The Madeleine L’Engle Reread

Love in the Mountains: A Winter’s Love

A Winter’s Love, a serious study of marriage, love and family, is one of Madeleine L’Engle’s early adult novels, published in 1957 before she began writing any of the young adult novels that would make her famous. A commentator on an earlier post had suggested I include it in this reread, and I couldn’t think why not. Now that I’ve read it, I can answer that: it’s kinda depressing. But interesting, and definitely worth a look for L’Engle fans. Just keep some chocolate on hand.

Emily’s marriage to Courtney has received some severe blows: the death of a child, and the subsequent loss of Courtney’s job thanks to academic infighting. Courtney has begun to drink heavily, which terrifies Emily, who had an alcoholic uncle. Courtney is also pushing Emily away, and their fights have become louder and more serious.

Enter Abe Fielding, a long term friend of both. He and Emily realize they have loved each other for years, and Emily is tempted, very tempted, to leave her miserable husband for Abe. Emily’s teenage daughter, Virginia, is going through some angst of her own, as is her friend Mimi Oppenheimer (both would reappear in later L’Engle novels), and neither are comforted to see Abe and Emily making out. Emily’s four-year-old daughter is as annoying and loveable as any four-year-old (the book has several good scenes where the adults completely forget that the kid is in the room, and the kid then surprises everyone by showing that she’s understood far more of the conversation than the adults would want.) Adding to the tangle, Emily’s friend Gertrude, a former French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor, and dying of tuberculosis as a result, is convinced that the man she is living with is sleeping with Emily.

Oh, and a gossipy and mean French landlady; Gertrude’s doctor, also wanting to sleep with Emily; Abe’s son Sam, falling for Mimi even though Virginia is falling for him; and his friend, the highly annoying Beanie, and you have a novel not lacking for plot.

Despite this, the novel often moves slowly, deliberately, restrained partly by its majestic setting in the French Alps, partly by Emily’s own hesitation, and mostly by the severe problem that, as a love interest, Abe Fielding lacks something. Like, interest. I should, I guess, be cheering him on, given some of Courtney’s behavior in the novel, but I can’t, because, well, dull. He also knows full well that Emily wants to save her marriage, and that his friend Courtney is going through a hellish period, and asking Emily to leave her husband just now is not exactly appropriate, but does so anyway—counteracting L’Engle’s attempts to describe him as an honorable person.

I suspect this is largely because L’Engle did not want her protagonist to leave her marriage, and had to make sure that the temptation on the other side wasn’t too great. But the end result is that I spent the novel cheering Courtney on, because for all of his bad temper, alcoholism, and yelling about Greek philosophers, he was at least interesting. And for all of his yelling at Emily, in some ways, he respects her more than Abe does, what with Abe going on and on about how Emily is asked to do too much housework because the unemployed Courtney refuses to hire a maid for their small French chalet.

Let’s change “dull” to annoying, shall we?

And as I mentioned, the novel is a bit depressing, and the end can hardly be called happy or satisfying for anyone except possibly Beanie. Virginia and Mimi both find themselves needing to wait for later books for their happy endings. And in Mimi’s case, the romance she is hoping for doesn’t happen in what is the hands down least believable words from a teenage boy in any of L’Engle’s novels, bar none, bad enough to make me wonder if L’Engle had actually met any 17 year old guys, because, I’m telling you, this is not it. Gertrude, I suppose, gains some of the reassurance she hopes for, but at a terrible cost, and although given the novel’s 1957 publication date, I suppose we’re supposed to be happy that Emily and Courtney reconcile, I’m really not.

