My Madeleine L’Engle Story

I met Madeleine L’Engle when she came through Pasadena on a book tour some time back. The newly released book was The Glorious Impossible, which Amazon says was published in 1990, so I guess this took place around then. She appeared at Vroman’s. I wasn’t very interested in her signature in this new book. I wanted to meet her and have her sign a book that was published in 1972, called A Circle of Quiet. It’s a book — I guess you’d call it a memoir– that emerged from her journals, and in it she tells stories from her life and discusses life and being and creativity.

I think I first read a copy that I checked out of the Pasadena Public Library, during my “I’m reading all of L’Engle’s books” phase. I read it and loved it. Later on, I accompanied my mother to a Newport Beach Public Library book sale. I browsed over the acetate-covered tomes that were for sale for some bargain sum (50¢? $1?). And there it was: A Circle of Quiet. Mine!!!! Its spine has the call number at the bottom: 92 L’ENGLE. The inside cover spread has a small stamp with the date of Jul 21 1972, and a prominent stamp DISCARD in the right center.

My friend Kelly and I arrived at Vroman’s toward the end of the two-hour period she’d be signing books. We each picked up one or two copies of The Glorious Impossible and stood in line. The Vroman’s Ladies wore store aprons and told us that unfortunately, since this had been so crowded, we’d only be able to have one book personalized. If we had more, we could leave a post-it with the person’s name, and Ms. L’Engle would sign a sticker that we could place in the front of the book. (My second book was a present for a friend; the whole point was getting the friend a personalized copy.) No, she could not personlize any other books besides the one for sale. My heart fell. Sure, this new book was probably wonderful and all, but I’d read and re-read Circle a bunch of times; I wanted her to sign that book.

Someone else in line told us she was here for the second time (she wanted to pick up one more copy of the book), and at the beginning of the two-hour period, she waited in line behind people holding great stacks of the new book, and she stood and waited while Madeleine L’Engle signed each and every one. And I’d only get one book signed, a sticker for my friend’s copy, and walk away without getting Circle signed.

I need to impart a little background from the book in order to explain what happened when we reached Ms. L’Engle. Near the beginning of A Circle of Quiet, L’Engle tells a story about the importance of a person’s name:

One day, a summer ago, I paid our grocery bill for the month. Our new checkbook was with my husband in the city, but I had a rather elderly checkbook which did not have the mandatory cybernetic salad in the bottom left hand corner. However, I had the money in the bank, and I had my right and proper signature on the check. I was brought up to believe that, if I need to, I can use a piece of birch bark, write in the name of the bank, the person to whom the money is to go, the sum, the signature, and this constitutes a valid check.

But my check bounced. When it was explained to me that this was because it was missing some magnetic gibberish, I was furious. I was furious at the dinner table, furious so loudly that my husband was forced to bang on the table and shout at me to shut up.

She remembers this incident at a later point when she needs to pay someone for something he bought for her. She raises the issue about the cybernetic salad again, and begins to attempt once more to use the old checks. The friend (who works with finances daily) discourages her from using the checks.

I asked, “Do you really and truly mean that my signature, my name, means nothing, absolutely nothing at all?”

“That’s what I mean.”

It was a wet and windy day. I looked at the rain slashing against the windows, pulled out a check with cybernetic salad in the bottom left-hand corner, said, “All right then, I feel like Emily Brontë today,” and signed it Emily Brontë.

My friend was not amused. “Madeleine, what are you doing?”

“You just told me that my name means nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Okay, so I feel like Emily Brontë and I don’t see why I shouldn’t sign it Emily Brontë. Take it — just for fun— and let’s see what happens.”

The friend predicted failure, but “after lunch he came in looking sheepish. He had his ten dollars and fifty cents,” no questions asked. He predicted that the check would bounce.

It did not bounce. I now have cancelled checks signed Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barret Browning.

There we were, standing before the table where Madeleine L’Engle sat. She signed Kelly’s book. She signed mine. I said, “I have A Circle of Quiet here, is there any way you can sign it?” One of the two or three hovering Vroman’s ladies, wearing store aprons and frowns, replied that sorry, no, she couldn’t sign that book.

“Well how about if she signs it Emily Brontë?” I asked, looking at Ms. L’Engle.

She looked up, saw the book I held. Her next words were both a gift and a response to my secret code.

“I have to sign that.”

Yessss!!!! I got through; my off-the-wall request that cut straight to the heart of situation, a statement that echoed the theme of the book. Take that, Vroman’s ladies!

“Oh good, I love this book,” I said. “Thank you.”

Kelly said, “It’s a library discard book. Isn’t that the best?” The Vroman’s ladies stood, nodding. I glowed. Maybe L’Engle said something else about the book, how it was a favorite of hers. And I probably concurred.

L’Engle took her blue sharpie to the title page, and when she handed it back to me, it said, “For Susan– Joy in your own Circle– Madeleine L’Engle”

The sticker with my friend’s name and L’Engle’s signature arrived in the mail in due course, and I sent her copy to her. My own copy of The Glorious Impossible sits on a bookshelf, practically untouched. I’ve probably read A Circle of Quiet one or two times since that incident, and it sits on a closer bookshelf. I’m sure I’ll re-read it yet again now that I’ve pulled it down to tell this story.

Rest in peace and encircled joy, Madeleine L’Engle.

—Emily Brontë

9 responses to “My Madeleine L’Engle Story”

  1. concretegodmother

    Thanks for this, Susan. It is exactly as I imagine Madeleine would have been. I got to see her speak at a local Orange County, CA, university back in the early ’90s. I had been a fan of hers since before junior high. I was in line at said university for her to sign my books, but the line got cut off when I was the very next customer. Distress, to say the least! I received some signed book plates in mail after the fact, but somehow it wasn’t quite the same. Her death is a seismic event for me. She will be missed, but she still speaks to my soul (happily, we speak of literature in the present tense, because it happens all over again every time we open the book).

  2. Kelly

    Thanks for this lovely (memory-jogging) post. One of my favorite M L’E opening lines: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

  3. Laura

    Lovely post, thank you. I have not read A Circle of Quiet, but I will have to add that to my list!

  4. Shinwha

    Hi, Susan! What a great story!
    I just dropped by to say hi and to THANK YOU for that wonderful list of Austrian sights you gave as at Metropolitan. Leon and I can’t wait to make use of it. Ciao! (Believe it or not that’s how the Czechs greet each other.)

  5. Aaron Proctor

    Hey stranger 🙂

  6. Hal

    Great story! Thanks!!

  7. Susan A. Kitchens

    Shinwha– thanks for stopping in, will be checking on your site and following the news in Praha.

    Aaron, Hal, Laura, Kelly and Concrete, you’re welcome (and thanks for commenting)

    . . . .

    I’ve been on a L’Engle reading jag of late. Read two of the Time trilogy (quartet?) and Live Coal in the Sea. I’ll get to Circle, I really will!

  8. Emma

    hello all! i love the lengle books! they are so awsome!!!!!! here my friend has a reply
    riku: i love those books to…..i just finished a wrinkle in time

  9. xactothefuture

    i have a great circle story, too!

    it’s not complete yet.

    but it’s proof enough for me.