The Enchanted April

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April (1922)

What it’s about: London and Portofino, 1922. Two Englishwomen, Lotty Watkins and Rose Arbuthnot, meet at a women’s club on a rainy afternoon in London, both drawn to a newspaper advertisement to rent an Italian castle (promising “wistaria and sunshine”) for the month of April. Lotty, who is in a loveless marriage with the social-climbing solicitor Mellersh, begs Rose to join her and rent the castle together. Rose, who is unhappily married to Frederick, an author of salacious biographies about royal mistresses, is reluctant to spend money that could be used for her philanthropic work, but is eventually persuaded. Lotty and Rose meet the castle owner, a young artist named Thomas Briggs, who is immediately attracted to Rose. To defray expenses, Lotty and Rose find two other guests to join them: Mrs Fisher, an imperious widow who name-drops dead literary celebrities she knew as a child, and Lady Caroline Dester, a beautiful socialite who is bored with her life of privilege and the predatory attentions of men. After a troubled journey, Lotty and Rose arrive at San Salvatore, and are enchanted by the beautiful house and garden in full bloom. Mrs Fisher and Caroline, who arrived a day earlier, claim the best rooms at the top of the house. Mrs Fisher attempts to take order of meal-times and servants, irritating Rose, whereas Caroline wants to be left alone. Lotte, transformed by her new environment, writes to Mellersh to join her, while Rose reflects on her unhappiness and debates whether to invite Frederick. Mellersh arrives, apparently for the sole purpose of wooing Caroline as a client. After an embarrassing accident with an exploding bathtub, he soon relaxes into his new environment, and falls back in love with Lotte.  Caroline also warms to Lotte’s kind nature and agrees to cover the catering expenses for the first fortnight. Rose decides to write to Frederick, and receives a telegram a few days later from Briggs, announcing that he will pay them a surprise visit. Rose and Briggs spend the day together and form a quasi-romantic connection, until he meets Caroline and becomes immediately besotted with her. Frederick arrives, in pursuit of Caroline (who knows him from the London social circuit where he goes under a pseudonym) but unaware that Rose is also there. Caroline greets him pleasantly, hoping that he will provide a foil for Briggs, whom she suspects is a “grabber”. Rose finds Frederick and, assuming that he has come at her request, embraces him passionately. Frederick responds enthusiastically to her affection, while Caroline graciously says nothing. With both married couples reconciled and Briggs and Caroline possibly getting together, Mrs Fisher realises that the dead are poor company and that she must embrace her new living friends. The month in San Salvatore ends with a glorious explosion of early summer flowers.

Why it’s a classic: Published in 1922, The Enchanted April became an immediate success in the UK and especially in America, apparently helping establish Portofino as a fashionable tourist destination. Elizabeth von Arnim was already an established writer, since the success of her 1898 semi-autobiographical novel Elizabeth and her German Garden, describing her first marriage to a German aristocrat and her attempts to integrate into high-class German society. The Enchanted April continued a recurring theme in Arnim’s novels, of women trapped in unhappy marriages, though with a gentler comic touch, and following what was by the 1920s a popular literary genre – that of repressed Englishwomen finding fulfilment and love against the sun-burnished pagan landscapes of Italy. The Enchanted April shares a similar storyline and comic style to E. M. Forster’s “Italian” novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and especially A Room with a View, which both feature Englishwomen who experience love and profound change (one tragically, one successfully) in Italy. The connection isn’t coincidental: Forster was at one stage tutor to Arnim’s children, before he was a published novelist and after she was a best-selling author, and it’s fascinating to consider how the two writers might have influenced each other.

Arnim’s other works have since dropped out of fashion, though many have been republished by Virago Press, who saluted Arnim’s quietly feminist credentials. The Enchanted April continues to be the best-known of her works, never going out of print since its publication, and has been adapted for stage and film multiple times. Mike Newell’s 1991 film Enchanted April, filmed in Castello Brown in Portofino where Arnim stayed in the 1920s, was a similar trans-Atlantic success, garnering Joan Plowright an Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs Fisher. It’s also become a favourite choice for “lockdown literature”, providing a welcome dose of wish fulfilment for all those wishing they were on the Mediterranean right now.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, though I’ll leave Arnim to describe it herself: “The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour…. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers—the periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps—and flowers that grow only in borders in England, proud flowers keeping themselves to themselves over there, such as the great blue irises and the lavender, were being jostled by small, shining common things like dandelions and daisies and the white bells of the wild onion, and only seemed the better and the more exuberant for it.”

