I must confess to feeling ridiculously excited about this post. I read ‘The Enchanted April’ back in January, and have felt compelled to keep quiet because it just seemed like a stupid time to blog about it. Finally, finally, April has arrived and I can publicly rave about this truly enchanting novel.
In fact, I nearly lost patience with the wait and considered writing the review in February because, after all, that’s how the first chapter starts:
‘It all began in a Woman’s Club in London on a February afternoon, – an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon – when Mrs Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club took up ‘The Times’ from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this: ‘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. Z, Box 1000, The Times.’ That was its conception.’
This ‘conception’ gives birth to the most marvellous journey from the dank miseries of London to the open and regenerative warm of Italy. Mrs Wilkins has money saved (‘Mr Wilkins, a solicitor, encouraged thrift except that branch of it which got into his food. He did not call that thrift, he called it bad housekeeping. But of the thrift which, like a moth, penetrated into Mrs Wilkin’s clothes and spoilt them, he had much praise‘). She does not have enough to rent a whole castle herself though, and so manages to collect a group of equally, though possibly less openly, disappointed and restricted women to join her on this most magical of holidays.
The month is indeed magical. As soon as Mrs Wilkins arrives at the castle she finds it everything she had wished for. Unselfishly happy, she sees only beauty and light around her, with the result that her life truly becomes the joyful event it always should have been. Her three companions are, Mrs Arbuthnot, devoted to good works and yet beloved of no-one, not even her husband, the bitter and selfish Mrs Fisher and the bored and selfish Lady Caroline. The premise of the novel is that the whole quartet will learn to find love and happiness in their outwardly adequate but inwardly stultifying lives.
It’s tempting to spend the rest of the this post simply quoting Von Arnim’s wonderfully wry prose. Even if the novel has a fairy-tale set-up, the sarcastic dead-pan prose skilfully averts any sentimentality. Take Mrs Fisher for example: ‘It was astonishing, it was simply amazing, the superiority of the past to the present. Those friends of hers in London, solid persons of her own age, knew the same past that she knew, could talk about it with her, could compare it as she did with the tinkling present, and in remembering great men forget for a moment the trivial and barren young people who still, in spite of the war, seemed to litter the world in such numbers.’
If there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t read ‘The Enchanted April’ read it now! Read it this month if you can, if you can’t, read it as soon as possible, and then re-read it in April 2017. I know I will, and I know that I will enjoy it as much, if not more, on second acquaintance. Scathing, life-affirming, sarcastic and loving this has been one of my top reads of the year so far and is one of those books that show you the world as it was, as it is, and as it can be. To demonstrate the beauty as well as the humour, I’ll leave the last word to the irrepressible Mrs Wilkins, on her first experience of the joy that is to be her lot:
‘She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea. How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this … to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this … She stared, her lips parted. Happy? Poor ordinary, everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? 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…’