The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Pub. Date: June 2, 2015 (orig. 1922)
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Penguin!!)
Summary: Escaping dreary London for the sunshine of Italy, four very different women take up an offer advertised in the Times for a “small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April.” As each blossoms in the warmth of the Italian spring, quite unexpected changes occur.
Genre: Fiction, Classic
Recommended for: Fans of great characters and witty banter, readers looking for the perfect beach read, fans of the movie interested in the source material
For a year or two in high school I went through a period where I refused to read anything but ~highbrow literature~ Somehow I got the idea that, even though I had been madly in love with reading my entire life to that point, I had been doing it all wrong and that classics (read: heavy, hard-to-understand works) were what I really needed to be focusing on. Naturally this led to an awful time – and I’m still (10 years later!) trying to make up for all that lost time.
So in my brief affair with classics, I managed to avoid The Enchanted April completely. I had never even heard of it until recently! When I learned what it was about (four women spend a month in a castle on the Mediterranean coast) and that it was barely over 200 pages, I immediately settled in, fully prepared for a good time – and I wasn’t disappointed!
I knew from the introduction that I was in for an amazing time. Brenda Bowen, author of Enchanted August wrote the introduction for this edition and one paragraph caught my eye:
Elizabeth von Arnim wasn’t actually named Elizabeth, and she wasn’t as German as her name. She played Liszt for Cosima Wagner; she seduced her first husband on the banks of the Thames; she worshipped – and slept with – H. G. Wells; she was a cousin to Katherine Mansfield, a friend to George Bernard Shaw, and was advised by Henry James; she argued with her children’s tutor, a young aspiring writer called Edward Morgan Forster, over dinners in a drafty schloss. In her day, she was a huge literary success; she wrote under a pseudonym, and her anonymity added to her mystique. She lived in thirty-five different houses and had five children and fourteen dogs, but she fancied herself as spare as her hero Thoreau, as unencumbered as her adored Whitman. She sparkled and intimidated at dinner parties. She had perfect pitch, was careful about her weight, had a facelift in New York in 1916. She lived in Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland, and for a short time in the United States, and died in South Carolina in 1941.
HOW have I never heard of this completely awesome woman?! I was instantly hooked.
On the surface, The Enchanted April is about four women, total strangers, and the month they leave England to rent a medieval castle on the Mediterranean coast. When you dig deeper, however, it’s SO much more and I can’t recall a book where I’ve highlighted and flagged as many passages.
Bored, lonely, and unhappy with their marriages, Mrs. Lotty Wilkins and Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot decide to respond to an advertisement in the newspaper. For the month of April, an Italian castle is to be rented out and what better way to take a break from unappreciative husbands than by spending four gorgeous weeks in a castle. The only problem is the pricey fee. Adding a few more tenants, however, would greatly lessen the cost, and the two go about creating their own advertisement, eager to interview potential renters. They find two more holiday-goers in Lady Caroline and prim-and-proper Mrs. Fisher.
As you might expect, these four women don’t exactly hit it off. Mrs. Wilkins has her head in the clouds. Pious Mrs Arbuthnot acts as the go-between in an attempt to keep the peace. Lady Caroline is a gorgeous socialite and sick of men. The widow Mrs. Fisher is more than a little intimidating (and unafraid to say exactly what she thinks of Lady Caroline’s low-cut dresses) and spends her time reminiscing over her Victorian childhood where it was common to see the Who’s Who of literature at the dinner table. As the month progresses and the Italian sunshine seeps into their souls, these ladies experience some surprising – and certainly unexpected – changes.
Despite its puny length, there’s SO. MUCH. I want to discuss and it’s all I can do to type a coherent sentence. I get it. I now understand all the fuss about this book and why it has nothing but five-star ratings on GoodReads. I’m torn, however. I want to ramble on and on about this lovely little book, but I also don’t want to give it all away – The Enchanted April is a novel to discover on your own.
I’m constantly surprised by just how funny writers of classics were. Again, in my mind I view classics as bleak, depressing tomes. Elizabeth von Arnim stomped all over that notion and there were numerous lines and entire passages that made me giggle. There’s even bathroom humor! Imagine, bathroom jokes written by a woman during the ’20s!
Mr. Wilkins knew no Italian, and the expression pericoloso left him precisely as it found him – or would have if he had seen it, but naturally he took no notice of the printed matter on the wall. He firmly closed the door on the servants, resisting Domenico, who tried to the last to press through, and locked himself in as a man should for his bath, judicially considering, as he made his simple preparations for getting in, the singular standard of behavior of these foreigns who, both male and female, apparently wished to stay with him while he bathed.
You see, there’s a page-long setup for this one, complete with backstory about this old bathtub and the dangers it holds. It’s a whole production and team operation (which is why all the servants are trying to follow him in) and the end result had me howling.
While I read I noticed that Ms. von Arnim didn’t skimp on the descriptors. I’m all for flowery prose and The Enchanted April serves it up in spades, resulting in sentences that go on for entire paragraphs. Although the story was immensely enjoyable, these lengthy passages made the reading a bit slow for me. And, honestly, if long sentences is the only bad thing I have to say about this book, then it really isn’t an issue at all.
With summer just around the corner, there really isn’t a better time to grab a copy of The Enchanted April. The characters are excellent and individual, the humor is phenomenal, and it’s got one of the best settings imaginable. The short length certainly doesn’t hurt either! Who says beach reads need to be new? The Enchanted April holds up 90 years later and is the perfect getaway while lounging at the pool! I highly, highly recommend this one (and you can bet I’ll be checking out the movie!)
For Mrs. Arbuthnot, who had no money of her own, was obliged to live on the proceeds of Frederick’s activities, and her very nest-egg was the fruit, posthumously ripened, of ancient sin. The way Frederick made his living was one of the standing distresses of her life. He wrote immensely popular memoirs, regularly, every year, of the mistresses of kings. There were in history numerous kings who had had mistresses, and there were still more numerous mistresses who had had kings; so that he had been able to publish a book of memoirs during each year of his married life, and even so there were great further piles of these ladies waiting to be dealt with. Mrs. Arbuthnot was helpless. Whether she liked it or not, she was obliged to live on the proceeds. He gave her a dreadful sofa once, after the success of his Du Barri memoir, with swollen cushions and soft, receptive lap, and it seemed to her a miserable thing that there, in her very home, should flaunt this reincarnation of a dead old French sinner.
In their anxiety, for the road twisted round great jutting rocks, and on their left was only the low wall to keep them out of the sea should anything happen, they too began to gesticulate, waving their hands at Beppo, pointing ahead. They wanted him to turn around again and face his horse, that was all. He thought they wanted him to drive faster; and there followed a terrifying ten minutes during which, as he supposed, he was gratifying them. He was proud of his horse, and it could go very fast. He rose in his seat, the whip cracked, the horse rushed forward, the rocks leaped towards them, the little fly swayed, the suitcases heaved, Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins clung.
One lucky winner (US only, please!) will receive not only a copy of The Enchanted April but also a copy of Brenda Bowen’s modern retelling, Enchanted August! All you need to do is fill out this form! EASY PEASY! I’ll announce the winner this Sunday, May 31. Good luck!