If I had to describe The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in just one word, that word would be ‘charming.’
Elizabeth Von Arnim was born in Australia but returned to England with her parents at the age of three. Her family must have been quite well off, because she lived a glamorous life, touring Europe, marrying a Prussian aristocrat, then having an affair with H. G. Wells after her husband’s death. (I believe loads of women had affairs with H. G. Wells, but still…) Eventually Elizabeth Von Arnim re-married an English Earl, but in between marrying, travelling, bringing up five children and having affairs, she wrote 22 books.
The Enchanted April was published in 1922. The story begins with Mrs Wilkins having lunch at her club, when she reads an advertisement in The Times.
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria 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, The Times.
Mrs Wilkins is a retiring woman married to a bullying solicitor, however she immediately pictured herself spending April in Italy enjoying the Wistaria and Sunshine. Looking around her club, she noticed another woman, Mrs Arbuthnot, seemingly reading the same advertisement. Mrs Wilkins introduces herself to Mrs Arbuthnot, then in an behaviour entirely unlike her usual self, raises the possibility of the two of them renting the castle during April. Mrs Arbuthnot is initially hesitant because she is a self-denying type of person, but in a move which is entirely out of her character, contacts the owner and pays the required 60 pounds to take the castle for the month of April. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot advertise to find another two women to come to Italy (and split the costs) and find Lady Caroline who is a beautiful young woman looking for solitude, and Mrs Fisher, a grumpy and lonely old woman.
The castle is everything that Mrs Wilkins has ever dreamed of and under the influence of its’ charms, she becomes happy, outspoken and confident. She is so happy that she invites her husband out to join her in Italy. In due course he arrives and is involved in an embarrassing incident with a temperamental bath which made me laugh so hard I woke up my own sleeping husband, who didn’t see the funny side…
Mrs Arbuthnot’s self denying behaviour has caused issues in her own marriage, after her husband became a best-selling author of scandalous stories. She felt morally unable to spend and enjoy the proceeds of her his work which caused them to live separate lives, however a series of funny misunderstandings brought them back together.
I was less enamoured of Lady Caroline’s character and problems, as it is hard to feel sorry for someone who is rich, young, well connected and so beautiful that everyone who crosses her path falls at her feet in servitude. Mrs Fisher is also a lesser character although easier to feel sorry for than Lady Caroline, as she is bored and lonely and has no one to love. For these characters too, enjoying sunshine and wisteria during April in Italy bring them long-term happiness too.
What I most liked about the writing in this book, is that even though it was written nearly 100 years ago, the characters, their behaviour and their wants and needs are still quite real. Mrs Arbuthnot’s morals are a little dated, but the characters are likeable and believable, and I had no problem imagining them enjoying their holiday.
Mrs Wilkins argument to convince Mrs Arbuthnot to go to Italy won me too. She said over and over again that being good at home was not bringing them happiness and that they would be better off enjoying themselves elsewhere;
“Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we would come back so much nicer.”
Count me in. Reading The Enchanted April felt like a little holiday to me and with 22 other novels by this author I’ll be sure to have other charming little holidays soon.