Friday, 17 April 2009

Enchanting

A while ago I asked about books which just fitted the environment in which they were read, and wanted something which would fit a meadow in spring. Danielle, Susan D. and IslandSparrow all suggested Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, and since I was at home in lovely rural Somerset in April, it seemed the perfect book to try.

E von A is mentioned a lot in an online book group
I'm in, especially a few years ago, and in fact I'd bought The Enchanted April in 2004 or 2005, but not got around to reading it. No real reason for its being on the backburned - though perhaps the 1980s TV shot chosen by Virago for my edition didn't do it any favours. Well, now I've read it, and the novel is possibly my favourite read of 2009 so far.

For those who don't know the premise - shy, awkward and quirky Lottie Wilkins wishes to escape a lacklustre husband who thinks she is unintelligent; she meets Rose Arbuthnot who is best summed-up by this reaction to the idea of a holiday in Italy:
No doubt a trip to Italy would be extraordinarily delightful, but there were many delightful things one would like to do, and what was strength given to one for except to help one not to do them?

Nevertheless, she too has a situation she wishes to escape, and is intrigued by the idea of a castle for hire in Italy. Upon investigating, Lottie and Rose realise they'll need another couple people to share the rent. Step forward Mrs. Fisher, an older lady whose life is spent remembering the wise words of Victorian writers whom she probably met in her youth - and Lady Caroline Dester, a stunning beauty who is tired of everyone 'grabbing' onto her, and wants to get away from being the centre of society. They all head off to Italy, including an amusing jo
urney in which Lottie and Rose become convinced that they've been kidnapped, as all their Italian is 'San Salvatore', the name of the castle - which they repeat at intervals, to be met with empassioned nodding and agreement from the Italians travelling with them.

The castle is described beautifully, and especially the garden - attention drawn often to the wistaria, which happens to be my favourite plant. Everywhere is brightly sunny, airy, thick with the scent of flowers and bursting with nature
. It could have been horribly overdone, but E von A strikes just the right note - and thank you to those who recommended it, reading the novel with equally beautiful (but rather different) countryside around me was perfect. Though it might work also as a distraction to city life where trammelled nature does anything but burst.

All four holiday-makers arrive unhappy, and all have some faults - especially the very selfish Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline. From the start, though, Lottie is certain that the castle will have a positive, almost magical, effect upon a
nyone staying there. And she is, of course, right. I don't want to spoil all the events of the novel, but suffice to say each character is altered by the surroundings, friendships develop and faults evaporate. What prevents The Enchanted April from being too fairy talesque or saccharine is a wittiness and honesty which somehow make the changes in everyone seem not only realistic but inevitable, and still thoroughly heart-warming.

How the cousin of Katherine Mansfield and sister-in-law of Bertrand Russell wrote such a happy, warm novel is anybody's guess - but I do encourage you to seek out The Enchanted April is you haven't yet done so. It's a beautiful novel which is also extremely well written - the style flows by, perspicacious but unassuming, and the four central characters are incredibly well drawn. Not at all stereotypes, yet definitely distinct and memorable, they seem real, with real traits and feelings and failings, and must have been very difficult to create. Simply brilliant.

And soon I'll be writing about the next novel I read, also about four women living together in a house. It's written by one of the authors in my 50 Books list, and was published in 1989. A prize to anyone who can guess the book...


13 comments:

  1. Well this is a difficult one. The only book that I can remember where there are four women sharing a home is I think 'Passionate Women' by Meredith Tax. I don't know if this book is in your top 50 because I can't see your full list. But anyway worth a try especially if I win a prize.

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  2. I would guess The Brontes Went to Woolworths but Rachel Ferguson is not on your list (but in the photograph above, I spy).
    I read The Enchanted April last week with review forthcoming. It was, indeed, enchanting.

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  3. Last weekend I watched the recently released DVD of Enchanted April from Lovefilm. As the weather in SE England was most definately not enchanted April I also watched the commentry about making the film. Having read The Enchanted April twice, it is almost a yearly re read for me, I was delighted by the film...Joan Plowright, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent. The commentry filled in even more, especially the fact the Italian scenes were filmed in the Castille Brown, the actual fortified house Elizabeth von Arnim was staying in when she wrote this book; her publishers had asked for something "happy". She set the story in the house so what you see in the film is that described in the book. Watch it and enjoy, especially on rainy April afternoons.

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  4. It must be 17 years since I read The Enchanted April. You see things differently with the passing of time so it would be worth pulling out again. Thanks for the reminder!

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  5. Certainly agree that Enchanted April is a beautiful book but think my choice to fulfil your criteria would have been One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes - near perfect in terms of the atmosphere of a country day that it creates.

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  6. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I also liked the movie - which is not always the case when book is translated to screen.

    With the recent precipitation here, in the form of s**w, I would love to be transported to an Italian castle myself . . .

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  7. I like the sound of Enchanted April. I've seen a film version but not the book. Didn't know she was cousin to Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield seems to be out of fashion at the moment, not one of my local bookshops or libraries stock her short stories.

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  8. Simon - I am so glad that you loved this book but I just knew you would! This was the very first E von A I ever read and since then I have acquired copies of all of her books (as you know the final one I have been looking for for over seven years was stumbled upon just a few weeks ago in London) but this one is, well, enchanting. I think I may just have to read it again and rewatch the DVD which has finally been released. My old video was getting worn out.

    And thank you Kentish Maid for letting us know that the castle in the film is the one in which the author was staying. This really adds to it all.

    Simon - guess what I am going to read today??

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  9. I also think it is The Brontes went to Woolworths even though you are only showing 25 of our list!!

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  10. Having urged you to read it, I followed my own advice and picked it off the shelf yesterday for a re-visit.

    Since I last read it (a library paperback some years ago) I've acquired a 1923 US edition "by the Author of 'Elizabeth and her German Garden'"-- no name revealed, which contains a coloured frontispiece labelled, "The View from Mrs. Wilkins's Bedroom, after a Water-Colour Drawing by the Hon. Lady Mallet" exactly as described in Chapter VI.

    Ahhhh!

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  11. Yet again Simon you have introduced me to a book that I knew nothing about and it sounds a real gem, I shall have to hunt down a copy next month (I am refusing to buy myself any more books in April) and am sure will devour it.

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  12. I love this book too - it caught me by surprise and ended up being bought for my best friend on her birthday last month. (wandered here via becca&bella's link to you)

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  13. So glad you liked this. It's such a gorgeous book--both the setting and the way it was so transformative to the four women. I wonder if my life would change if I took a trip to San Salvatore!! :)

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