by Madeleine L’Engle
‘It was a dark and stormy night …’
With the first sentence of her junior sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle dares to challenge the publishing establishment. Even in 1960, when she wrote it, and 1962, when it was published, L’Engle must have known the extent to which the sentence – first penned novelistically by Bulwer-Lytton – had become the butt of jokes and parody.
Personally – and if we ignore its history – I see nothing wrong with the sentence, either in its original context or in this. It creates just the right atmosphere for the dark and brooding – though eventually lightening – novel that follows.
Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry is the antithesis of the romantic heroine. She wears spectacles and has braces on her teeth. Contrasting with her beautiful, scientist mother, she does not do well at school. She thinks of herself as ‘delinquent’ and ‘a monster’. She misses her scientist father, who has gone on a secret scientific mission. We detect there is something not quite right here: clearly, Mr Murry is missing and there is something very dark and mysterious about his disappearance.
‘Meg looked up at her mother, half in loving admiration, half in sullen resentment. It was not an advantage to have a mother who was a scientist and a beauty as well.’
However, Meg, despite all her apparent shortcomings, is about to go on an adventure. Accompanied by Charles Wallace, her baby brother, and Calvin, a boy from high school, she is whisked away on a mission of her own to find Mr Murry and bring him home. Neither Charles Wallace nor Calvin are what you would call ‘normal’ children. Both are, like Meg, social misfits. Charles Wallace is a prodigy, an adult genius masquerading as a toddler. Calvin, more grown-up than Meg, relates to her (rather like Lyra and Will in Pullman’s masterpiece) in an almost sexual way.
‘The age or sex was impossible to tell, for it was completely bundled up in clothes. Several scarves of assorted colours were tied about the head, and a man’s felt hat perched atop.’
The children make the acquaintance of three very eccentric – and alien – old ladies, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which who, Doctor Who style, transport them through space and time on their quest. They visit strange planets and encounter strange alien beings before finding themselves battling an evil force that’s trying to take over the universe, represented by a disembodied brain known as IT. But before Mr Murry can be rescued, Charles Wallace falls foul of IT’s brainwashing and needs rescuing too. It is then that Meg discovers she has the only weapon that can defeat the malevolent force and rescue her father and brother from its clutches.
Marketed this century as a young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time was described by L’Engle herself as ‘junior fiction’. Published a decade or two before YA fiction became such a popular genre, it is a difficult novel to classify. With such young protagonists, it is more a children’s story though the vocabulary, language and descriptions, as well as the good vs evil message, are often more suited to an older – and even adult – readership.
‘What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible … that would chill her with a fear beyond the possibility of comfort.’
Despite L’Engle’s tendency (less obviously than CS Lewis) to mix Christian theology with her science fiction and despite a very abrupt ending that throws the reader off balance, A Wrinkle in Time is a book to be enjoyed – rather like Harry Potter – by young people and grown-ups alike.