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.They Read it Too
‘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…
somewhere i have never travelled
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