A Severed Wasp: A Novel

A Severed Wasp: A Novel

by Madeleine L'Engle


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A retired musician returns to performing in this “soul-satisfying” novel from the award-winning author of A Wrinkle in Time (Norman Lear).

Now in her seventies, Katherine Vigneras, née Forrester, has returned to New York City after a successful career touring as a concert pianist in Europe. Much has changed for Katherine: She is widowed and retired, and has lived through the harrowing years of World War II.
But when she encounters an old face from her youth in Greenwich Village, Katherine finds herself agreeing to perform at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an endeavor that proves to be unexpectedly rewarding—and challenging.
Touching and thought-provoking, A Severed Wasp explores the ebbs and flows in the life of an artist, and continues the story of the singular character who began Madeleine L’Engle’s accomplished career as a writer in her debut novel, The Small Rain.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504047746
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 09/19/2017
Pages: 388
Sales rank: 423,205
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) was an American author of more than sixty books, including novels for children and adults, poetry, and religious meditations. Her best-known work, A Wrinkle in Time , one of the most beloved young adult books of the twentieth century and a Newbery Medal winner, has sold more than fourteen million copies since its publication in 1962. Her other novels include A Wind in the Door , A Swiftly Tilting Planet , and A Ring of Endless Light. Born in New York City, L’Engle graduated from Smith College and worked in theater, where she met her husband, actor Hugh Franklin. L’Engle documented her marriage and family life in the four-book autobiographical series, the Crosswicks Journals. She also served as librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan for more than thirty years.

Date of Birth:

January 12, 1918

Date of Death:

September 6, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Litchfield, CT


Smith College, 1941

Read an Excerpt

A Severed Wasp

A Novel

By Madeleine L'Engle


Copyright © 1982 Crosswicks, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4153-9


The Cathedral


The very size of the Cathedral was a surprise. The old woman looked around at the columns rising up into shadows, at the vast nave sweeping the full length of a city block. Despite a sudden, unseasonable heat wave that had turned April into summer, she relaxed into a strange coolness of space and height, of soft light filtering through the stained glass of the high windows.

She could sense deep love in the retired bishop's voice as he propelled her farther into the nave. "I've never known a cathedral more beautiful than St. John the Divine, and I've preached and visited in many. The fact that the building started out Romanesque and got changed to Gothic in midstream doesn't matter. Somehow, the mishmash of architecture works."

Katherine turned slowly, enjoying the coolness that seemed to breathe from the stones. The soft light shimmered against the columns so that they shone like mother-of-pearl.

The bishop said, "I suppose you're familiar with most of the great cathedrals in Europe."

"Felix, I'm a pianist. I work hard. I've had little time for sightseeing."

He smiled slightly. "There are other reasons for going to a cathedral than sightseeing."

She laughed. "Touché. You've obviously changed since our non-churchgoing days. I haven't."

Somewhat stiffly, the old bishop said, "I realize you thought my way of life was —"

"Casual," she supplied.

"Thank you. That is a most generous way of putting it. I'm not certain that one is capable of much basic change. You might say that my priorities have shifted."

She put her hand lightly on his arm. "I'm not sure I was even aware your cathedral existed before you called me last week."

He reached for her hand. His skin was dry and felt crumply, like old leaves. "Remember — we used to come uptown to see the old French and Russian movies at the Thalia. But, as you say, we weren't thinking about church then. How I'd have laughed if anyone had told me I'd end up as Bishop of New York, and that this gorgeous monstrosity of St. John's Cathedral would be my true home."

He moved on down the nave. He wore a long, loose, off-white robe: a what? a caftan? That was not it, but she could not remember the right word. She knew that priests wore this kind of garb on occasion even now; it was, perhaps, coming back into style after all the years of clergy being more secular than the congregation. It was belted with a knotted silk rope from which dangled some kind of wooden beads, a long string of them, with a cross at the end. Not a rosary. All in all, it was a becoming costume.

"What do you call your caftan, or whatever it is?"

