MARY “SISTER” L’ENGLE AVENT
Mary “Sister” L’Engle Avent was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She and Madeleine L’Engle were cousins.
Q: How did you meet Madeleine L’Engle?
A: Her grandmother Caroline Hallowes L’Engle Barnett was my aunt—the sister of my father, Camillus Saunders L’Engle. Madeleine was two years older than me and about six years old when I first knew her. She and her parents would occasionally come down to Jacksonville, Florida, from New York by train. They would come to visit her grandfather and her grandmother, who by then had separated. It was a very ugly kind of situation.
What happened was that Mr. Bion Hall Barnett, having sired four children, told my aunt—Madeleine’s grandmother, whom I called Aunt Lina—that he wanted a divorce.1 Her answer to him was “We don’t get a divorce in this family.” She flat out refused to divorce him. “You will be my husband,” she told him, “until I die.” Mr. Barnett had fallen in love with a young Frenchwoman. When Aunt Lina said no to a divorce, he took the new love of his life and her two daughters and went with them to live in France. After a while, the future Mrs. Barnett, who was a devout Catholic, got tired of living with Mr. Barnett as a companion, and so he adopted her as his daughter! Then, when Aunt Lina finally died, he did marry her, but not before opening a very large account with the pope in order to “unclaim” her as an adopted daughter. Eventually, Mr. Barnett and his new wife moved back to Jacksonville. She died before he did. This was a great scandal in the 1920s in a small city like Jacksonville. Everyone in Jacksonville knew the story, and it hung like a cloud over Madeleine’s head, because people felt very sorry for her grandmother. It was a very embarrassing situation.
My earliest impressions of Madeleine were not very favorable. She didn’t know how to play like the rest of us girls. For example, she didn’t know how to ride a bicycle, which was a favorite thing for us girls to do. Her grandfather lived at the Park Lane Apartments, which was located in a beautiful setting along the banks of the St. Johns River, by a park that was a good place for bicycling. Both her parents would say to Madeleine, “You’ve got to play with Sister”—Sister was my nickname—“this afternoon.” Well, that wasn’t what she wanted to do. My mother would say, “Cousin Madeleine [Madeleine’s mother] wants you to come down and be with Madeleine.” And I would say, “Oh, yuck, Mom. I don’t want to do that!” She was such a loner, always writing or reading. Her father was a New York theater critic, and when they were up north, her parents were often out at night, leaving her alone or with her nanny. As I later realized, her behavior was due in part to her having spent so much time by herself during her early life while her mother and father were out seeing plays.
Jacksonville was a small, quiet, beginning-to-come-up town. Florida had not been found yet, really. Henry Flagler had built the Florida East Coast Railway through Jacksonville on its way to Miami. The banks in town were very strong, as was the practice of law. Lumber was big and the port was good. Jacksonville sits on the St. Johns River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean about eighteen miles away. It’s a huge river, and so shipping was good. About forty miles away, St. Augustine was quite a place of note as a vacation resort. In the summer, the men in Jacksonville all wore white linen suits. When seersucker suits became fashionable, my father would call them his “downtown pajamas.”
Jacksonville had a garden club and two country clubs—one group had gotten mad at the other and built a little farther out of town. There was the side of the river that you lived on and the other side, which had not yet been developed. In 1933, when Madeleine’s parents returned from living in Europe, they bought a house in Jacksonville. It was a nice house but not very grand, and it was on the wrong side of the river. It was not in Riverside or Avondale, which were considered the two good neighborhoods, but closer to town, and it was not far from her grandmother’s beach house.
Madeleine was very close to her grandmother, who had her own apartment in the Park Lane Apartments as well as a great house down at what is now called Jacksonville Beach. We called it Pablo at the time. Madeleine loved to go there, in part because it was a good place to be alone. The house, which was named Red Gables and which I think is gone now, was one of our favorite, favorite places. It was right on the ocean, along a part of the beach that had not yet been “found.” It was a comfortable, rambling old wooden house with big porches and long windows because you counted on the breeze to cool it. It was furnished informally with wicker furniture, that kind of thing. Very few people lived at the beach all year round and Red Gables was Aunt Lina’s summer house, but she would stay there a great deal of the time, and Madeleine would go down there a great deal, too.
Madeleine’s mother was the oldest daughter of four in her family, very nice-looking but a little on the shy side, very pleasant but not really warm. She spoke in a quiet voice with a southern accent. She had been raised in Jacksonville but long before my time. Then she married this gentleman from the North who had been badly hurt during World War I, and they had lived together in New York in circumstances completely unlike anything here in Jacksonville. So Madeleine’s mother knew two different worlds, and I think she may have felt about New York the same way that Madeleine felt about Jacksonville.
As a New Yorker, Madeleine was completely oblivious to the southern customs of the time. She was always polite, but she was also shy. Between one thing and another, she had a very hard time with us and we with her. When we girls were in our late teens and were all making our debuts and being introduced into the hierarchy of society, Madeleine remained very much the outsider. She would be invited to many of the parties, and she would always say that she couldn’t stand the food. We had lots of luncheons, at which chicken salad was always served. Madeleine said she didn’t like chicken salad. She was just completely out of place at that time and in that part of the world.