Because in the end, Emily stays with Courtney not because he’s more interesting and less irritating, or because Courtney has agreed to drink and yell less, or because she wants to move to Indiana with him, but out of a sense of duty. It would, she decides, hurt Courtney and her daughters too much. As it turns out, Emily has less self-esteem than a turnip: she disparages her own musical talents, and claims that Courtney transformed her from a “gauche, unattractive stick” into someone who enjoyed life. It becomes clear that Emily felt unloved for most of her life, and is tremendously grateful to Courtney for loving her at all, and giving her the family she desperately wanted, whatever their marriage has become now. This, along with scenes earlier in the novel, borders on emotional abuse, and dull and annoying as Abe is, I can’t exactly cheer on Emily’s reasoning here. (She should have run off with the doctor!)

And I also find L’Engle’s treatment of Judaism in this book a little—how do I put this—awkward. Unusually for a L’Engle novel, A Winter’s Love has a prominent Jewish secondary character, Mimi Oppenheimer (who returns as a committed atheist and doctor in A Severed Wasp) who also uses the nickname of Mimi Opp. This is a plus, especially in a 1950s book where the characters casually admit to reading and enjoying Little Black Sambo.

But, oddly enough for a book taking place in an area that felt the effects of World War II (the mean gossipy landlady even hosted Nazis), and where characters continue to discuss its aftereffects, the only character in the novel who spent time in a concentration camp is a non-Jewish character, the French resistance fighter Gertrude. Gertrude speaks passionately about a time in New York City shortly after the war where someone believed that her concentration camp tattoo was a phone number (I have a feeling this was based on a real event that L’Engle witnessed or heard of directly), and says, unsurprisingly, that this gave her a distaste for Americans. The American Emily responds with a rather naïve defense.

But although this particular scene tingles with emotional power, it also reminds me, uncomfortably, of And Both Were Young, where the one Jewish character is never made explicitly Jewish, while the concentration camp survivor was made explicitly not Jewish. And of A Severed Wasp, where the two concentration camps survivors were made explicitly not Jewish, and the Jewish character (Mimi Oppenheimer) had to be reminded that people other than Jews died in the Holocaust. It reminds me that in three books dealing with Holocaust survivors and victims, all of the survivors and victims just happened to be heroic French Resistance fighters—instead of the actual Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, Poles, Communists, Russians and other marginalized groups who were the chief Nazi victims. It reminds me of the scene in And Both Were Young, where the heroine admits that she knows the Holocaust happened, but she just doesn’t get it. I get the same feeling from L’Engle: she knows it happened, she uses it in fiction, and yet she does not fully get it.

The novel also has another odd section. Beanie—a wealthy young jerk who is essentially the predecessor to Zachary Grey, and equally unlikeable—makes a couple of anti-Semitic comments to Virginia. She rightfully calls him on these comments.

But then the Jewish Mimi tells Virginia not to make a big thing of it, and go for Beanie anyway—since he might be able to teach Virginia something. And I’m left thinking, Huh?

Let me be clear here. I do not think that L’Engle was anti-Semitic. (Another scene in the novel shows that she was even knew of the “some of my best friends are Jews” argument and rejected it.) It’s more that I cannot see a Jewish writer penning a scene where a Jewish girl encourages her friend to date someone who has made anti-Semitic remarks—even if we are assuming that this is to keep the friend away from a guy the Jewish girl is interested in.

It illustrates the strengths and limitations of L’Engle’s imaginative gift. She could create extraordinary worlds in just a few quick sentences, imagine industrial espionage centered on starfish, and make us believe in telepathic dolphins – but for all this, her protagonists continue to regard the world from a very Episcopalian, American worldview. (Oddly, L’Engle even comments on this in the novel—but in the context of historians refusing to consider other viewpoints.) This is not necessarily a bad or even a limiting thing, as L’Engle shows in other novels. But the limitations show here.

And for all this, A Winter’s Love offers much for L’Engle fans: lovely descriptive passages, the rich conversations she would specialize in later; and the early appearances of two characters who would make reappearances in later books. And a wonderful moment when a character calls another character a “pismire,” an insult I simply have to start working into my ordinary conversation more often.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida with two cats.


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