Madeleine L’Engle’s novel Camilla (titled Camilla Dickinson when first published in 1951 and recently reissued) features a bright and passionate fifteen-year-old who presents us with the essential question of the YA genre — how will this girl survive the emotional chaos of adolescence? In fairy tales, this same question is more logistical — how will the princess escape supervision long enough to exit the tower, descend into the forest, and head for the village?
Camilla is narrated by just such a princess, one who lives with her parents in a New York City penthouse. The novel was published long before there was a young adult genre as we know it today, but it contains all the elements of the classic YAs of the late twentieth century — a journey out of childhood, a hypersensitive girl, a pace providing ample time for deep reflection. The reader participates in a clean, well-documented metamorphosis, wisely told by a girl who embodies the most cherished aspects of twentieth-century female adolescence — at least in literature: hope, compassion, and a fearless, unflinching honesty.
These qualities were true of the protagonists in many of the forbears of the genre — Frankie in Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding, Molly in Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion, Cecil in Rumer Godden’s Greengage Summer — but there is a profound difference between these early coming-of-age novels and Camilla, and I believe that it stems from L’Engle’s technique of tracking Camilla day-by-day, hour-by-hour, as she struggles to understand what is happening to her. Her journey is both epic and microscopic. The novel covers just a few weeks in Camilla’s interior life and is intensely focused on the minutiae of her days — a concentrated, claustrophobic time of adolescent upheaval. This original technique prefigured the YA genre that would begin to flourish in the next decade.
Another element that connects Camilla to the modern YA genre is L’Engle’s obvious love for her protagonist. Camilla narrates as someone relaying the events in her life to a listener with deep affection for her. This makes her exquisitely reliable. She is both admittedly vulnerable and unapologetically passionate, sometimes on the very same page. She is also a girl scientist! Her fascination with the heavens creates a wonderful juxtaposition — the discipline of astronomy; the importance of identifying and naming things as a way of feeling part of the universe — coupled with her more spiritual quest for a guiding star. With both perspectives in full operation, she searches for the deeper meaning of her life. She wants to be around people who are more fully alive than her parents — boys her own age who talk passionately about war and death and what it means to have a soul. She purposefully connects herself to new events and situations. She wants to feel everything, even — what is surely coming soon — the heartbreak and disappointment of first love. She is fearless about being hurt. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She is fully alive in her emotions.
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Such a bittersweet read! As I reread the book, Camilla’s voice took me back to some of my own girl narrators, young sages who decades ago responded to their parents’ ineptitude with more sadness than anger, more compassion than contempt. And much like Camilla, these fictional girls still believed that a proper romance could soften the cruelties of adolescence; they trusted that the right boy would come along if they were patient and careful. They were hopeful. Camilla is open to the possibility of becoming a finer, more self-aware person, now that she is no longer a child. She believes in her inner beauty. She values her own transcendent girl-ness, trusting its power. I remember that perspective. I believed in it and rode it like a wave after the publication of my first YA novel, The Bigger Book of Lydia (1983). It fueled my writer’s voice for two decades.
But the world of teenagers has changed. Thirty years after the publication of The Bigger Book of Lydia, the girls have come out of their towers. They may still be the smartest and the most forthright people in the village, but they are not happy. They often hide their disappointment and anger. If they are unusually sensitive, or especially perceptive, if they feel too keenly the messages of the culture, they will find relief in all manner of self-abuse, including cutting and starving themselves. These girls are skeptical of romance as an antidote, or a way to become more whole. They are wary, as they should be. They are confused, as they must be. They will not be overprotected or restricted. But the forest is a dangerous place, and the village beyond is not much better, not if a girl is complicated, opinionated, unconventional. Not if she has a chip on her shoulder. Not if she has a few tattoos or visible piercings. Not if she is loud. Not if her hair is blue.
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In Camilla, the author describes the blossoming of Camilla’s sexuality, her intense longing for something deeper than friendship, and her curiosity about both romantic love and physical attachment. In this state, she falls in love with Frank, the brother of her best friend, a complicated boy, deeply philosophical and equally searching—just the sort of boy a girl like Camilla would be drawn to. Her feelings are returned, and the resulting relationship is very intense and sensual without ever becoming sexual. Not that Camilla doesn’t know about sex or understand its power; her own family has been torn apart by an affair her mother has had with a younger man. Despite this, Camilla savors the preliminaries of a real romance. She loves Frank’s voice, his seriousness; she is thrilled to hold hands with him. Their conversation is electric, full of mystery. Why did he say that? What did he mean? When will I see him again? What does he think of me? L’Engle captures the way time stands still between two young people who are kindred spirits, equally attracted to each other.
Camilla’s attraction to Frank leads to a more radical movement away from her parents, and this movement echoes the fairy tale motif — the girl who must leave a place of safety and isolation (tower, cellar, locked room), sometimes boldly, sometimes in stealth, in order to become a woman. This element in Camilla is not surprising given L’Engle’s deep appreciation for fairy tales and her extended use of their patterns in her eventual books for children, but it is especially strong and apropos in this novel of the 1950s. The reader can quietly cheer for Camilla in escape mode, wearing her red beret (a symbol of sexual adventure) and leaving her ineffective parents behind.
There is no sense, no underlying message, that the author feels that sex between these two young people would be morally wrong. Rather, like many writers of the 1940s and 1950s, L’Engle is more interested in the challenges to identity that leaving a sheltered state bring. The novel moves in and out of the realm of myth and fairy tale, where explicit sex is unnecessary. In fact, Frank disappears without ever having kissed Camilla. Yet they have shared a remarkably powerful connection—Camilla as the star gazer; Frank as her brooding, wandering prince.
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I remember a long-ago conversation with my sister while we were still young women, and before I had written a novel of adolescence. We swore that we would not forget, if and when we had our own daughters, the power of first love. And I did not so much forget it as I was uneasy writing about it — the mother in me perhaps. I did not want to encourage my readers to enter that place of obsession and treachery and, yes, sometimes ecstasy, without having a clear way out. And I did not know yet, as a writer and an adult woman, how to faithfully re-create the misery and confusion of my own early sexual experiences. For these reasons, I was very well-suited for the phase of young adult literature that I came up in, an era of sensitive and articulate girl narrators who wanted romantic connection without the complications of having sexual intercourse. In love with love, yes. Sexually curious, perhaps. But sexually active, never.
Such a sensible approach! In my novels of yore, I could comfortably celebrate the innocence of these trysts. I could create girls, and also boys, who were longing for a partner, something beyond friendship, certainly, but also with the understanding that they were not ready for sex and did not need it.
Imagine. Young women who are strong in their innocence and unwaveringly hopeful about what is coming — their unfolding sexual lives.
In the final page of Camilla, our star gazer is back in her New York bedroom, studying Betelgeuse, a star in the constellation of Orion. Frank is gone, and she has turned to astronomy in her grief. She has learned many things. She has endured many disappointments. She is back in the tower, but no longer a child. She is looking up at the stars, intact and unharmed. It is a good place for her. She will stay there a little while longer, preparing for whatever comes next without regret or shame. Then she will resume the journey out.
I wish her well. I miss her.