Mar 17, 2010

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April

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.
Such is the advertisement that attracts the attention of both Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Artbuthnot in a rainy day in March. Both belong to the same ladies’ club, and both live in Hampstead and know each other by sight. But they had never exchanged a word until that afternoon, when both dream of wisteria and sunshine as the gloomy London rain falls outside. A few more things they have in common are the fact that both are still young, that they’re married but not very happily so, and that they have some personal savings put aside. It only makes sense, then, to inquire about the Times add.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Artbuthnot – Rose and Lotty – are joined by Lady Caroline Dexter and Mrs Fischer that April in Italy; these two ladies respond to another add, one Rose and Lotty put up themselves in an attempt to find someone to share the holiday expenses. Each of these four women goes to Italy for a different reason. Rose Artbuthnot feels distanced from her husband Frederick, whose life choices, she feels, go against her deepest beliefs; Lotty Wilkins feels that she has been too good for too long, and also that she has let her own husband intimidate her for far too long; Lady Caroline Dexter is tired of everything and everyone she knows, and also of being stared at and petted because of her looks; and Mrs Fischer, the oldest of the party, wants to sit in the sunshine and remember having lunch at her father’s house with eminent Victorians – Tennyson, Carlyle, Browning, Ruskin – sitting at his table.

Originally published in 1922, The Enchanted April is a delightful and uncomplicated story in which everything goes as it should. By “uncomplicated”, however, I don’t necessarily mean “simple”, let alone “simplistic”. Remember what I was saying the other day about how the predictability of The Blue Castle was part of its very charm? Well, the same is true here – and actually, the two books remind me of one another in several ways.

The Enchanted April is full of humour, of misunderstandings, of instances of characters miscommunicating and misjudging one another’s intentions. But everything works out regardless, and sometimes because, of the misunderstandings. I suppose this book reads a lot like a romantic comedy, but if the words usually send you running, please considering staying this time. You probably do have to leave your inner cynic at the door, but if you manage to, the result is a complete delight. This is one of those rare books that are always on the verge of becoming too charming and sweet, but somehow never do - they manage to keep the balance.

Another thing that makes The Enchanted April stand out is the strength of the characterisation. My favourite of the four protagonists was Lady Caroline Dexter: Lady Caroline is rich and very beautiful, and she’s sick of people who want to be around her simply because she’s rich and very beautiful. She also suffers from the misfortune of having a lovely and harmonious speaking voice, so anything she intends as a sarcastic remark is perceived by the listener as just another instance of Lady Caroline being oh so charming and friendly.

Lady Caroline is very much a “poor little rich girl”, but kudos to Elizabeth von Arnim for making her so sympathetic regardless. The reason why she’s sympathetic is because the way she’s portrayed acknowledges that she’s fully human. There’s a bit of a tendency to just dismiss beautiful women who complain about the attention their looks bring them, but this is a real problem. I imagine that it must be hugely frustrating to be constantly treated like a doll, and to be surrounded by people whose only interest in you has to do with what you look like, not who you are. Of course, women who don’t look like dolls are made to feel bad in other ways, but these are really just different angles of the same problem. We define beauty too narrowly and put far too much of an emphasis on it. This is far from a novel idea, I know, but I loved how The Enchanted April dealt with it, and I loved how complexly Lady Caroline was portrayed.

Last but not least, another thing I loved about The Enchanted April were the gorgeous nature descriptions. If I were to compare it to a book other than The Blue Castle, it would be The Secret Garden: both are, among other things, charming celebrations of spring. This book made me want to sit outside and watch the world come to bloom. And that’s a lovely frame of mind to be in during the month of March.

Bits I liked:
Mrs Wilkins longed to get up and open the shutters, but where she was was really so very delicious. She gave a sigh of contentment, and went on lying there looking round her, taking in everything in her room, her own little room, her very own to arrange just as she pleased for this one blessed month, her room bought with her own savings, the fruit of her careful denials, whose door she could bolt if she wanted to, and nobody had the right to come in.

‘Were you ever, ever in your life so happy?’ asked Mrs Wilkins, catching her by the arm.
‘No,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot. Nor had she been; not ever; not even in her first love-days with Frederick. Because always pain had been close at hand in that other happiness, ready to torture with doubts, to torture even with the very excess of her love; while his was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.

‘The great thing is to have lots of love about. I don’t see,’ she went on, ‘at least I don’t see here, though I did at home, that it matters who loves as long as somebody does. I was a stingy beast at home, and used to measure and count. I had a queer obsession about justice. As though justice mattered. Ad though justice can really be distinguished from vengeance. It’s only love that’s any good. At home I wouldn’t love Mellersh unless he loved me back, exactly as much, absolute fairness. Did you ever. And as he didn’t, neither did I, and the aridity of that house! The aridity
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(Did I miss yours?)


  1. I have yet to read this book but I have "discovered" Elizabeth Von Arnim this year and ABSOLUTELY love her. I'm just waiting for it to be April to read this (although I have seen the film which was wonderful).

  2. Thank you so much Ana for bringing another book to our attention that I may have overlooked!! This one sounds like a book that I would truly enjoy!!

  3. This was such a charming movie. You could tell by the storyline that the book had lots of potential. Wonderful review Ana!

  4. Your comparison with The Secret Garden is a great one; The Enchanted April is so evocative of springtime and of Italy. I remember reading it last April when spring was most definitely in the air and I felt the weather and beauty that the novel is imbued with (whilst fully appreciating the wet and dreary London that the women are escaping).

