Reviewed by Victoria
Everyone must have a perfect book, and The Enchanted April is mine. Although it was first published way back in 1922, it remains as charming and funny and altogether life-enhancing as ever, and still speaks to the eternal human dilemmas of love, freedom and belonging. It’s also a book that makes you long to go on holiday, preferably to a castle in Italy. In the new introduction written by Brenda Bowen for Vintage’s recent reprint, Bowen reminds us that Elizabeth von Arnim was actually on holiday in Portofino in April, renting the unromantically-named Castello Brown as an escape from a mud-locked chalet in Switzerland and an abusive husband, when she wrote the novel, working hard on her typewriter while ‘a stream of houseguests “ascended on” her’. In other words, she knew whereof she spoke, and she had the magical von Arnim touch to transform her own situation into one of the most delightful feel-good novels ever written.
The story begins in a dreary February in London, when Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot both spy the same advertisement in the newspaper at their club. ‘To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine,’ the advert begins, and both women are painfully aware of their longing for something better than their current situations. Lotty, scatter-brained and miserable, has had the confidence knocked out of her by marriage to the pompous Mellersh, a career-minded lawyer. Rose, meanwhile, has given herself over to the Poor and Good Works, in a horrified reaction to the success of her husband’s scandalous biographies. Behind this middle-class façade, a more damaging upset lurks: the loss of a much-wanted baby. The situation has caused what feels to Rose like a permanent estrangement from Frederick, who she is sure no longer loves her. The two women do not know one another well, but they bond together over their shared desire for the enticing vision of respite in a sunny, beautiful world.
Money is an issue. Both tap into nest-eggs they have been saving, but it’s still not enough. And so they come up with the plan to invite two further strangers to share the castle. Two reply to their own advertisement – the world-weary Lady Caroline Dester, worn out from fighting off determined suitors, and starchy Mrs Fisher, adrift in the once-glorious past, lonely and embittered and using her walking stick as an excuse for everything she doesn’t care to do. This clash of personalities and the arduous journey involved in reaching San Salvatore (as von Arnim renames her castle), make for a rocky start to the holiday. But from the moment she arrives, Lotty is transformed by the utter gorgeousness of the landscape, and she becomes a kind of ministering good angel to the group, a spirit of optimism, if you will, who believes wholeheartedly in the power of sunshine, rest and affection.
[Lotty’s] face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea…Happy? Poor, ordinary, everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.
In no time at all, Lotty is deciding to invite her husband to come and stay, convinced he needs ‘a thorough airing’, and then she sets to work on Rose, encouraging her to invite Frederick. Mrs Fisher, meanwhile, is horrified by Lotty’s lack of restraint: ‘Mrs Wilkins’s remarks seemed to Mrs Fisher persistently unfortunate. Each time she opened her mouth she said something best left unsaid. Loose talk about husbands had never in Mrs Fisher’s circle been encouraged. In the ‘eighties when she chiefly flourished, husbands were taken seriously as the only real obstacles to sin.’ Mrs Fisher is a glorious creation: selfish, territorial, disapproving and cold, but in von Arnim’s clever hands she never fails to reveal the dreadful loneliness that provokes her unpleasant disposition. And we readers are never in any doubt that Lotty will get her to ‘leave off being ossified’ eventually, as she amusingly puts it.
All of the healing and softening and bonding takes time. Von Arnim is wonderfully astute in her understanding that what makes all the difference is time and space and doing nothing. It’s a lesson we need more than ever in our hopped-up and over-busy world. A holiday – one that is actually going to do a person some good – need to be peaceful and relaxing, full of aimlessness. Poor Rose, who has the deepest misery to overcome, is given the longest time to be solitary. Lady Caroline Dester needs only a week or so to start rethinking the vacuousness of her upper class society life. Mrs Fisher requires almost an entire novel to unbend. But love and beauty really do triumph in the end. If you can’t rent your own Italian castle this year, then read the book instead. It’s like a distilled and bottled version of the most effective rest cure ever and will leave you with the biggest smile on your face.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and has reviewed Brenda Bowen’s retelling of The Enchanted April – Enchanted August here.
Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April (Vintage: London, 2015) 978-1784870461, 288 pp., paperback.
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