it a new feeling as though she was going to make a marvelous discovery. She slipped out of bed and caught a glimpse of herself in the long mirror on the closet door that she had stared into the night before. She didn't run out of the room and into bed with Father and Mother right away, as she usually did on her birthday and on Christmas, but wandered slowly over to the mirror. She stood with her feet on the cold floor just off the edge of the rug and stared into the face of a pale child with wide eyes and a nightgown like hers. And all of a sudden she wasn't thinking at all. The child in the mirror was someone and she was someone and she wasn't sure who because she didn't know either of them and they weren't the same person, and she wasn't there at all, because she wasn't thinking, because her mind was quite blank. And then something in it seemed to go "click." This is me. I am Cecily Carey. I'm me, I'm me, I'm really me, and this is what I look like standing on the floor with my feet just off the edge of the rug, staring into the mirror in my room. This is my birthday, this is the birthday of Cecily Carey, and I'm a real person just like the people across the court, like the one who got undressed with the shades drawn last night, like the people I pass on my way to the park, like Mother and Father and Binny and Cook. I am me, I am Cecily Carey and no one else, and no one else is me. The world is God's and God made the world and the balloon man got me from God and gave me to Mother and I am me because he guaranteed me absolutely.
But it was all very confusing, staring at yourself in your mirror standing with your bare feet on the cold floor just off the edge of the rug so that they ached because it was winter, staring at yourself in a mirror and getting lost someplace and then seeing yourself again and being different. It was all so confusing that she wished it hadn't happened and she was frightened and wanted to cry, only then she remembered it was her birthday and she was getting to be a big girl and it was bad to cry on your birthday or do anything naughty because then you cried or were naughty every day for the rest of the year. She was always good on her birthday. She would not cry. She would not cry. She would not cry. And she would have lots of presents and Mother and Father would be with her all day because it was her birthday and it was Sunday.
She slipped her feet into her slippers and pulled her bathrobe clumsily around her and was all ready to run into Mother and Father's room and get into bed with them and open her presents sitting up in between them, as she always did, when the door opened and Binny came in. Binny came in and it was still early and Binny didn't usually come in at all on her birthday. But she stood there in her blue serge dress and her face was solemn and she had forgotten to put on her white apron.
"Hello, Binny. It is my birthday." Cecily could tell by the sudden movement of Binny's face that she had forgotten, and that was as frightening as finding out that the world didn't belong to her, as frightening as having Mother not come when she cried. "It's my birthday," she said again, but she almost asked it, as though she weren't sure.
Binny's face twisted a little, and she said, "Happy birthday, darling. Supposing you get up now and see your birthday presents after you're dressed. You're getting to be a big girl."
"But can't I get in bed with Mother and Father and open my presents there like I always do?" Cecily asked. "I'm not too old for that, Binny."
"Don't you think it would be fun to get dressed first?" Binny pleaded, and got some clean underclothes out of the bureau.
"I want to get in bed with Mother and Father and open my presents there," Cecily said, and stamped.
"Oh, oh, and you mustn't stamp on your birthday," Binny said.
Cecily's lips began to tremble. "Please, Binny, can't I go and get in bed with Mother and Father the way I always do?"
Binny shook her head helplessly. "Well, your mother and father aren't here just now, Cecily," she said.
"But where are they? It's my birthday! Where are they?"
"Well, your mother didn't feel very well last night so they went to see someone about it to make her feel better."
"Will she come back soon?" Cecily asked anxiously.
"Oh, yes, she'll come back soon," Binny said reassuringly. "You get up and get dressed now and you can open your presents while you're having breakfast."
"Will Mother and Father be here by then?"
"Well, maybe they will," Binny said, "but maybe they'll have to wait for the doctor. That's why your mother gave me the presents to put on the breakfast table for you, in case they didn't get back on time."
"Are they going to see Dr. Wallace?" Cecily asked.
"Yes. They're going to see Dr. Wallace. Such a nice man. You like him a lot, don't you, Cecily?"
"Oh, yes. Will he come back with them and bring me a present, too?"
"Maybe he will," Binny said. "Come along, Cecily, let's get dressed. You want to see your presents, don't you?" She slipped a woolen shirt over Cecily's head.
Cecily stepped onto the floor to slip into a pair of bloomers. "Ow! The floor's so cold, Binny," she said.