"Cassock. Katherine, my dear, you are kind indeed to come all this way up to meet me this evening. I can't tell you how much it means to me."

She would not tell him she had accepted his invitation simply out of curiosity. The idea that Felix Bodeway, that lightweight young man she had known half a century ago when they were both living in the Village, should have ended up a bishop struck her as hilarious. Felix? Had he experienced some kind of conversion, then? She was at loose ends, back in New York, widowed, retired — why not see what had happened to Felix?

Was it just that one is never quite aware of one's own age that made her feel that he looked older than she? He had shrunk, but not inordinately, and he still had most of his hair, although it was yellowish white. His eyes were a faded blue.

And now he was a bishop, frail, more stooped than she, but not doddering, like many of their contemporaries. That was a relief. She glanced at him again, at ease enough now to look to see if she recognized the old Felix and, if so, if he would still awaken the long-ago pain which had been part of the past to which Felix belonged. But so much deeper pain had come in the intervening years that all she felt was a vague nostalgia for her youthful anguish.

Brilliant sound startled her, a vivid calling of trumpets, red and blue and gold like the great stained-glass windows, she thought, and then came the mighty strains of a Bach fugue pouring from the organ.

Felix looked toward the choir loft. "Ah. Llew Owen is practicing. Since his wife's death he sometimes plays till two, three in the morning. I'd hoped he might be here this evening."

Without thinking, she shook off his hand and stood absolutely still, listening. Light and music wove and interwove; stone and sound became one. She stood absorbing, participating, until the last note of the fugue moved slowly along the length of the nave.

"Well?" Felix demanded.

She turned to him, incomprehending.

"What do you think of it — Llew's playing?"

"He's superb. Although I'd guess he's fairly young, isn't he?"

"Around thirty, I suppose. How did you know?"

"I'm a musician. How did his wife die?"

"In childbirth. The baby, too. Doesn't happen often in this day and age, and he almost went mad with grief."

"He'll be all right," she said with authority. "His music will see to that. While I was listening to him play, I realized how futile it is to try to transcribe that fugue for the piano."

"I've heard you play it, and magnificently."

"Don't flatter me, Felix."

"I often flatter, I suppose." His voice was rueful. "But not you, Katya, never you." The old nickname still sounded strange to her, so long was it since it had been used. "On the phone, when you realized who I was, you called me 'window cleaner.' I was deeply moved that you remembered."

"I have a good memory, Felix." — Too good. "Is becoming a bishop a way of becoming a window cleaner?"

"Becoming a priest. That was my hope." He sounded weary, and sad. He turned as they heard footsteps coming toward them, and raised his hand in greeting to an armed guard. "Evening, Steele."

"Evening, Bishop. You all right?"

"Yes, fine."

"Mr. Owen is up there practicing."

"Yes, we heard him. Everything quiet this evening?"

"So far," the guard said, nodded at them, and walked on.

The music started again, Messiaen now, and Katherine sat in one of the folding chairs which were lined in neat rows across the nave, with no fixed pews, as in most European cathedrals, or, at any rate, the only one she knew at all, the cathedral in Munich. She regarded the bishop in his light caftan — no, cassock — and thought that he looked pale and lonely and, despite his thinness, not as lightweight as he had been in his youth. Life had taken him a long way from the feline young man she had known for no more than a year. He had represented for her the cheapest part of la vie de Bohême, or hippiedom, or whatever it was called now, and she had tried to forget him as quickly as possible. She had not thought of him in all these years, until he had called her, less than a week after she had left the house in Paris and flown to New York, to her house on Tenth Street.

The stiff cathedral chair was uncomfortable. She rose, pushing herself up with the ivory-handled cane which she carried largely because she felt that it helped her get the service and consideration that she demanded in her old age. She did not want to need the cane. Her back was still straight, and though she likened her fingers to gnarled carrots, they were nearly as strong and nimble on the piano as ever. She practiced daily, and if it was not for as many hours as it used to be, it was a minimum of four. "All right, Felix. You've got me all the way up here for something. What is it?" The organ had stopped now, but almost immediately began again, the gentle sound of one of the more meditative chorale preludes.

