The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim tells the story of four women in the early 1920’s who share a small, remote Italian castle for a month, and in doing so their lives forever change.
The women range in age from late 20’s to early 60’s. Each of them has a central problem that has caused them to become stultified. But the beauty of the Italian countryside, the contrast with dreary England, and the serendipity of the company of strangers whom they’d never spend time with at home because of class and personality differences, cause each of them to bloom and their authentic selves to emerge in all their vibrancy.
Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are the best developed of the four characters. Mrs. Wilkins, an intelligent, imaginative, loving, accepting woman is stuck with a self-admiring, respectable, stingy–emotionally as well as materially–husband who cares only for what will enhance his image and thereby his career. As a result she has become bland, self-effacing, shabby in presence and in dress.
Mrs. Arbuthnot holds a secret passion for her husband which she has suppressed for years. Ashamed of his occupation, she has sublimated her passion for him and her shame into good works. Her religiosity is of the stern and judgmental sort, and she has become someone who allows herself no pleasures even though her husband would delight in her having them.
I especially enjoyed Arnim’s wit in describing Lottie’s and Rose’s marriages. She perfectly depicts them gradually coming out of their shells because of their growing friendship and the adventure they undertake together.
The other two women in the castle foursome are Mrs. Fisher and Caroline Dester. Mrs. Fisher is dedicated to the past, obsessed by the glory of her youthful acquaintances, all of them giants compared to the paltry (to her mind) figures of the 1920’s literary and political scene. Caroline Dester is a cynical young woman who detests her own beauty because, along with her wealth, it causes her constant and unwanted attention from men. She craves solitude. These women, too, find themselves changed in the castle.
Elizabeth Von Arnim, born in 1866, wrote The Enchanted April in the early 1920s. (As an aside, I was interested to discover that Katherine Mansfield was her cousin–quite the literary family, at least the women.) Her first husband was domineering, the “man of wrath,” she called him, and this intimate knowledge of a difficult and painful marriage enlivened The Enchanted April:
Mr. Wilkins, a solicitor, encouraged thrift except that branch of it which got into his food. He did not call that food, he called it bad housekeeping. But for the thrift which, like moth, penetrated into Mrs. Wilkins’ clothes and spoilt them, he had much praise.
The Enchanted April is brilliant in its first half, enjoyable in the second, which is padded with a bit too much description of weekly changes in the flora. Overall it’s a great read for summer, sickness or stress. Uplifting, pleasurable, and available for free on Gutenberg if you have an e-reader.