"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."
— From The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim)
For those of you who are of a literary bent (you know who you are), April is “the cruelest month.” For those, however, to whom April is the month of tender shoots bursting through the soil, trees hazy with the first green traces of foliage, and perfumed air trembling with the promise of spring, the more appropriate adjective would be “enchanted.” This distinction brings me to a novel which always seems to infiltrate my senses at this time of year: The Enchanted April
, by Elizabeth von Arnim. The excellent 1992 BBC film version (which, incidentally, will be released on DVD
next month) introduced me to this small miracle of a story, but the novel on which it was based contains an even more effortless combination of charm, wit, and sensual feeling for the natural world. The plot is hung on the slenderest of threads. February in London in the 1920s is about as cold, damp, and dreary as this past winter in New York has been. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot--childless women burdened with stifling duties and distant husbands--catch each other reading the above personal notice one miserable afternoon and are seized with the idea of leaving everything behind, including their boorish husbands, for one magical month in Italy. The husbands are not the worst of their species (men fare less well in some of Elizabeth von Arnim’s other fiction), but they are cold and rather remote. Mellersh Wilkins is a man who “produced the impression of keeping copies of everything he said.” Frederick Arbuthnot writes risqué historical novels which are a great embarrassment to his wife, who firmly believes that “No one should write a book God wouldn’t like to read.”
[A charcoal sketch of Elizabeth by John Singer Sargent, 1923]
These women need to get away, and their husbands are prepared to see them off, but the ?60 rental fee is too much even for their combined savings, and two other women must be found to split the cost of the holiday. These are Mrs. Fisher, a woman of an earlier Victorian generation, locked into her memories of that more glorious past, and Lady Caroline Desta, a glamorous twenty-eight year old London socialite disillusioned with both the superficialities of her life and her swarm of adoring suitors. The Enchanted April is one of several novels by Elizabeth von Arnim (including The Caravaners and Elizabeth in Rügen) in which women are urged to leave their domestic responsibilities behind and seek independence in travel, advice which a legion of admiring fans was eager to follow throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s. The four principal characters arrive at their castle in San Salvatore and almost immediately begin to experience the enriching effects of its natural beauties. It is here that the writing takes on an almost transcendent quality:
All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.
I find very recognizable the odd mingling of exhilaration and inner calm that comes with stepping out of a congested city and entering a natural landscape; during the rare times I am able to achieve such a change, it is my Manhattan life which tends to fade away, while the other world of fresh air, blue skies, and growing things seems to become the one I have always inhabited.
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.
The only open questions for the two wives now are whether they can coax their remote husbands to the castle to join them and whether or not the April magic of San Salvatore will have its same restorative effect on them. That, in essence, is the plot: a simple one, and yet intensely satisfying. None of this is as sentimental as my summary has made it sound.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s prose is textured with a dry and sometimes even acerbic wit, and her principle theme is a satirical questioning of the social order, underscored by her feminist tendencies and a skeptical view of the institution of marriage. In all, she wrote twenty-two novels, and from the first, the celebrated 1898 Elizabeth and Her German Garden, her literary voice was distinctive. With the exception of one, they were all published under the somewhat coy pseudonym “the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden,” a move inititially adopted to placate her first husband, Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin (referred to in that book only as “The Man of Wrath”) but maintained due to the largely autobiographical nature of much of her fiction (including the renting with several women friends of a medieval Italian castello, which became the basis of The Enchanted April). I’ve found and read only a half-dozen of Elizabeth von Arnim’s works but, along with The Enchanted April, I can also heartily recommend The Pastor’s Wife, Love, and Vera. The circulating libraries have several reprint editions, including The Enchanted April, but it is the General Reference Division where you will find all of her novels in their first editions. The author’s fascinating life and circle of friends, which included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore, Michael Arlen, Max Beerbohm, George Santayana, as well as her cousin, Katherine Mansfield, is recounted in Karen Usborne’s biography “Elizabeth”, the Author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.