Dec 8 2011 3:00pm

Explorations of Family: Meet the Austins

Cover image for Meet the AustinsIn 1960, Madeleine L’Engle published Meet the Austins, the first book in a series she would continue to write for 34 years. Largely centered on the insecurities and uncertainties of its protagonist, Vicky Austin, the warm, loving family series would take her from age twelve to her late teens. According to L’Engle’s family, the books contained several autobiographical elements, and L’Engle herself identified with Vicky in several interviews, making these books among her most personal works.

Two notes: one, my edition of Meet the Austins includes the Anti-Muffins chapter, a chapter removed from the 1960 edition, printed separately in 1980, and restored in contemporary editions. Two, the Austin family series is where the timeline for the L’Engle books stops making any sense whatsoever, mostly because the series was written over a 34 year period. In the first book, Vicky Austin is 12, or about one or two years younger than Meg Murry, who would make her first appearance in A Wrinkle of Time the following year. By the fourth book, Vicky Austin is 18, or about two years older than Polly O’Keefe – Meg Murry’s daughter. Fortunately, none of the Austin books or the Murry books are tied to a specific year, so this can be handwaved a bit, either by imagining that a A Wrinkle in Time is set in the 1950s and the Austin books in the 1970s, or by accepting that L’Engle was just not a believer in linear time and the Murrys are time travellers. Onwards!

Meet the Austins opens with a brief introduction to the main members of the family: the father, a busy gynecologist and his wife, a homemaker; the oldest son, John, brilliant and intellectually intimidating, creating some of Vicky’s insecurities; Vicky, the narrator; Suzy, her beautiful younger sister, who unintentionally makes Vicky feel ugly and awkward; Rob, a cute four year old; and various animals, including a poodle, a Great Dane and various cats. The animals are marvelous—I’m only sorry that they don’t make it through the entire series—as are the various interactions between the siblings, who, naturally, fight and find one other deeply irritating.

This excerpt from an Austin Christmas story, The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, nicely showcases all of the strengths and weaknesses of Vicky as a character. She is remarkably and realistically self-centered, even for a seven year old (forget that my mother is about to give birth! what about dinner!), jealous of her siblings, and deeply uncertain of herself. The Vicky in Meet the Austins is a little older, but she is still the same Vicky.

Into this family arrives a very angry little girl, Maggy, who has just lost her parents in a tragic accident. It’s not at all clear what will happen to Maggy—her parents failed to leave an iron-clad will, and the main guardian named by the parents is in no position to take in a child. This uncertainty does not make Maggy’s life any easier, and to worsen matters, she comes from a considerably wealthier family, creating further adjustment problems. Nonetheless, the Austins welcome her and offer her a home, at least temporarily.

This plot is pulled directly from L’Engle’s real life: she and her husband took in and later adopted the child of friends who died tragically young. This probably explains why so many of the scenes feel so genuine, particularly in the not always positive responses from the kids. They know that they ought to be nice and understanding, but, since they’re kids, they sometimes fail. This results in some major family disruptions, not helped by the arrival of measles, well meaning attempts to help, and the arrival of some very bad tempers—which in turn leads to some other accidents.

Throughout this, L’Engle maintains a warm, accepting tone, extended to all of the children and Maggy. She is able to do this, despite a not always sympathetic first person narrative, I think, because for all of her insecurities and worries, Vicky is still part of a very loving family, and that knowledge breathes through her voice. Vicky’s parents also take more than one moment to explain matters from other viewpoints, helping not just Vicky, but readers, understand why Maggy so frequently acts badly. The deleted and then reinserted chapter I mentioned adds to the theme of understanding by chatting about accepting those who may not fit society’s pre or current expectations.

The end result is a warm, happy book, with characters easy to identify with, with a few moments of tension scattered here and there. If Vicky, even with the help of her parents and brother, never quite has the same moments of insight that Camilla and Flip manage to reach on their own, and never matures as much, she is also younger, and in a safer place. She has time.