He continued down the nave, stepping like a child around large, circular bronze insets. "The Pilgrim's Pavement," he murmured. "We have St. Peter's and St. Paul's towers completed, and are doing well with the transepts thanks to a completely unexpected bequest. However ..."

She stiffened. When he had urged her to meet him at the Cathedral, he had promised not to ask her for money.

"My job in my retirement is to work with the Cathedral Arts Program. I want you to give a concert, a benefit concert for us."

She shook her head definitely. "I am retired. You know that."

"You gave a concert in Paris less than six months ago. And I'm retired and still working and you're younger than I am."

"Felix, my feet hurt on this stone. I'm hungry. What about that dinner you promised me?"

"In a minute. I want to show you the ambulatory."

Her voice was sharper than she intended. "I'm tired. I'm still on French time, and it's past my dinner hour."

"All right. I never could say no to you. I hope you won't say no to me, though you were always good at that. But this time ... Come, we'll go out by St. James chapel and you'll at least get a glimpse of the ambulatory."

Still cross, but trying to soften her tone, she asked, "What's an ambulatory?"

"More or less what it sounds like. It's a half circle behind the high altar, and off it are rayed seven chapels. My idea is for a series of distinguished chamber-music concerts in St. Ansgar's chapel. Acoustically it's excellent for the piano, and we've been given a particularly fine Bösendorfer." He offered her the bait with eager anxiety.

Fine pianos were nothing new. "Dinner," she said firmly, "before I faint."

He jingled his bunch of keys. "I thought it would be more pleasant to take you home for a quiet meal than to go to a restaurant. Dinner's all ready, waiting in the fridge. Vitello tonnato and a bottle of Frascati."

"Allons y, alors."

Reluctantly he led her to an elaborately grilled iron gate, to the right of which stood an antique carved chest the size of a small coffin, with a hand-lettered sign reading DONATIONS.

"Does it ever get filled?" She smiled slightly at the size of the chest.

"We have to empty it every day, because of thieves and vandals, but you'd be amazed at how much gets put into it in a day, widow's mites, mostly, but it mounts up." He selected a key from the ring that was attached to his belt, on the other side from the beads — were they prayer beads of some kind? — opened the gate and led her up the shallow steps. "Everything gets locked up at five, but I still have the keys to the kingdom, and now that we're well into spring it's light till late." He pointed. "Look on your left for a glimpse of the ambulatory."

Obediently she turned her head and saw a curve of shadows and paneled wood holding paintings which in the twilight appeared to be early Renaissance. To the right were more grilled gates and a feeling that everything was reaching up, soaring to the vaulted ceiling. Felix opened another door, a wooden one this time, and they were out on a landing, leading to a steep flight of iron steps. The door closed on the notes of the organ. "Careful," Felix warned. "Hold on to the rail. We're still working on the south transept. I'll go first." He started down, leaning heavily on the iron rail. "I've hardly shown you anything." He sounded like a disappointed child. "We haven't gone near the Stone Yard — but of course it's closed for the night. Next time — you will come again? The Close is at its most beautiful right now."


"The grounds," he answered. "All this loveliness."

She looked around at the flowering trees, the young green grass. Everything was spring-fresh, and this first premature wave of heat was bringing all the buds into quick bloom. The thermometer was well into the eighties but the heat was not oppressive; the buildings had not yet absorbed the heat as they would during the long summer. She was grateful that she had come home in the spring rather than into the sweltering humidity of New York in summer.

"Haven't you read any Trollope lately?" Felix was asking.

"No, and I'm not sure I've ever been this far uptown before. I've tended to stay close to Tenth Street and Lincoln Center when I've been in New York."

"People are often amazed at this island of beauty in what is surely not one of the cleanest parts of our fair city." He paused to wave to two young mothers, one pushing a stroller, the other carrying her infant in a bright blue baby sling. They both returned his greeting, smiling. "This is a happy place," Felix said, "in an often unhappy city. People come here to play, to pray, to cry, to sing. All this green space is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer in an overcrowded metropolis. You will come again, won't you?"