Her one close friend in Jacksonville was Pat Collins [later Cowdery], and they were very close.2 Pat was a delightful, lovely person, very cordial, very open, and she was exactly Madeleine’s age. When Madeleine’s family moved to Jacksonville, Madeleine was sent to boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina. But prior to going off to Smith College, in order to prepare for some entrance or placement exams she was going to take, Madeleine enrolled in summer courses at the Bartram School for Girls, which was a small local private school, and I think that that is where she and Pat became good friends. She and Madeleine remained close even late in life.
As a grown-up, Madeleine would sometimes come down to Jacksonville by herself and head straight for Orange Park, where Pat’s family had a house. Orange Park is a small community out on the St. Johns River, ten miles out of town, where the houses are spread far enough apart that you have no near neighbors. We say it is “in town but out of town.” When you are in Orange Park, you feel completely away from everything. Out there, Madeleine had no social obligations. She didn’t have to be anyplace that she didn’t want to be or listen to other people discuss among themselves what they had had that day for lunch. She could just be herself and be with Pat and relax. Madeleine might be there for ten days or two weeks without anybody knowing it.
My grandparents John Claudius L’Engle and Susan Philippa Fatio had eleven children, all of whom were born and lived in the Jacksonville area. So the woods were full of L’Engles. If your name was L’Engle, it was generally something to be very proud of. But then you could have killed some of the others who were also named L’Engle. We would say, “He might be my cousin, but I don’t know him!” So you would pick and choose.
My father’s younger sister, my aunt Tracy L’Engle, was very much intrigued by the theater.3 She had vague fantasies about being an actress and thought she should have been accepted immediately. She wrote poetry as well, but I would say that all in all she was far better known for her temper. Tracy lived in New York for quite some time, although I don’t think she pursued her dream of the theater too seriously while there.
Tracy was a character, and Madeleine knew her well. They probably met when Madeleine was in her teens, which would have been in the late 1930s. Madeleine was very comfortable with my aunt, who had graduated from Wellesley and had a mind of her own. She was haughty. Her two brothers were older than she, and come World War I, they were married with children. When neither of the brothers offered their services to their country, Tracy said, “By damn, if you all are such weaklings, I’m going to go!” And so she did, running military canteens, giving the soldiers their mail, that kind of thing. She had a uniform and was proud of it. And she was very ashamed that her two brothers hadn’t enlisted in the service. She was very strong and adventurous; in fact, “strong” is a very weak word for Tracy! At one time when she was still quite young, she became so upset with her father after he had reprimanded her that she moved out and never spoke to him again. After that incident, she lived with us instead. Madeleine looked up to her. She and Tracy were very much alike. They were very determined to do things their way, and to hell with what anybody else said.
There is a saying in the L’Engle family that refers to the fact that we’re all stubborn and that we have all got our own ways. You might say to one of your relatives: “You have certainly inherited a lot of the L’Engle-arities!” Madeleine had all of the L’Engle-arities. The Barnetts were pretty strong themselves, so you can imagine what that added up to. Mrs. Barnett—Madeleine’s grandmother—was a L’Engle too, so she got it on both sides.
Madeleine’s name was a combination of her mother’s name and her grandmother’s name. She named her own son after her grandfather Bion Barnett. Madeleine also had an uncle named Bion, who was her mother’s youngest brother. That Bion Barnett was a writer and an artist, although I don’t think he made a living by either.4 His oil paintings—landscapes and beach scenes, scenes from around the river—were lovely, and he did sell them on occasion. But people liked his paintings because the scenes were familiar, and his banker father paid his bills. He too married a French girl. I’m sure that he and Madeleine knew of each other. Bion’s oldest daughter wanted to be a writer as well.
I had not seen Madeleine for a long time when she and I got together for a very brief visit, in New York, probably in 1941. This was the one and only time I saw her in New York. She spoke about wanting to be on the stage. We chatted and asked each other what we were doing, and then we said goodbye. It was a very brief visit. She was not the friendly type, and I still couldn’t understand her aloofness. She couldn’t understand how I could be so flighty and gregarious. Her life and mine were just so different. By then we had at least become mature enough to acknowledge each other’s differences. As far as she was concerned, I was a cousin from Jacksonville. As far as I was concerned, she was a cousin from New York.
In later life—I would say during the 1970s—I saw Madeleine twice in Jacksonville. Once she gave a graduation talk at Bartram, the school where she had done her summer studies. She gave another talk at Bolles, which started out as a military school for boys and which later merged with Bartram. Madeleine had become very friendly with Bartram’s two headmistresses. I went to hear her speak on both occasions and was completely mesmerized. She was very cool and calm, with a little bit of a sophisticated humor. The audience all loved her. They saw her as a good writer who had once lived here and had come back to town.
I have most of Madeleine’s books. I bought them myself. You’ll get a lot of Madeleine’s history from The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, which I thought was an accurate description. There are still several Barnetts here. But I guess I am the last of the L’Engles of Jacksonville.
Copyright © 2012 by Leonard S. Marcus