"Oh, and you shouldn't be stepping on the floor." Binny picked her up and stood her on the bed, kissing her harshly.
It felt all wrong to sit at the breakfast table and look at a pile of presents beautifully tied up and not to have Mother and Father there. Cecily didn't want to open them, she didn't quite know why, so she drank her orange juice and started her oatmeal. Binny came in and stood behind her chair.
"Aren't you going to open your presents, Cecily?" she asked.
"I'd rather wait till Mother and Father get back."
"Well, maybe they won't be back till after you've finished your breakfast."
"I'd rather wait."
Binny stood behind her chair and watched her for a moment. Then she picked up the presents and put them in a neat pile on the sideboard. "You better open them after breakfast. Then we'll go to the park. We'll go to the museum and you can go in the Egyptian tombs, if you like."
"I don't want to go anywhere till Mother and Father get back," Cecily said, her face clouding angrily.
Binny spoke sharply. "Maybe your mother and father won't get back till lunch and your mother told me to take you to the park if they were late."
Cecily stood up and stamped determinedly. "I won't go till they come back," she said. "I won't go!" she screamed, "I won't go!" and the tears began to roll down her face. She ran over to the pile of presents and began to throw them on the floor, sobbing with anger and fear. Binny went over to her quickly and picked her up and carried her into the living room. She sat Cecily down on the couch and went back into the dining room. Cecily could watch her through the glass doors to the dining room, picking up the presents, smoothing their rumpled wrappings and laying them back on top of the sideboard. She came back into the living room and sat down beside Cecily, putting her arm about the child's shoulders. "Don't you want to open just one of your presents now?" she pleaded.
Cecily stood up and stamped again. "I won't! I won't! I won't!" She looked over at Binny and there she was sitting on the sofa with tears streaming down her lined cheeks. Cecily stared at her for a moment in appalled silence; then she turned and ran into her room, slammed the door, and flung herself upon the bed, gasping but tearless. Because she couldn't cry any more. She tried and the tears wouldn't come. She was so frightened that all she could do was to lie there with big choking sobs trying to tear out of her. It was her birthday and Mother and Father weren't there and Binny was crying. That was the most dreadful thing of all, because Binny didn't cry. If Binny was crying there must be something dreadful the matter. Had Mother and Father both died in the night and been taken away? She remembered a dreadful story one of the children in the park had heard from a nurse about a little girl whose mother and father had died and been taken away in the night and she never saw them again or knew what had happened. Was that why Mother had seemed so strange last night, because she was dying? Binny had said that Mother didn't feel well. Was she afraid to say that she was dead? Cecily stretched out stiff on the bed and tried to feel dead, too, to check the sobs that kept coming and that seemed to tear at her throat and hurt it. But they wouldn't stop. She got up and stood in front of the mirror again, watching herself, with her face all blurred and blotchy from crying, and screwed up into a strange shape with the effort not to sob. If Mother and Father were dead, what were they thinking now? Did they remember her or had they forgotten her? Why didn't they come? Did the people in the rooms across the court know that she was unhappy? Were they thinking about her birthday presents?
But they couldn't be. Nobody knew, nobody cared.
("Mother, who does the world belong to?"
"Who owns the world, Mother?"
"God owns the world, dearest."
"Did he make it, too?"
"Yes, my sweet, God made the world, and he made you, too.")
If God made the world and he made Cecily, perhaps he might care a little even if the people in the rooms across the court didn't. She went across the room and knelt on her bed and said, "Now I lay me" and "Our Father" and "God bless" the way she did at night to Mother and Father, and it didn't seem to do any good at all because she said it every night when everything was happy and it was just something comfortable to do, like pulling the blankets around your neck on a cold night. God who made the world was so big and if he made the people in the rooms across the court and the people she passed on the way to the park, did he really have much time to pay attention to her? Perhaps the balloon man who sold her to Mother would care, so she prayed, "Dear balloon man, please make Mother and Father not dead and taken away in the night but make them come back quickly so I can open my birthday presents." Then she lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling and waited. She pretended she could see the square of light with the three lines of shadow across it that lay in the center of the ceiling when she went to bed at night and she tried to count in English and French and German as far as Miss Evans, who came every morning, had taught her, and by and by her eyes grew heavy and closed.
When she opened them again, Father and Dr. Wallace were standing in the doorway.