"We'll see." And then, because she did not enjoy being unkind, she added, "We both do rather well in our old age, don't we?"

"You do. Better than I. I tend to get tottery if I'm overtired. Come. These are the flying buttresses. I'm enormously fond of them."

She looked at the great curved stone reinforcements, heavy to bear the adjective of flying, and jumped as a raucous scream cut across the air.

Felix laughed at her startled reflex. "One of our peacocks. They've become a tradition. They came with —" He paused, pondering. "When Donegan was Diocesan, or Moore? Anyhow, we've had several generations of them. They have become, as you might say, part of our image."

She glanced back at the great buttressed bulk of the cathedral looking, she thought, like many cathedrals in many cities where she had given concerts. Perhaps this was larger; Americans always wanted to make everything larger than everything else, as though that would make it better. She sighed lightly, thinking, — But I am an American. And I have always been small.

"Come look here." Felix prodded her, and they walked around to the front of the building, which had a façade of Greek columns, strangely in contrast to the prevailing Gothic architecture. "It used to be an orphan asylum, if I remember correctly, and it's now our museum. We have some very fine pieces." He turned again, leading her toward an open area of grass, trees, flowering bushes, azaleas just beginning to bud. To their left and ahead of them were grey stone buildings, their severity softened by spring plantings. The bishop looked around, sniffing appreciatively. "The Close runs from Amsterdam to Morningside, and from 110th to 113th Street. Ah, Katya" — he used the nickname he had picked up from her stepmother, her beloved Aunt Manya, and as he smiled she saw for a moment the young Felix — "you are as lovely as the Close — as strong as the stone of the buildings and as new as the spring — I would have recognized you anywhere. But then I've come to hear you every time you've played in New York."

"Have you, then?"

"Your hair turned white early, as I remember, but then black hair usually does."

"Felix, if you've come to hear me play over the years, why haven't you come backstage? Why wait till now to get in touch?"

He lifted one slender shoulder slightly. "Our paths have diverged radically. I thought I should not remind you of a time that surely was not happy for you. But now I want something."

He paused at the head of a short flight of stone steps. She stopped beside him. "Felix," she reminded him, "I've told you I'm retired."

"Wait. This is Cathedral House on our left, designed after a French château. Diocesan House is ahead of us, just down these steps and along the path. The library is there, and the diocesan offices, and my own little office. Several of the canons have apartments upstairs. Most of the married priests live off the Close."

She turned toward him. "Married priests?"

"Katya, St. John the Divine is an Episcopal church, not Roman Catholic. I thought you realized."

She traced a vague gesture with one hand. "I hardly knew that there were Episcopal cathedrals — or Episcopal bishops."

He took her hand and pressed it. "I told you our paths had diverged."

She looked at the beautifully kept gardens, smiling to see a group of young people, probably college students, dancing morris dances on the spring-green lawn, while one played a mandolin, another a recorder. "Yes. Sorry, Felix, you must know more about my path than I do yours, since you've come to my concerts. I've been rather isolated in the world of music."

"And your family."

"Yes. Of course. My family."

He looked across at the grey stone building he had called Diocesan House. "Since I'm long-retired, I'm more than grateful that I have my tiny office in this building where there's an elevator. Allie has been — is — extraordinarily kind to me."


"Alwood Undercroft. The sixteenth Bishop of New York; I was fifteenth. I'm still moderately useful in my modest way, and being allowed to remain useful is a great and uncommon privilege. The government ups its retirement age, and the church lowers its, and out you go, arse over amice, whether you're still in your prime or not. I'm long past my prime, but I wasn't at retirement, and I'd die quickly if I was just turned out to pasture."

She shifted the strap of her handbag from one shoulder to the other. She had not got over the habit of carrying music manuscript around with her. "Artists have no mandatory retirement age. I'm not at all sure what I'm going to do with my retirement."