The Austin family series originally remained strictly rooted in the real world, but after L’Engle became known as a fantasy and science fiction author, one or two otherwordly elements began to creep into the series. Even then the series maintained its more mainstream roots, never reaching too far into speculative fiction. This may be one reason why the series is somewhat less known. A second reason may be the 34 year timespan L’Engle needed to write five books, which not surprisingly created some inconsistencies. For example, a toy broken in the first book reappears, miraculously never broken, in the second, and similar small inconsistencies abound. And if none of these inconsistencies would bother child readers, they are more problematic for the teenage audience of the later books of the series. I’ll be noting a few more of these as we go through the series.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she is prepping up for the higher math that will be mentioned in the next post, if by “prepping” we mean “consuming fudge.”

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
I found John's spacesuit science project to be very interesting- it makes me wonder if L'Engle had read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

I also liked the children's enjoyment of classical music, clearly learned from Mom's experiences as a musician. I was born in 1961, and I can say that records of classical music weren't a feature of your average family. (Of course, I grew up on Sgt. Pepper and the Broadway cast album of Hair)

Maggy is also, from the text, an extremely spoiled child- making the adjustments much harder. In the scene where she and Susy are caught playing in the doctor's office, she clearly thinks that the apology will make everything better and is surprised that she keeps being punished.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
A second reason may be the 34 year timespan L’Engle needed to write five books, which not surprisingly created some inconsistencies.

A similar problem occurs in the So You Want to be a Wizard series. Over the twenty-year time span, technology changed a lot, especially the spread of computers and cell phones.
Liza .
3. aedifica
Do you know why the Anti-Muffins part was removed for a while? Now that you mention it, I think I did read it as a standalone book first, but by the time I read Meet the Austins I'd forgotten that.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Pam Adams - Huh. Not all that long later classical music records were a regular part of my household -- not that I was allowed to touch them on the not unreasonable basis that I would break them -- but that may have been our household and my father.

Several other series long in the writing have run into this problem -- Elizabeth Peters dealt with it head on in the last book of her Vicky Bliss series, where altthough the first book appeared in 1973 and the last book in 2008, the characters had only aged about five to six years. She decided to just go with the modern cell phones. It's not a new problem, either -- L.M. Montgomery had a similar issue with her Emily series, even though those were written in a shorter time span, making it very difficult to figure out exactly when those books are set.

@aedifica - I've heard two different stories on this. One is that the chapter was removed because it was considered to be either too preachy or too controversial for the period. The second is that the chapter was removed for space reasons, since with it the book was "too long" for its age group, and that's the one chapter that does not directly contribute to the plot of the book, although I think it helps develop the tolerance theme. I don't know which story is true.
5. Annalisa
One of my abiding memories associated with all L'Engle books is how much I wished the families in her books were my family. I was an only child who grew up in a small apartment in a city suburb, with a (loving, but) slightly unstable family. The Austins and the Murrays were everything we were not. The parents were brilliant professionals who also had time for their families. They lived in the country, in converted farmhouses. There were scores of kids with all the problems but also all the fun associated with a large family. There were family pets. (And there was magic, too, sometimes.) Even now that I'm an adult, when I think of what I hope my future family life will be like, more often than not I think of the works of Madeleine L'Engle. Except maybe with a little less religion and conservatism (I can't remember which Austin book this is, maybe A Ring of Endless Light, but I still remember a scene where Vicky commens that Mr. Austin doesn't like his wife or daughters wearing "slacks". Groan.)
6. HelenS
The slacks comment is in the camping-trip one, The Moon by Night. I don't think Dr. Austin minds about his daughters wearing pants, only his wife. Meet the Austins has the defense of corporal punishment, doesn't it?

"I'd done something I shouldn't have done, and I'd been spanked, and I climbed up into Daddy's lap that evening and twined my arms around his neck and said, 'Daddy, why is it I'm so much nicer after I've been spanked?'"

