The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, London : Macmillan, 1922.
Imagine spending a month in a medieval Italian castle overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Picture yourself having tea in a manicured garden profuse with sweet-scented flowers or strolling along winding paths through the neighboring hills. Now feel the smooth stones under your bare feet as you wade into the crystal blue waters of the sea. You can experience all this, along with a cast of quirky British characters straight out of Masterpiece Theatre, without ever leaving your home in Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April.
The novel begins on a dreary day in a London woman’s club with Mrs. Lotty Wilkins spotting an ad in the 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.” She persuades Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot, also childless and unhappily married, and someone Lotty can barely claim as an acquaintance, to go in with her on the rental. Subsequently, they post their own classified ad to find two others to share the expense, which produces the peevish widow, Mrs. Fisher, and the supernaturally charming Lady Caroline Dester, both looking to escape from their own versions of discontent.
Once at San Salvatore, the magic of the place immediately takes hold of Mrs. Wilkins, who declares to the others on the first morning, “I suppose you realise, don’t you, that we’ve got to heaven?” and spends the rest of the month mooning over her good fortune, trying to convince her housemates that they, too, could be as happy as she, if they would just let go of their former lives, and enjoy the here and now. Slowly, the beauty of their surroundings and the camaraderie they begin to feel chisels away at their unhappiness.
The most endearing feature of the book is the humor. When Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot arrive by train in the small village at the foot of San Salvatore, it is the middle of night, dark and raining, and there are no carriages left to hire for the last leg of their journey. Unbeknownst to them, someone has been sent to pick them up, but, not able to understand Italian, the two are not quite sure they are not being kidnapped when someone pops out of the dark, grabs their suitcases, pushes them into a buggy, and takes them on a ride that is terrifying to them, but comical to the reader. Other entertaining scenes are the one in which the ladies try to navigate spaghetti while the cook looks on horrified, and the battle between Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Fisher over who is host and who is guest, orchestrated at the breakfast table with coffee-pouring privileges the prize of dominance.
Many people may be familiar with the 1991 Academy Award nominated film adaptation, but Arnim does just as fine a job giving life to the people and scenery as the movie, and the book is a real joy to read.
Katherine Arends is the Branch Manager at the Mebane Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.