Excerpted from A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L'Engle. Copyright © 1982 Crosswicks, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Cathedral,
Tenth Street,
The Hunter Portrait,
Bishop Bodeway's Past,
The Kommandant,
A Concert in Munich,
Elective Affinities,
The Wooden Madonna,
Parents and Children,
The Discipline of Memory,
A Change of Program,
Music in the Cathedral,
A Biography of Madeleine L'Engle,

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Severed Wasp 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Coffeelite212 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book was slow to get me interested, but by the end I could not put it down. The characters were well developed that I felt comfortable with them and did not want to see them go. (Even if I didn't like a bunch of them!) I would recommend this book.
StephJoan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Madeline L'engles writing. I love her characters and I am at home in her books. It is a pleasure to read them. I was disappointed with the end of the book and with some of the details of the story. Character is always more important to me than story though so despite my disappointment, I was mostly happy.
picardyrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought my adult life would be more like this.
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
Severed Wasp Ms. L'Engle was a very good writer. I had high hopes for this book, especially since I am also a pianist. However, I was to be sorely disappointed. Perhaps not everyone cares if such novels are historically accurate and there is some room for editorial license. However, when it comes to describing the acts of servicement who sacrificed so much to help Germany, the comments that made out the US to be the bad guys in Germany, in World War II were quite troubling. In point of fact, the US liberated many Jewish people from their cruel tormentors and it was necessary to use bombs to stop the bad guys. The US were NOT the bad guys in Germany; the Nazis were. In addition, the negative comments about what the damage caused by bombs, the fact is that the US participated in the Marshall Plan, which helped REBUILD Germany after World War II. I couldn't even finish the book, and I consider the time spent reading the first part, to be a waste of time. If you want a realistic portrayal of life during World War II, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" would be a better choice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Katherine Vigneras, concert pianist and widow of composer Justin Vigneras, returns to New York - the city of her youth - in retirement. She's in her seventies now, enjoying good health despite a few of the usual age-related physical problems, and she's tremendously thankful that she can still keep a routine of daily practice. When she meets an old friend whom she hasn't seen since she was seventeen years old, she has no idea that their renewed connection will draw her into a mystery that is somehow tied to the cathedral where Felix Bodeway was once Bishop of New York. She's simply amazed that the boy she knew could have turned into a clergyman. This thoroughly adult (in the best sense of that word) novel is peopled with characters familiar to L'Engle's readers from her young adult books. I found it fascinating to look at them through a different pair of eyes - those of sophisticated expatriate, septugenarian Katherine. As always, even L'Engle's 'minor' characters reach the page fully fleshed. The novel plays itself out in layers, as each event in Katherine's present day life (her 'new' life of retirement) reminds her of her past. She moves back and forth through time, across the Atlantic and back, and takes the reader along without causing confusion. Writing with this technique takes skill, but it's absolutely necessary when following the thoughts of an elderly protagonist whose work now is to make sense out of the past. To think through everything that she had no time to analyze while she was living it, and to come to terms with everything she's lived long enough to regret. L'Engle's best, in my opinion; and I've been reading L'Engle since I discovered A WRINKLE IN TIME over 40 years ago. Wise and unsentimental, yet brimming with hope and with common human love. Highly recommended, indeed!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read most of L'Engle's fiction, and A Severed Wasp contains themes similar to those in all her novels. She weaves an interesting story, but her characters tend to be somewhat unbelievable. Also as in most of her works, the end of the book ties up all loose ends and tops it off with a bow, perhaps too simply. However, she does some good character development and the story line keeps moving without getting dull. I also appriciate the way she plays with time. Those expecting a masterpiece may be disappointed, but those looking for an enjoyable novel will find just that; I recommend it to all L'Engle fans.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is the beautiful sequel of The Small Rain, picking up when Katherine Forrester Vigneras is an old woman moving back to her home neighborhood in New York. The story has another immense plot, but weaved into the present day writing, is the tale of events that fills the gap left off from The Small Rain. For all who loved the first book, A Severed Wasp is a must read.