A while ago I asked about books which just fitted the environment in which they were read, and wanted something which would fit a meadow in spring. Danielle, Susan D. and IslandSparrow all suggested Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, and since I was at home in lovely rural Somerset in April, it seemed the perfect book to try.
E von A is mentioned a lot in an online book group I’m in, especially a few years ago, and in fact I’d bought The Enchanted April in 2004 or 2005, but not got around to reading it. No real reason for its being on the backburned – though perhaps the 1980s TV shot chosen by Virago for my edition didn’t do it any favours. Well, now I’ve read it, and the novel is possibly my favourite read of 2009 so far.
For those who don’t know the premise – shy, awkward and quirky Lottie Wilkins wishes to escape a lacklustre husband who thinks she is unintelligent; she meets Rose Arbuthnot who is best summed-up by this reaction to the idea of a holiday in Italy:
No doubt a trip to Italy would be extraordinarily delightful, but there were many delightful things one would like to do, and what was strength given to one for except to help one not to do them?
Nevertheless, she too has a situation she wishes to escape, and is intrigued by the idea of a castle for hire in Italy. Upon investigating, Lottie and Rose realise they’ll need another couple people to share the rent. Step forward Mrs. Fisher, an older lady whose life is spent remembering the wise words of Victorian writers whom she probably met in her youth – and Lady Caroline Dester, a stunning beauty who is tired of everyone ‘grabbing’ onto her, and wants to get away from being the centre of society. They all head off to Italy, including an amusing journey in which Lottie and Rose become convinced that they’ve been kidnapped, as all their Italian is ‘San Salvatore’, the name of the castle – which they repeat at intervals, to be met with empassioned nodding and agreement from the Italians travelling with them.
The castle is described beautifully, and especially the garden – attention drawn often to the wistaria, which happens to be my favourite plant. Everywhere is brightly sunny, airy, thick with the scent of flowers and bursting with nature. It could have been horribly overdone, but E von A strikes just the right note – and thank you to those who recommended it, reading the novel with equally beautiful (but rather different) countryside around me was perfect. Though it might work also as a distraction to city life where trammelled nature does anything but burst.
All four holiday-makers arrive unhappy, and all have some faults – especially the very selfish Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline. From the start, though, Lottie is certain that the castle will have a positive, almost magical, effect upon anyone staying there. And she is, of course, right. I don’t want to spoil all the events of the novel, but suffice to say each character is altered by the surroundings, friendships develop and faults evaporate. What prevents The Enchanted April from being too fairy talesque or saccharine is a wittiness and honesty which somehow make the changes in everyone seem not only realistic but inevitable, and still thoroughly heart-warming.
How the cousin of Katherine Mansfield and sister-in-law of Bertrand Russell wrote such a happy, warm novel is anybody’s guess – but I do encourage you to seek out The Enchanted April is you haven’t yet done so. It’s a beautiful novel which is also extremely well written – the style flows by, perspicacious but unassuming, and the four central characters are incredibly well drawn. Not at all stereotypes, yet definitely distinct and memorable, they seem real, with real traits and feelings and failings, and must have been very difficult to create. Simply brilliant.
And soon I’ll be writing about the next novel I read, also about four women living together in a house. It’s written by one of the authors in my 50 Books list, and was published in 1989. A prize to anyone who can guess the book…