Wife-mother-writer. This is how Madeleine refers to herself, and it’s just one of many things that make this book feel so relevant. I can hardly believe A Circle of Quiet was published almost half a century ago, and I’m so glad Open Road Integrated Media is republishing it as an ebook.
L’Engle is an irresistible study in contradictions: episcopal and agnostic. An American born, European bred New Yorker who loved her country home in rural Connecticut. A writer, theoretical physicist and theologian (unofficially, those last two). An apolitical, but concerned environmentalist. A successful author married to a successful actor. It is she who first encouraged me (through her books; I wish I could have met her! She died in 2007) to seek harmony between modern science and my own faith (although my thoughts on the subject fall more in the realm of C.S. Lewis‘s conclusions, in The Abolition of Man, than in hers).
I wrote a paper on her poetry for one of my final BA projects—I studied literature and creative writing, which is why I generally stick to reviewing novels instead of nonfiction. But when A Circle of Quiet popped up on Netgalley, I turned in my chair to look at my book shelves and spotted the pristine, unread copy that I’d bought at a library sale a few years before…
I knew the time had come. I picked it up and drifted away, happily bemused, in the current L’Engle’s quietly explosive ruminations.
A Circle of Quiet breezes through the decade Madeleine spent at her rural “commune” of Crosswicks, raising her children and writing books that publishers refused to buy. I say the book “breezes” through this period because I felt light, reading much of it, as I already have wrestled with many of her concepts in her other works; but for readers new to her bewildering assortment of convictions, the experience of reading a L’Engle memoir may be less of a breeze and more of a gale.
A Circle of Quiet examines creativity, cosmology, science, God—all the big questions. But Madeleine is especially taken with the concept of ontology, in this volume. The study of existence and being.
When speaking with troubled teenagers, her thought was,
“They really don’t want me to answer their questions, nor should I. If I have not already answered them ontologically, nothing I say is going to make any sense.”
She sides with rebellious teenagers on most things, at least in her heart, which might be why her books have always been so appealing to young people. Her ideas about ontology did give me a calming peace, as a teenager. Take a look at the stars and breathe. It’s okay. That kind of thing.
She also talks a lot about how mythological truth is different from provable fact. Whenever she wrote (fiction, memoir and everything else), she drew directly from her own experience, perhaps more so than most writers I’ve read before; but she doesn’t stick close to the facts. She tells a story to make her point. While a long, important story in her memoir perfectly communicates her feelings about a certain city couple (the Brechsteins) who have moved into her rural community, she openly acknowledges that the exact facts—their names, the locations, the words spoken in their encounters—are not exact.
“Thinking about the Brechsteins, attempting the not-quite possible task of separating fact from fiction in this sketch, teaches me something about the nature of reality. On one level, one might say that the Brechsteins are not real. But they are. It is through the Brechsteins, through the world of the imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.“
The truth, not the facts, are what concern her. Creative writing is not journalism, she harps.
But even as she tackles heavy topics, she illustrates them with highly entertaining anecdotes, such as this one about entering church for the first time in a while, after moving into Crosswicks:
Madeleine to the minister:
“‘As long as I don’t need to say any more than that I try to live as though I believe in God, I would like very much to come to church—if you’ll let me.’
So I became choir director.”
While the memoir can occasionally feel childish in its emotional coloring, it is more often delightfully childlike—a distinction she herself makes—in its wonder and joy for life itself. She’s a sharp observer, even if her observations may, at times, be suspect. I really enjoyed A Circle of Quiet for the illumination of her life, convictions and writing habits. And I already have a copy of book II! Yay!
If you enjoyed the theoretical and emotional tones to Madeleine L’Engle’s stories, or if you’re just curious about this career and family woman, you might very well enjoy any of her memoirs or other nonfiction works. (I personally adored Walking on Water.)