The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922) NYRB Classics (2007) 247 pp
I did it! The Enchanted April in the month of April. For years now, around the end of each March, I have thought: Let’s get out The Enchanted April and read it next month — this is the year! And each year at the end of April I have realized I blew it, missed my chance. But not this year! And it was wonderful! I’ve had, I think, a bit more spring in my step this month, and this book did more than its fair share to contribute to that feeling of uplift, of burgeoning! I was transported by von Arnim’s voice as she told the story of four women, strangers, at first, who decide to rent a medieval castle in Italy for the month of April. Please tell me Elizabeth von Arnim’s other books cast a similar spell; I’ll go read them!
The story begins with Mrs. Wilkins (who will be called Lotty as the formalities start to falter). It’s February, kind of gloomy outside, if I recall correctly. Mrs. Wilkins is “running her listless eye” through the paper when she sees an advertisement to let the castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Looking around the room, Mrs. Wilkins sees another woman whose listless eyes are suddenly brought to focus on the page she’s reading, and Mrs. Wilkins thinks she knows why: the castle is calling. This other woman is Mrs. Arbuthnot (Rose). Mrs. Wilkins starts to envision them together at the castle:
She looked so kind. She looked so unhappy. Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk — real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope?
And so Mrs. Wilkins approaches Mrs. Arbuthnot and starts to talk her into envisioning them together as well, envisioning “a rest,” or, more melancholy as le mot juste brings to mind their situation, “a cessation.”
Mrs. Arbuthnot is interested, she can feel the pull, but she cannot imagine leaving her husband, a man she does not feel close to anymore, but to whom, nevertheless, she feels subservient. To leave would be selfish and inappropriate. Mrs. Wilkins can relate. Her own husband and she have not had a really loving relationship in a long time. Each of these women are lonely and want a month away, though that could lead to guilt. Mrs. Arbuthnot tries to be the reasonable one:
“The kindred points of heaven and home,” continued Mrs. Arbuthnot, who was used to finishing sentences. “Heaven is in our home.”
“It isn’t,” said Mrs. Wilkins, again surprisingly.
Mrs. Arbuthnot was taken aback. Then she said gently, “Oh, but it is. It is there if we choose, if we make it.”
“I do choose, and I do make it, and it isn’t,” said Mrs. Wilkins.
Then Mrs. Arbuthnot was silent, for she too sometimes had doubts about homes. She sat and looked uneasily at Mrs. Wilkins, feeling more and more the urgent need of getting her classified. If she could only classify Mrs. Wilkins, get her safely under her proper heading, she felt that she herself would regain her balance, which did seem very strangely to be slipping all to one side.
Von Arnim’s insights into these women, into their insecurities, their loneliness, their desires, is astounding, and she writes it all so well. It’s devastating when, for example, she writes of Rose: “For years she had been able to be happy only by forgetting happiness.” Devastating. And yet to read something so well put is invigorating.
At any rate, we can cheer: the two women go on their trip. To offset the expenses, though, they run their own advertisement in order to acquire two more companions. Eventually their trip is to include Mrs. Fisher, an elderly woman who is delightful in her curmudgeonliness, and Lady Caroline, a beautiful, rich, single woman who is trying to escape all of the obligations of being a beautiful, rich, single woman.
Coming together makes each woman reflect on where they are. We’ve seen a bit of Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot above (though each continues to get fantastic passages devoted to them throughout the novel), so let’s get to know Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline as they address how they’re feeling.
Mrs. Fisher, always one to be proper, which more often than not means being disapproving, is alarmed to find herself getting happier. This feeling, “as if she were presently going to burgeon,” frightens her.
Mrs. Fisher was upset. There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly. Of course they only imagined it, they were only deceiving themselves; but how deplorable were the results. She herself had grown old as people should grow old — steadily and firmly. No interruptions, no belated after-glows and spasmodic returns. If, after all these years, she were now going to be deluded into some sort of unsuitable breaking-out, how humiliating.
For Lady Caroline, the issue has been that love has not treated her well. It has made the men she has known behave like idiots or worse. She has no interest in feeling it anymore, let alone being its object.
She had had it in her life applied to her to excess. If it had let her alone, if it had at least been moderate and infrequent, she might, she thought, have turned out a quite decent, generous-minded, kindly, human being.
Instead, she feels she has been led by love to become “a spoilt, a sour, a suspicious, and a selfish spinster.”
Beyond the insights into these women, Von Arnim has also crafted a fun plot that puts them — and the men in their lives — in predicaments and good fortune. It’s fun, funny, heart-wrenching, and heart-warming. I loved it from the first page and I’ll go on loving it. The book is a treasure. Next year it will turn 100, and long may it bring spring to our lives.
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