That gave me the chills.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@Annalisa - One of the oddities of the L'Engle books is how they simultaneously show very progressive images with deeply conservative values. Meet the Austins features Aunt Elena, a professional concert pianist and a working woman -- and yet part of the plot is that even though Maggy's parents planned to have Elena adopt Maggy should anything happen to them, Elena can't adopt Maggy for at least six months because she is working, and even once Elena becomes Maggy's legal guardian, she still can't take in Maggy because of her job. Maggy goes to live with her only after Elena is married. Mrs. Austin, meanwhile, has retired from her career to raise her children. Mrs. Murry solves this problem by working at home, but although her children adore her, they also show some resentment about this.

I suspect the ambivalence comes from L'Engle's own experiences as a professional working mother.

@HelenS -- Yes, and that particular comment is presented as a joke. It's a difficult place, too, because it's meant to justify Maggy's corporal punishment for biting Mrs. Elliott. The problem is, and it's a big problem, that Maggy seems to be acting out for two reasons: one, she is in terrible need of reassurance that she isn't getting (when she wakes up screaming, presumably from night terrors, no one asks, "What is it? Did you hae a nightmare?" Instead they tell her to stop screaming because other people are trying to sleep -- this just a few days after the death of her parents.) And two, Mrs. Elliott seems like a dreadful person. And what actually changes Maggy's behavior (somewhat) is the opportunity to cry, not the spanking.
Darice Moore
8. daricemoore
Regarding the timing: I think at one point I had a copy of ... maybe it's An Acceptable Time? Many Waters? one of the later Murry ones that has Murry/Austin crossovers. It had a double-page spread with the family trees, Austin on one page and Murry on the other. The Austin page was labeled "Chronos" (everyday, normal time as we count it) and the Murry page was labeled "Kairos" (time in its pure form, if I remember correctly). Across the bottom were "those who cross and connect" -- Adam Eddington, Canon Tallis, Zachary, and so on. So I'm guessing L'Engle herself liked the idea of the Murrys with all their tessering being somehow outside of everyday time.

Still doesn't explain taking 34 years to get from 12 to 18... ;)

(Oh, and I just looked on Wikipedia, which of course has all of that information -- the book that has the charts is Many Waters.)
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@daricemoore - That family spread is now appearing in most recent printings of all the Time books - I guess everyone found it useful. (I certainly did.) What I found most interesting, however, is that honestly? It's the AUSTINS - who supposedly are living in normal, Chronos time -- whose time schedule is the most screwed up, this because Vicky only ages six years over a 34 year period. Polly O'Keefe in An Acceptable Time is about the right age for a girl whose mother was in high school in the 1960s.

But although the later Austin books have some fantasy elements, the main time/space travel happens in the Murry books, thus L'Engle's logic here.

And ah, yes, Zachary. We will most definitely be seeing and chatting about him again. In about three weeks if I have the correct schedule.
Andrew Love
10. AndyLove
Fortunately, none of the Austin books or the Murry books are tied to a specific year, so this can be handwaved a bit, either by imagining that a A Wrinkle in Time is set in the 1950s and the Austin books in the 1970s, or by accepting that L’Engle was just not a believer in linear time and the Murrys are time travellers. Onwards!
In one of the Murry books, the principal mentions that he remembers watching man land on the moon when he was a child, putting the Murry timeline into the 21th century, more than likely.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Andy Love -- Huh, except that I'm right in the middle of Dragons in the Waters, which features Meg and Calvin's children meeting a boy who is a sixth generation descendant of someone who fought with Simon Bolivar in the early 19th century. Even giving late births, I have difficulties imagining that Dragons in the Waters takes place much later than the late 1970s.
12. HelenS
I thought it was Mrs. Murry who mentioned the moon landing. Dr. Colubra thought she might not remember it, but she did -- "I remember it all right ... I wasn't that young."
Andrew Love
13. AndyLove
I thought it was Mrs. Murry who mentioned the moon landing. Dr. Colubra thought she might not remember it, but she did -- "I remember it all right ... I wasn't that young."
You're right. I checked my copy of "A Wind in the Door" and it matches your memory. On the other hand, that does confirm that "Wind" is supposed to occur decades after 1969 (since Meg's mother can be mistaken for someone who might be too young to remember Apollo).

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