As soon as I learned that Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April was to be reissued as a Penguin classic, I jumped at the chance to read it. Elizabeth and her German Garden was such an engaging and entertaining read and I recall in the comments of that review so many mentions of The Enchanted April as a must read.
Elizabeth wrote The Enchanted April in a castello (an eleventh-century fortress with Roman foundations overlooking the Ligurian Sea) in Portofino, Italy, in April 1921. She had rented the place to get away from her own (sixteen bedroom) chalet in Switzerland… an extract from the Introduction by Brenda Bowen
Brenda Bowen has written a work of fan fiction, published in June 2015, one that mirrors von Arnim’s work, set in contemporary Brooklyn and Maine featuring four ladies who will rent a cottage (not castle) on Little Lost Island, Maine.
Enchanting indeed, not just the month of April, but all that made this original classic so; the villa San Salvatore (inspired by the Castello Brown pictured below) on the cliffs of Portofino overlooking the sea, the blooming buds and flowers of Spring, four weeks stretched out in front of four unaccompanied women with no social obligations, no cooking, cleaning, nothing to do but enjoy the gardens, the villa, the seascape and one minor challenge, to tolerate each others company.
They are four women who remind me of the semi-autobiographical and coolly calculating character of Elizabeth, in von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden, for though the four women in this novel sought company for this séjour on the Ligurian coast of Italy, it was purely for financial reasons, most certainly not for companionship, the first hint of von Arnim’s well-known and often quoted attitude towards visitors.
Being with strangers, they each hoped to leave that part of themselves that must always meet the expectations of others behind. Mrs Wilkins from Hampstead was the first to see the advertisement in The Times while visiting her London club.
To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000,
Mrs Wilkins was certain another woman her age was reading the same ad and having a similar response to it, so true to her nature (though not typical of society’s expectation of a response) she seized the initiative suggesting they rented the place together.
Her initial reluctance overcome, once the two women realised it was possible, they needed only a solution to the expense which Mrs Wilkins solved by suggesting they place another ad to attract another two like-minded female souls, thus we are introduced to the beautiful, ever charming even when she is trying not to be, Lady Caroline Dester and the somewhat disagreeable and much older Mrs Fisher.
Once ensconced in their lodgings, the four women interact and are given a well-portrayed and at times humorous glimpse into their individual characters, made all the more interesting by the fact that these women were most unlikely to have ever encountered each other within their existing social circles.
Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are pleased to have escaped their husbands, though they each harbour an underlying sadness for how things were when they were newly married. They are not aged, in their thirties, they have more the air of self-accepting middle age. However, they hadn’t reckoned on the effect of a stay at San Salvatore.
Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone, unmarried and disinclined, she detests the attention her beauty and natural charm attract. The formidable Mrs Fisher appears malcontent for no more reason than that she’s been on Earth at least twice as long as the younger women, having lost what youthful exuberance she may ever have had long ago.
‘Mrs Fisher doesn’t seem happy – not visibly anyhow,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, smiling.
‘She’ll begin soon, you’ll see.’
Mrs Arbuthnot said she didn’t believe that after a certain age people began anything.
Mrs Wilkins said she was sure no one, however old and tough could resist the effects of perfect beauty. Before many days, perhaps only hours, they would see Mrs Fisher bursting out into every kind of exuberance. ‘I’m quite sure, said Mrs Wilkins, ‘that we’ve got to heaven, and once Mrs Fisher realises that’s where she is, she’s bound to be different. You’ll see. She’ll leave off being ossified, and go all soft and able to stretch, and we shall get quite – why, I shouldn’t be surprised if we get quite fond of her.’
Things are about to change, as the castle San Salvatore, though solid and immovable, works its way into their psyches and each will fall under the spell of the charming fortress and its healing environment over the course of their four-week stay.
I thought The Enchanted April a wonderful, evocative read and witty insight into its very English characters, enjoyable for its sense of place and the lush season it evokes, von Arnim’s natural, subtle humour that she never ceases to inject into her narratives, in this novel there is no trace of the slight cynicism of her earlier work; she has allowed her four women to indulge this fantasy through to its natural conclusion.
And oh how fulfilling that can be for the reader, I know this little stretch of Italy and it invoked pleasant memories and incited future dreams of a possible return – with three women ‘bien sûr’!
Countess Elizabeth von Arnim
Born Mary (May) Annette Beauchamp in 1866, Elizabeth von Arnim was Australian by birth, English by upbringing, German and English through marriage, Swiss and French by choice and finally American by emigration. She published 21 books in her lifetime, books where the central female character(s) were often witty and unreserved, possessing an unusual outlook on life. A number of them, including The Enchanted April were made into films.
An appearance of the novel Elizabeth and her German Garden in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, sparked renewed interest in the works of the author. That novel was so popular when first published, it was reprinted 21 times within a year of publication.
She was the cousin and contemporary of the New Zealand/English writer Katherine Mansfield. She died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1941.
Elizabeth von Arnim Conference – In an extraordinary coincidence that I just discovered, the Katherine Mansfield Society is to hold an Elizabeth von Arnim Conference, at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge on Sept 13th 2015!
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.