    Catherine is wonderfully characterised and how I wish I had a tone of voice such as her's (mine is the polar opposite: I have to try so hard to keep the sarcasm and condescension out of my voice as it is extremely obvious when I'm using them).

  5. So glad you loved this! I read it last year at around this time and reading your review brings back wonderful reading memories. Lovely, lovely!!!

  6. Just added this one to my TBR. You sold me when you compared it to the Blue Castle. Sounds perfect!

  7. I might like this one since it never crosses over and becomes too sweet. I love your review!

  8. Your review has made me want to read it all over again. I absolutely loved this book. I shall now have to read The Blue Castle in order to compare.

  9. I've never read the book but the movie is just deloghtful.

  10. Have you seen the movie? I've had it on my Netflix list for a while and wonder if it's anything like the book.

  11. I've wanted to read this ever since Claire wrote about it. Glad to hear you also loved it. Your cover looks beautiful.

  12. I had a vague notion that this was a children's book, but clearly I was wrong! It sounds lovely :-) Sadly, I do not own it. JUST LIKE ALL THE GOOD BOOKS YOU REVIEW :-P

  13. Oh, this does sound lovely. Especially for Spring. I don't have this one (yet!), but I do have The Blue Castle and need to read it. Great review, Nymeth. I feel better just having read your review of this book :o)

  14. This was such a delightful book! If you haven't seen the movie, I'd definitely recommend it. Am not familiar with The Blue Castle, but will certainly look into it.

  15. This sounds good! I feel I will really sympathize with Lady Caroline: I do not know what it is about me that makes strangers think my conversation will be composed of only bunnies and rainbows, but people are constantly thinking I'm being friendly (if incomprehensible) when I'm actually trying to be nasty. And then they think I don't drink or swear.

  16. I think this sounds like a lovely read, and I hadn't heard much about it. I liked your thoughtful and deep review, and am going to be seeking out this book. I have been collecting a few of the books you have been recommending of late, and am excited to get started with them. I think you have great and interesting taste in literature and have been having a great time reading your reviews!

  17. I really liked the movie adaptation of this novel. I love the way you described the character development in the book. And I do love gorgeous imagery describing the natural world. :-) Thanks for another amazing review.

  18. How charming! I'd sure as heck respond to that ad. Where can I sign up? ;)

  19. I've got this on my shelf (it's been there a while...) but I think it has to be my next book. Sounds perfect.

  20. Oh, I always thought this book was so lovely. It's been a long time since I read it, but you've reminded me of all the reasons I love it (and want to read it again soon!)

  21. Oh, how I loved this book. It's one of my favorites now. It's such a relaxing, charming book and when you read it, you tend to forget everything around you. Only great books can achieve that! Wonderful review, as always!

  22. Verity: I need to read more of her stuff! I've been coveting her other Virago books, as they sound absolutely wonderful.

    Staci, you would indeed!

    Sandy, clearly I need to get my hands on the movie!

    Claire: lol, I can see how that'd be problematic too :P I try not to be sarcastic too often (anywhere other than in my head, that is :P), but when I am it's fairly obvious too.

    Mrs B: It's lovely indeed :D

    Tricia, I hope you enjoy it! I think I liked The Blue Castle a little bit more, but both are wonderful.

    Kathy: Aw, thank you!

    Vivienne: Do read The Blue Castle! I think you're going to love it.

    Cath, I really need to see if I can find it!

  23. Jeanne: I haven't! I need to fix that asap.

    Claire: Isn't that Virago cover lovely? I look forward to your thoughts on it when you get to it :)

    Aarti: lol, sorry :P

    Terri B: Yes, you do need to read The Blue Castle! And this too :P

    JoAnn: I haven't seen the movie yet, but I will. And do read The Blue Castle! I think it's right up your alley.

    Jenny: lol! That sounds horribly frustrating. I'm too shy/introverted for people to think of me as friendly, but everyone seems to assume I'm extremely angelic too.

    Zibilee: Aw, thank you so much! I hope you enjoy those books - I feel guilty whenever someone doesn't like something they picked up on my recommendation :P I love your new butterfly icon, btw :)

    Stephanie: I really really need to get my hands on the movie! If the scenery is half as beautiful as she makes it sound in the book I know it'll be a delight.

    heidenkind: lol - good question. I could so do with a month-long holiday in Italy. Or anywhere really!

    Peta: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Jeane, I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around :D

    Andreea, thank you so much! It did make me forget my surroundings, and I love that.

  24. Yay! I've been away from the computer (sort of) for a few days but was hoping you'd read this... I knew you would love it. It's so true: it seems like it *should* be saccharine-sweet, but it never quite goes there. I loved it to pieces and now have to read more of her.

  25. I love this book, really love it. So glad you enjoyed it also. I think the movie adaptation is excellent; it brings each character to life almost exactly as I'd pictured them when I read the book. The movie really follows with the spirit of the book - I love them both, in case that wasn't clear by now! ;)

    I also reread The Blue Castle quite often, and you've made me want to pick up both these books and do a reread. Perhaps it will be my April treat to myself. :)

  26. What a great review, Ana! I have a copy of this waiting its turn to be read and am especially looking forward to it after reading your review.

  27. This ties with I Capture the Castle for my granny's absolute favorite book. I tried to read it in my early teens and couldn't get into it--I was just so appalled that adults could get themselves trapped in the kinds of lives and marriages that they needed to escape from so badly, they would have to go to Italy to do it! Ah, the cruelty of youth. Though I later enjoyed Arnim's memoir of reviving the garden at her German husband's manor house.

    You would get along great with my granny!


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