On a dark and gloomy winter day, what a joy it was to be transported to the sunny climes of the Italian Riveria, courtesy of The Enchanted April.
This novel about four women who take a holiday in Portofino, was apparently inspired by Elizabeth von Arnim’s own sojourn in that part of the coastline. Just like her characters, von Arnim was captivated by San Salvatore, a medieval castello on the hillside looking over the fishing village:
Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at he bottom of 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.
In The Enchanted April, the castello and its gardens works its magic on four women who discover each other through an advert in a London newspaper announcing the castle’s availability as a holiday rental.
On a grey, rainy afternoon in February, the promise of sunshine and wisteria is instantly appealing to solicitor’s wife Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot, whose husband writes books of which she disapproves. They rope in two other women to help pay the cost of a month’s rental: an elderly widow Mrs Fisher a young socialite Lady Caroline Dester.
These women come from vastly different backgrounds and have nothing in common — or so they believe . But as we discover, they are all nursing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their lives.
Lottie’s solicitor husband Mellersh is very close-fisted with his cash so she has few funds to buy fashionable clothes and ends up looking, in the eyes of her acquaintances “a perfect fright”. Rose has no financial worries because her husband keeps her flush with money. It’s the source of his income she finds distasteful: the colourful memoirs he writes about king’s mistresses. Rose’s aversion to his work is so strong that that she gives all the money away to the poor. While he’s away leading a secret life in London she devotes her energies to charitable endeavours.
Lady Caroline Dexter has romantic problems of a very different kind. Men just won’t leave her alone; they’re constantly buzzing around her at parties and balls. Tired of the attention and her hectic social life, she retreats to Italy, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to think about her life and her future.
The fourth member of the party is Mrs Fisher, a pompous snob who begins to act as hostess in charge of the holiday and impose her will on the other three women. She lives so much in times long ago when she knew many leading figures in Victorian society that she’s shut herself off from the possibility of new friendships.
San Salvatore works its magic on all four women, causing them to change their perspectives so significantly that they finish the holiday feeling rejuvenated and more hopeful about the future.
The Enchanted April contains wonderful descriptions of the lush gardens surrounding the castello. On their first morning the women throw open their bedroom windows to behold wisteria “tumbling over itself in its excess of life” and terraces lade with fig, peach and cherry trees dropping away to the sea. By the end of the holiday, nature is in even greater profusion, the women departing among a cloud of acacia scent.
No one had noticed how many acacias there were till one day the garden was full of a new scent, and there were the delicate trees, the lovely successors to the wisteria, hung all over among their trembling leaves with blossom … the whole garden dressed itself gradually towards the end in white, and grew more and more scented.
Even more enjoyable however were the portrayals of the four women guests. von Arnim has a keen eye for detail, revealing the nature of these women and their failings subtly but assuredly.
My particular favourite was Mrs Fisher, a formidable woman very fond of mentioning her acquaintance with the likes of John Ruskin and Lord Tennyson. She has such an air of entitlement, not content with bagging the best bedroom, she commandeers the adjacent sitting room; getting the staff to move garden pots and furniture so none of the other women can intrude. But even she, by the end of the narrative, has let the barriers down; even permitting Lottie Wilkins to give her a kiss.
It’s a genial, but not frothy, novel that is rescued from sentimentality by von Arnim’s wit and sense of humour. There’s a really funny scene on the quartet’s first evening meal together when Caroline turns up in a flimsy dress that clings to her body. Lottie is enraptured but Mrs Fisher is aghast when the girl reveals she’s wearing very little underneath, not so much because her prudish sensibilities are offended but because the girl would undoubtedly catch a cold and pass it on.
Mrs Fisher had a great objection to other people’s chills. They were always the fruit of folly; and then they were handed on to her who had done nothing at all to deserve them.
The Enchanted April does lose a bit of its witty edge three quarters of the way through but by then I was too much under the spell to care. The combination of Mediterranean sunshine, scented gardens, medieval Italian castle and four touchingly amusing female companions was irresistible.
An Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim: Footnotes
Despite the German-sounding surname Elizabeth von Arnim wasn’t German. Nor was she called Elizabeth. She was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia, a distant relative of the author who became known as Katherine Mansfield. “Elizabeth” left Australia at the age of three, settling in England with her parents. She married twice, first to a German count and then, after his death, the Earl of Russell. She was a great dinner party hostess, lived in thirty-five different houses and had five children and fourteen dogs.
She wrote her first book Elizabeth and Her German Garden, in 1898, in which she recorded each season in the garden, she loved, a place she regarded as a refuge from domestic routine and an overbearing husband.
An Enchanted April, published in 1922, became a best-seller in both England and the United States. It created such high levels of interest in Portofino that it became a “must see” holiday destination during the years between the two world wars.
This was book number 30 in my #21 in 21 project in 2021 where I set out to to read more books from the hundreds that lay unread in my bookshelves.