The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Well, after all that fretting and trying to decide, I guess that it’s no surprise that I actually ended up choosing Elizabeth von Arnim’s “The Enchanted April” for my Virago Author of the Month read. The weather has been so cold and I was so fed up returning to work after the Easter break that something sunny and lovely was just what I felt like – and I certainly got that here!

Published in 1922, TEA is perhaps the best-known and most read of Arnim’s works and it’s often been adapted for stage, screen and other media. It’s not hard to see why as it’s a delight from start to finish, though I do wonder if the atmosphere and wonderful narrative voice would carry over from the book.

The story begins in a grey February London, where Lotty Wilkins is contemplating escape. Her marriage is a disappointment, her husband Mellersh being stiff and unresponsive, and she dreams of Italy. By chance she spots an advertisement offering a month’s rental of a castle in the country of her dreams; and it seems the ideal time to spend the nest-egg she’s been saving. And a chance encounter with a fellow member of her club, Rose Arbuthnot, sets things in motion.

Rose is also unhappy in her marriage; a pious vicar’s daughter, she has become estranged from her husband Frederick who spends most of his time away from home. Rose is unhappy that he earns a living writing biographies of famous courtesans, and throws herself into good works to compensate for this. However, she too is seduced by the advert and when Lotty realises this she sees a chance for them both to take the castle and have their month of freedom.

The cost, however, is an issue; and so the ladies recruit two others to help pay the bills, in the form of Lady Caroline Dester, a society woman famed for her beauty, and Mrs. Fisher, a grim old widow stuck in the past when she associated with such famous men as Ruskin and Carlyle. The four disparate characters finally manage to arrive in San Salvatore and it is here that the fun begins.

The place and its intense beauty have an immediate effect on Lotty, who perhaps wanted the holiday more than anyone. She positively blossoms, and her reaction to the place affects the others. Rose, too, is enchanted although troubled by the state of her marriage to Frederick. Lady Caroline (reverting to her nickname of Scrap) simply wants to be left alone – her beauty and position are a constant burden to her and she lives in terror of being ‘grabbed’ by everyone who wants her attention. As for Mrs. Fisher, it’s hard to see at first what motivates her although even she will be changed by the location.

Complexities occur in the form of husbands: Lotty invites hers to join them as she cannot bear to enjoy all this beauty without her partner to share it with. Rose wants to do the same but is tormented by the realisation that he finds her a bore. Scrap wants nothing to do with love, being sick of being fawned upon by every man she meets. And Mrs. Fisher thinks all this talk of husbands improper. However, thrown into the mix are the solitary Mr. Briggs, owner of San Salvatore, who turns up in pursuit of one woman only to be thrown off-balance. And who is this mysterious old friend of Scrap’s that suddenly appears?

Needless to say, the conclusion of the book is lovely and occasionally unexpected. I’m not going to reveal anything (although I have to say that I raced through the book, desperate to find out how things would be resolved), but I will say that each woman comes to Italy to escape from her current life, and each finds what she needs there.

“The Enchanted April” really lives up to its name – it *is* utterly enchanting. I loved each of the characters – from Lotty’s visionary dreaming through Rose’s moral crises, Scrap’s inability to appear anything but lovely and pleasant, and Mrs. Fisher’s testy reliance on the past, each is individual and wonderfully defined. Even the supporting characters are lovely, and the setting is of course glorious – Arnim’s descriptions of the scenery were delicious and wafted me away from cold every day England to a beautiful setting, dripping with my favourite wisteria. They were so vivid that I was filled with an urge to set of for Italy immediately myself.

It would be easy for a book like this to slip into romance territory, but fortunately it’s saved from becoming too saccharine by a number of elements. Firstly, there is Arnim’s trademark humour; the other books of hers I’ve read have been full of wonderful dry wit, and this is no exception. The description of Mellersh’s first encounter with Italian plumbing, for example, is just priceless.

Secondly, there is of course a more serious undercurrent to the book; the theme of loneliness is never far away from the surface. Lotty and Rose are both lonely within their marriage; Scrap has kept herself whirling around in a frantic haze of society simply to hide up the hollowness of her life; and Mrs. Fisher hides from the coldness and lack of love by burying herself in the past.

Arnim in 1920 courtesy elizabethvonarnim.wordpress.com

Arnim is particularly good on the reasons why a marriage can go wrong: from the grinding repetitiveness and the petty disagreements that flare up from living close to someone, to the growing apart and the becoming bored with the same person, it’s clear that she feels the women need something to revitalise their relationships. It turns out to be the change of scene and the break from the everyday that allows them to become themselves again, thereby jump starting their marriages. And in the case of Scrap, she’s allowed the space to think, to look at her life and to see what’s missing and what she really wants from it.

It’s also clear that Arnim believes that our surroundings are vitally important to the people we are; and I suppose that was part of the charm of her “Elizabeth…” books, as the main character spent much time in her beautiful garden, so crucial to her peace of mind. Certainly, the book cleverly exposes the difference location makes to Lotty and Rose; initially they seem like two ordinary, dull married women, but once they are in San Salvatore and we see them through the eyes of the Italian servants, we have to adjust our perspectives as it’s clear that they are in fact beautiful young women.

There are no doubt criticisms that could be levelled at “The Enchanted April”: for a start, it’s not exactly feminist and Arnim seems to think that the love of a good man is the solution to everything. There’s never any idea that they can live a fulfilled life without that relationship, and in fact Rose’s constant attempt to make her own way by doing good work is rather mocked in the book. Also, the class element is unavoidable; even though Lotty and Rose are not rich, they certainly can afford servants and the distinction between the guests and those serving at the castle is clear.

Nevertheless, this was a joyous and uplifting read; Jacqui compared it to “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” in her excellent review here, and it certainly has a similar fairy-tale quality to it. If I’m honest, and I had to choose, I think “Miss Pettigrew” might just pip “The Enchanted April” to the post (although the former has no wisteria, which is a disadvantage…) We don’t all have the luxury of a month away in the sun to discover or rediscover our real selves – but oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful!

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