Take four women, one Italian castle, plenty of sunshine and wisteria blossoms, add in a month’s holiday, and stir…
A splendid book for reading in the midst of a dreary midwestern winter, and the perfect antidote to middle aged emotional doldrums, The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, brought a smile to my face with every page. Four women who come together purely by accident, all searching for happiness without really believing it to be possible. It begins with Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot, sitting in their “club” on a rainy afternoon in London, sometime not long after the ending of WWI. They chance to read an advertisement for a “small, medieval Italian castle on the shore of the Mediterranean, to be let, furnished for one month.” At first, they can barely consider the possibility – could they, really, afford such an indulgence? Mrs. Wilkins, however, with the certainty of a soothsayer, insists that she “sees” them at this castle, that it isn’t wrong of them to yearn for this time away from husbands and daily lives that have lost their lustre.
“I’m sure it’s wrong to go on being good for too long, till one gets miserable,” Mrs. Wilkins insists. “I’ve done nothing but duties, things for other people, ever since I was a girl, and I don’t believe anybody loves me a bit better …and I long – oh, I long -for something else.”
Sound familiar? (sighs)
So, they scrape up the money (and the courage!) to embark on this adventure, deciding to advertise for two more women to join them, in an effort to defray expenses. The reader could barely imagine a more disparate pair than Lady Caroline, a young, beautiful heiress, exhausted with the demands placed upon her by her “station,” and Mrs. Fisher, a lonely, embittered widow.
And yet…when they arrive, magic happens.
“All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at [their] feet. The sun poured in. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath the window, at the bottom of the the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.”
And so beauty and happiness transforms each one, but not without a series of humorous, parlor trick like occurrences, which serve to move the action forward in a most delightful way. (On memorably comic scene has Mr. Wilkins causing the castle’s temperamental bathtub to explode!) In the end, relationships with husbands are restored and renewed, new relationships develop, and pure happiness reigns supreme.
I suppose those more cynical than I might scoff at this fairy like tale. “Pure romance,” they might say, with the tone Scrooge used when uttering “Bah! Humbug!”
Not this ravenous reader.
Certainly at my age and stage of life (somewhere betwixt the young Mrs’s Wilkins/Arbuthnot and the aged Mrs. Fisher) I’ve seen the power of beauty and happiness to thaw a world weary heart, and I cherish the hope that love grown cold can be warmed and revitalized. I believe, as Mrs. Wilkins comes to realize, that “people could only really be happy in pairs – any sorts of pairs, not in the least necessarily lovers, but pairs of friends, pairs of mothers and children, of brothers and sisters…”
And so really, it’s the power of love and connection that works the miracle for these ladies and provides the true source of their enchantment.
Of course, a month’s holiday at a sunny castle in Italy on the shores of the Mediterranean surely doesn’t hurt.
by Elizabeth von Arnim
published 2006, Walking Lion Press
(published originally in 1922)