Everything that’s wonderful about The Enchanted April is contained in that paragraph – the lively, exuberant prose, the wonderfully sensuous descriptions of nature, and the witty satirical dig at a repressive kind of Englishness that chokes the joy out of life. I’ve rarely read a book that was such an unadulterated joy to read, from its first lines till the end. At first glimpse, it’s a wittily observed social comedy that gives its readers the intensely pleasurable experience of wish fulfilment. The world of San Salvatore is an enchanted castle from a fairytale, in which seemingly impossible romantic fantasies come true: the landscapes of Italy will soothe and transform the soul, unhappily married women will rediscover their mojo, neglectful husbands will become romantic and devoted, and the cynical and curmudgeonly will defrost and become happy again in the sun-drenched beauty of the Mediterranean coast.

On closer inspection, there’s a core of steel at the heart of the story, and a proto-feminist malaise that gives the characters depth and complexity. All four women are worn down with the disappointments and betrayals of men. Lotte and Rose are trapped in unfulfilling marriages; Mrs Fisher is contemptuous of the “generation of puniness” who can’t compare with the “great men” of her past, though it’s inferred that her own husband had been unfaithful. Caroline, who initially seems immune from petty disappointments, is also crushed by the predatory attentions of the “grabbers”: “[S]he who had entered the world so jauntily, with her head in the air and the completest confidence in anybody whose hair was grey, began to distrust, and then to dislike, and soon to shrink away from, and presently to be indignant.” The losses of the Great War also hovers about, just out of view, but ever present: Lotte and Rose are continually mistaken for widows, and there’s a brief mention of Caroline’s one true love who was killed, adding to the general sense of a dis-eased, impotent patriarchal power. Slowly, the quartet create a female utopia, into which men are eventually admitted, but on the women’s terms. “Have you noticed,” [Lotte] inquired of Mrs Fisher, who endeavoured to pretend she did not hear, “How difficult it is to be improper when there are no men.”” Later, Lotte explains her deceptively simple philosophy, and the key to understanding the magic of The Enchanted April: “The great thing is to have lots of love about,” which even the men learn to accept. After a few days, the once-priggish Mellersh admits “there was something peculiar…. in the atmosphere of San Salvatore. It promoted expansion. It brought out dormant qualities.” Rose’s story is especially poignant, since she seems resistant to the happiness on display in San Salvatore. Her holiday simply opens up her awareness of her own misery, and we are made aware of Frederick’s unfaithfulness even more than she is. Even the mild possibility of a romance with Briggs is squashed when she is eclipsed by the beauty of Caroline. Rose’s reconciliation with Frederick is due more to a well-timed series of mistakes than any genuine transformation, and we’re aware of how easily it could have turned to tragedy.

If this all sounds heavy and ponderous, like a Jazz Age-version of The Feminine Mystique, it isn’t. Arnim’s prose is sleek and elegant and light on its feet, and all the more extraordinary for seeming so effortless. She weaves deftly around the four women, moving in and out of their minds sometimes in the space of a paragraph, intensely interested in every permutation of their view of each other, and alive to every scrap of comedy as they butt up against one another. Mrs Fisher’s attempt to keep order at the dinner table, and her exasperation with Lotte’s flower-child pronouncements about love, are especially funny, and played to delicious effect by Joan Plowright and Josie Lawrence in the 1991 film. I loved every moment spent with each character, feeling inside their experiences and also able to view them, as Arnim does, from a wryly amused distance.

By the end, it doesn’t matter that Frederick became a romantic hero by false pretences, that Rose would clearly be better off with Briggs, that Mrs Fisher had a disturbingly Freudian attachment to dead guys, or that Caroline would make a fantastic lesbian if only there was someone around to show her how. I didn’t even mind that the Italian servants appear only as fawning stereotypes and seem quite relaxed about four snooty English ladies holidaying in their country and refusing to pay for the food. All is forgiven and all is made whole again in the glories of the Italian spring, that Arnim describes in passages so beautiful they stop your breath. “Suddenly to be transported to that place where the air was so still that it held its breath, where the light was so golden that the most ordinary things were transfigured—to be transported into that delicate warmth, that caressing fragrance, and to have the old grey castle as the setting, and, in the distance, the serene clear hills of Perugini’s backgrounds, was an astonishing contrast.” The experience of reading The Enchanted April is to be similarly transported, transfigured and astonished, and to believe for a moment, just as Lotte does, in the transformative power of love.

Quotable Quote: “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. And how astonishing to feel this sheer bliss, for here she was, not doing and not going to do a single unselfish thing, not going to do a thing she didn’t want to do…. [T]his was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.”

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