She jumped off the bed and rushed over to her father and butted her head against him. "Father—" she whispered. "Father, why weren't you and Mother here when I woke up? Why weren't you here? I thought you were dead."
Father picked her up and swung her onto his shoulder. "Why, kitten, whatever made you think of such a dreadful thing?"
"You weren't here when I woke up and you always are on my birthday so I can open my presents in bed with you, and Binny said Mother didn't feel well and you'd gone to see Dr. Wallace. Where's Mother? Father, where's Mother? Is she dead?"
- "[These stories] appear to the reader like stars . . . 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 . . . 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."—New York Times
- "Unique and powerful . . . these stories are lovely in their own right. There is beauty in their simplicity and intrigue in the depth of the characters' pain."—Associated Press
- "Likable, unassuming pieces . . . [hope] animates even the most bittersweet stories."—Wall Street Journal
- "Gemlike . . . A luminous collection that mines the mundane as cannily as the fantastic and extraterrestrial."—Kirkus, Starred Review
- "An elegant curio-cabinet of a collection."—Vanity Fair
- "L'Engle was a true New Yorker in the best sense: intrepid, dynamic, daring, resolute . . . If you're a close L'Engle follower -- and there are legions of them -- you'll appreciate this chance to chart the evolution of a fine thinker/writer, chronologically, story by story. Otherwise, you can admire each story separately, in its own right."—Providence Journal
- "Whether you're a L'Engle super-fan or simply a lover of science fiction and fantasy, there's something here for any reader."—Esquire
- "L'Engle's stories are softly tragic with sparkles of hope and a sincere faith, told in a simple and earnest voice . . . [these stories] will spark the interest of the approximately one bazillion fans of L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time."—Booklist
"Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L'Engle . . . for fans of L'Engle, [these stories] allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the 'one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.'"
- "Unswerving throughout is L'Engle's mastery of mood-setting language and her depiction of the complexity of human relationships. Voiklis's illuminating introduction places many of the stories in the context of L'Engle's life and points out those that were reworked and integrated into her later novels. The book will obviously attract L'Engle aficionados, but the thoughtful selection and organization recommends the volume to anyone curious about a writer's evolution."—Publishers Weekly
- "This collection is a must for fans of the iconic author."—PopSugar
- "A wonderful collection. The stories, even those that represent L'Engle's early career, are finely crafted and have a modernist attention to the complexity and allusive nature of human feelings coupled with a postmodern detachment. Many are sorrowful and aching, even tragic. All are provocative and remarkable."—Bookreporter
- "Cause for celebration . . . The engaging stories in The Moment of Tenderness collectively offer a different, fuller view of this talented master."—BookPage
- "Each of [L'Engle's] many books and stories is worth reading because she put so much heart, soul, adventure, misadventure, faith, fear, imagination, and wisdom into them. Her granddaughter's contributions -- the biography Becoming Madeleine and now this collection -- round out the portrait of a great writer who will prove to be historically important in literature."—New York Journal of Books
- "These stories . . . embody the same soft-footed, timeless elegance of L'Engle's emotional and aesthetic sensibility . . . [L'Engle] cherishes the emotional joys and traumas of everyday existence."— Shelf Awareness
- "Fans of L’Engle’s work will adore this collection . . . Her prose is brilliant—straightforward, emotive, and lovely to the ear when read aloud."—The Rumpus
- "Echoes the brilliant storytelling Madeleine L'Engle brought us with A Wrinkle in Time, touching on friendship, faith, and hope."—Serendipity magazine
- [The Moment of Tenderness] attests to [L'Engle's] courage as a writer and a person . . . a revelation."—The Christian Science Monitor
- "A timely dose of human connection . . . beautifully approachable . . . The Moment of Tenderness immerses you in the realities of many different lives, with their sorrows and pains, pleasures and joys."—Hypable
- "Positively joyful."—Tor
- "The Moment of Tenderness, a collection of 18 of these works, proves L'Engle's craftmanship as a writer. Her detailed images, knowledge of human nature, and ability to imbue each character with an intimate and vulnerable honesty combine to make each story shine. These are not happy little stories. Yet amid the darkness of human loneliness and even cruelty, they gleam with the promise of the divine presence."—U.S. Catholic magazine
- "Enchanting."—The ARTery
- On Sale
- Apr 20, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing