12 April 2021

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

It began in a woman's club in London on a February afternoon--an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon--when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this....

What follows is an advertisement for a small medieval castle in Italy to let on the shores of the Mediterranean.  The ad romantically calls out to those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.  Initially thinking such a holiday is only for the rich, Mrs. Wilkins revisits the part of the ad referring to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Such a statement surely includes her as much as any wealthy citizen.  Two years of marriage to a solicitor, focusing on his needs and those of his extended family, have made Lotty realize she needs to claim moments of joy for her very own.  Raising her eyes from the ad to look at another woman attending her Shaftesbury Club, she wonders if Mrs. Arbuthnot could possibly feel the same way?

She looked so kind.  She looked so unhappy.  Why couldn't two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk--real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope?

By page six I knew this was just the sort of book to carry me through these last bits of cold, wet weather.  I also wondered how many women read this story when it was published in 1922 and broached the topic of booking a fabulous holiday with a friend?  I digress....

Caught off-guard Mrs. Arbuthnot is rattled by the idea of planning such an indulgent trip.  She's been firmly rooted in the idea of God, Home, Husband, Duty.  Surely one's home is the very idea of Heaven?  But all is not as it seems in either woman's marriage.  Throwing caution to the wind, it's decided that Lotty and Rose will reply to the ad.  By the way, the rental for this particular castle was a sigh-inducing £60 per month.

Realizing the costs could easily be split between four as there are plenty of spare rooms, the new friends place an ad of their own.  Enter the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs. Fisher who is decidedly reserved and slightly mature, shall we say.  Arriving at their holiday destination.....

....it had from each of its three sides the most amazing views--to the east the bay and mountains, to the north the village across the tranquil clear green water of the little harbour and the hill dotted with white houses and orange groves, and to the west was the thin thread of land by which San Salvatore was tied to Genoa reaching away into the blue dimness of France.

Each woman has varying expectations pertaining to their retreat from the routine of life at home.  Solitude is a common theme which can prove difficult while trying to be courteous.  We can all identify with lining up a picture perfect afternoon picnic, evaporated by a boisterous crowd planted nearby.  But as time passes connections are made between the guests, personal armour melts away and the dynamics shift in the loveliest of ways.  

Interestingly, it occurred to me that this story could also be imagined as the perfect setting for a holiday during this pandemic.  The elements are all there...spacious grounds and an abundance of fresh air.  With each woman finding her own section of the castle's garden for quiet reflection the atmosphere couldn't be more perfect for physical distancing.  And I'm slightly worried that thinking this way has crept into my reading.....

The Enchanted April is a beautiful story that begs to be read during bleak winter months and I will certainly be returning to it again.  Elizabeth von Arnim beautifully points out the benefits of taking time for ourselves for rest, clarity and fostering independence.  But most of all, she gave this winter-weary reader the gift of a garden when ours is still a few weeks away.

Such a jumble of spring and summer was not to be believed in, except by those who dwelt in those gardens.  Everything seemed to be out together--all the things crowded into one month which in England are spread penuriously over six.  Even primroses were found one day by Mrs. Wilkins in a cold corner up in the hills' and when she brought them down to the geraniums and heliotrope of San Savatore they looked quite shy.

The Red Cloche by Grace Cochran Sanger (1885 - 1966)

12 comments:

  1. This is one of my all time favorite novels, so I am glad to see your glowing review here.

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    1. I'm more than happy to receive recommendations of other titles I've ridiculously put off reading for far too long, Terra. Off to add this one to my list of favourites on the sidebar....

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  2. Lovely review! I reread this last year, early in the pandemic, and it was wonderful to imagine myself slipping away to Liguria alongside the characters.

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    1. You and me both, Claire! The carefree days, sun and breeze on your face and fresh scenery to drink in. I think this book would have swept me away prior to the pandemic but reading it now was such a gift. All the best!

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  3. Lovely! To be honest, I am mostly surprised you hadn't already read it - this seems such a Darlene novel.

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    1. Hi Simon! I remember seeing the film, and at one point a colleague loaned me a copy of the tie-in book, so I've spent years thinking I had read it. Do you know how many times I've passed this over at BMV while looking for a copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden? Ridiculous....

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  4. This to me is the ultimate comfort read.

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Peggy, and lovely of you to stop by.

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  5. One of my all-time favorites! I've loved most of EvA's novels, also recommend Father and In the Mountains. I still have several of her books unread, including Vera, The Jasmine Farm, Mr. Skeffington, and The Caravaners, which I hope to read as soon as I finish all my books-in-progress!

    For a slightly darker look at expats in Italy, I highly recommend Up at the Villa, a novella by W. Somerset Maugham. Not exactly comforting but I've read it many times and I always enjoy it. It's quite short and can easily be read in a single sitting.

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    1. I'll be picking up more by von Arnim so thanks for pointing me in the direction of a few favourites. I've read Vera but it's definitely a darker read than Enchanted April....still a good one, though! And if memory serves, we have a copy of Up at the Villa at the library. I'll leave for work a little early on Sunday and enjoy a browse through the stacks. Thanks again, Karen!

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  6. I love this, and haven't read it for too long - another re-read to come when it's time to do that, I think! I do know what you mean about the pandemic creeping in, but I think it's bound to. I certainly get twitchy when I see scenes on the TV with everyone crammed in somewhere together!

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    1. I laughed while reading your 'twitchy' comment because we're just the same at our house! But even before Covid I would shudder when people on Bake Off sit on the floor and lean back on their hands. I want to believe they wash their hands before touching the baked goods...
      Thanks for stopping by, LyzzyBee!

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