Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Enchanted April

Elizabeth Von Arnim is herself an interesting proposition: cousin of Katherine Mansfield, she made few friends with the sometimes callous portrayal of thinly-disguised actual people in her novels. Rebecca West said she had "little heart", an accusation hard to believe when one reads The Enchanted April; for this is a story that is all heart. Perhaps a little too sentimental for some, its fluffiness is spiked with a frustrating mean streak, little droplets of spite that sour the meringue.

Written in 1921, it tells of four women, previously unacquainted, who answer an advert in a newspaper to rent an Italian Villa for a month. Each has her own reason for needing to 'get away' from someone or something; a husband, a lifestyle, herself... Naturally, each eventually sees her own faults, as well as those of the others, and the air, the beauty, the plants and the castle itself all work their magic, so that as May dawns, the four women are changed forever, and entirely for the better. So much for a surprise ending.

It shares something with Nancy Mitford, but is, I think, of more literary merit. There is a beautiful style at work here, redolent of the time of its writing, which harbours a wit and observancy typical perhaps of Wilde: "I hate authors," complains Lady Caroline, "I wouldn't mind them so much if they didn't write books." There is a farcical interlude towards the end, befitting of Noel Coward - people arriving unexpectedly, seeing things they shouldn't, jumping to conclusions, hiding identities...but of course, it all works out in the end, as the utterly lovable Mrs Wilkins predicts.

The story flits cleverly from one of the four heroines to the other, like a camera panning across a landscape and lingering for a short while on individuals it finds, one in the top garden, one on the battlements, one in the hills with her solitary picnic.

It is an enjoyable book, simple, light, and easy on the intellect, but it's unlikely to ever sit in my all time Top Ten. It is described by critics variously as a "confection", an "omelette" - a sweet, at best a light lunch, nothing heavier or more filling. Ideal for whiling away two consecutive hot summer's days in the garden, but to grant it more time would be as frivolous as the life from which Lady Caroline is running.

1 comment:

Mrs. B. said...

I think you described this book quite well by saying it's enjoyable but unlikely to make it to your top ten. I read this last year but it didn't make it to my year end best list. It was indeed a good read and somehow still conjures up reading memories of Italy in springtime.