This is my second post for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books. When I was choosing my books for this week, I knew it was time to try something by Elizabeth von Arnim, a writer whose work I had never read but who seems to be one of the most popular and most loved Virago authors.
The Enchanted April, first published in 1922, is the story of four women who rent a castle in Italy together one April. The women are strangers to each other at the beginning of the novel, but each of them has her own reasons for wanting a holiday. Spending a month at San Salvatore surrounded by sunshine and flowers gives each woman a chance to resolve her problems and try to find happiness.
Our four main characters have very different personalities and very different circumstances. First, there’s Lotty Wilkins who has grown tired of having her life controlled by her husband and is desperate to escape from him for a while. Calm, grave Rose Arbuthnot has the opposite problem: her husband is so wrapped up in his career that he barely remembers she exists:
To be missed, to be needed, from whatever motive, was, she thought, better than the complete loneliness of not being missed or needed at all.
Then there’s Lady Caroline Dester, also known as ‘Scrap’, who is bored with her life and just wants to be left alone. And finally there’s Mrs Fisher who, at sixty-five, is older than the others, and spends most of her time reminiscing about the past.
The story begins when Lotty and Rose meet for the first time in a Women’s Club in London one rainy afternoon and decide to respond to an advertisement in The Times:
To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine: Small mediaeval 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.
How could anyone resist answering an ad like that? However, they need to find another two ladies to help share the cost and this is where Lady Caroline and Mrs Fisher come into the story. All four of the female protagonists are interesting, complex people and I enjoyed seeing how they were transformed by their time in Italy. I think my favourite was probably Lady Caroline. She’s tired of being surrounded by people who only care about her looks and money and throughout the novel she attempts to keep her companions at a distance – but as the reader, we are given an insight into her mind and can understand her unhappiness.
People were exactly like flies. She wished there were nets for keeping them off too. She hit at them with words and frowns, and like the fly they slipped between her blows and were untouched. Worse than the fly, they seemed unaware that she had even tried to hit them. The fly at least did for a moment go away. With human beings the only way to get rid of them was to go away herself.
I’m so glad my first experience with von Arnim was a good one. I hadn’t expected something so readable and full of gentle humour and wit and yet with so much depth and such a lot of character development. I also loved the setting and the atmosphere. The images of Italy in the spring were beautifully described, with the sun shining and the flowers bursting into bloom. I defy anybody to read this story and not want to immediately book a trip to Italy this April!
As the title suggests, The Enchanted April is a lovely, enchanting story! After enjoying this one so much, I’ll definitely be reading more of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books – any suggestions as to which one I should read next?