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A blog for everything bookish

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin


If ever there was a book that the words ‘delightful’, ‘charming’ and ‘blissful’ were invented for, this is it. If you are feeling sad, if you need a lift, if you want to read something that will leave you feeling like you’re lay, face upturned to the sun, in a field of soft-scented flowers, bees gently buzzing and not a care in the world this is the book for you. It is a drop of golden sunshine in bookish form. Really.

The Enchanted April begins with Mrs Wilkins, drab and lonely in her London club, rain pouring down outside, wind beating the windows, reading an advert in the Times. The advert reads:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain...”

Something about the advert captivates her, and she’s not alone as merely moments later she notices Mrs Arbuthnot also reading the Times, also with a wistful look of longing in her eyes. Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the pair forge a deal to rent the castle in spite of any possible objections their husbands might raise (to the point of lying about the trip). And husbands they do have, and unhappy marriages to boot.  

But it turns out that they can’t afford the castle by themselves so they advertise for two companions. They receive only two notices of interest: Mrs Fisher, an aged dusty old lady with a ‘stick’ (which takes on quite a character of its own, that stick) and Lady Caroline Dester, a women so desirable that any effort she makes to seem unwelcoming or churlish translates immediately into a kind of graceful charm which is both compelling and irresistible and results in much ‘grabbing’ from which she greatly desires to escape.

This motley crew descend upon the castle in the beautiful San Salvatore, each desiring much the same thing: peace, quiet, space to think and unfold. Each carries their own store of unhappiness. For Mrs Wilkins, Lotty, it is a shameful desire to escape the domination of her husband, in whose presence she feels useless to the point of awkwardness. It is Lotty who first throws of her former self; whereas before she had been quiet, awkward and shy at San Salvatore she becomes happy, open, blossoming, she says what she feels and she feels immensely. Mrs Arbuthnot, Rose, is hiding from a marriage which has become estranged on account of her intense religious devotion and her shame at her husband’s profession as a writer of scandalous memoirs. Rose desperately wants to reinvoke the love she shared with her husband in the early years of their marriage, before the sadness of a miscarriage, but doesn’t know how to come back from the coldness of their separation. Lady Caroline Dester desires to escape the ‘grabbers’ and think about the meaning of her life, passing judgement that somehow her life until that point had been ‘tawdry’, whereas Mrs Fisher merely wants to sit and think and remember the great people she had known in her youth, the likes of Ruskin and Keats, whose impact on her life had never been surpassed.

Not surprisingly, the castle at San Salvatore, in its beautiful surroundings, works its magic upon all the women, bringing them peace and happiness and resolution. The storyline isn’t challenging and the resolutions convenient, but none of that matters. What matters is the delightfulness of the prose, von Armin’s lightly comedic touch, the wonderful description of sunshine and flowers and the feeling that most British people share, that a good holiday in the sunshine can cure all ills. The characters are at times ridiculous (especially Mr Mellersh-Wilkins) and their behaviour almost caricaturish, but the way they are presented makes you love them. Like here where Lady Caroline (also known as ‘Scrap’ reflects on her flight to San Salvatore and what it meant:

Her mother had been distressed at her departure. It was such an odd thing to do, such a sign of disappointment. She encouraged the general idea of the verge of a nervous breakdown. If she could have seen her adored Scrap, more delightful to look upon than any other mother’s daughter had ever yet been, the object of her utmost pride, the source of all her fondest hopes, sitting staring at the empty noonday Mediterranean considering her three possible sets of twenty-eight years, she would have been miserable. To go away was bad; to think was worse. No good could come out of the thinking of a beautiful young woman. Complications could come out of it in profusion, but no good. The thinking of the beautiful was bound to result in hesitations, in reluctances, in unhappiness all round. And here, if she could have seen her, sat her Scrap thinking quite hard. And such things. Such old things. Things nobody ever began to think till they were at least forty.”

There are many beautiful descriptions of flowers (Elizabeth von Armin also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called Elizabeth and her German Garden which chronicles her own extra-marital affair with all things leafy and petal-laden) and sunshine and gorgeous scenery. But it is Love that permeates this book. Love with a capital L. How Love can free people from their fears, how it can complete them. It is a lovely book, a hug in paper-form and if it doesn’t leave you smiling, well, you’ll just have to read it again.

The Enchanted April receives a sunshiny 10 out of 10 Biis.

Oh, and there’s also a movie which is also very, very good and cheering with a wickedly good cast.