Friday, July 06, 2007

The Enchanted April [Review]

Title: The Enchanted April

Author: Elizabeth von Arnim

Copyright: Originally published in 1922. This work is in the public domain and can be found online at the University of Pennsylvania Celebration of Women Writers Project. I was reading the recent print edition from the New York Review of Books (ISBN: 9781590172254)

Length: 247 pages

Genre: Domestic Fiction

Summary: Two tired and secretly depressed women, Rose Arbuthnot and Charlotte Wilkins, rent an Italian castle as a residence for the month of April in the early 1920s. In order to afford the rent, they advertise for two more women who might also have reason to get away. Elderly Mrs. Fischer and stunningly beautiful Lady Caroline Destmer agree and the four women escape to the Italian countryside. Each must make slight adjustments in order to comfortably live with one another (removing barriers in some instances and erecting them in others) but the magic of San Salvatore slowly seeps into their minds and their bodies to soothe and heal. Friendships come alive. This slow-paced and gentle novel allows that healing magic to unfold and envelope the reader. It articulates the wonderful mental experience that escaping on holiday provides us -- the opportunity to be free of obligations and remind ourselves of who we are at heart. It is that reminder that allows us to straighten up and move on through the day, making real contact with others as we go.

Extract: The day was wretched, blustering and wet; the crossing was atrocious, and they were very sick. But after having been very sick, just to arrive at Calais and not be sick was happiness, and it was there that the real splendour of what they were doing first began to warm their benumbed spirits. It got hold of Mrs. Wilkins first, and spread from her like a rose-coloured flame over her pale companion. Mellersh at Calais, where they restored themselves with soles because of Mrs. Wilkins's desire to eat a sole Mellersh wasn't having–Mellersh at Calais had already begun to dwindle and seem less important. None of the French porters knew him; not a single official at Calais cared a fig for Mellersh. In Paris there was no time to think of him because their train was late and they only just caught the Turin train at the Gare de Lyons; and by the afternoon of the next day when they got into Italy, England, Frederick, Mellersh, the vicar, the poor, Hampstead, the club, Shoolbred, everybody and everything, the whole inflamed sore dreariness, had faded to the dimness of a dream.

Also Relevant: This is the type of novel that is usually dismissed by a portion of the population on the grounds that "Nothing ever happens in it". Certainly there is little in terms of external activity. No heroism, no drama, no wrenching emotional scenes. There is, in fact, an entire chapter given over to the settling of household accounts, surely a lackluster idea, but the point of The Enchanted April is that we tend to needlessly allow daily things to become too complex -- that were we to slow down and relax a bit and grant each other some physical and mental space, we would readily find that daily minor conflicts would be kept in the proper perspective -- in fact, entirely minimized. Spring blooms in the Italian countryside and heals all the greyness of a bourgeois middle-class trudging through life in a perpetual London winter.

Of course, The Enchanted April is simplistic. Life's complexities can't always be removed by taking a little holiday. Ruptured marriages aren't healed by getting away from one's partner. The pains and aches of the elderly don't mysteriously evaporate, even when the caring of others removes loneliness. But there is faith and hope woven into this novel. And that's why this slim volume goes on the shelf with other much-loved women's classics. Because, when weary, we can return to it and find our spirits restored.

One final note: I had never heard of this book until the 1992 movie with Joan Plowright and Miranda Richardson. Even then, I had only seen the movie when it ran on TV; had IMDB not existed, I doubt I would ever have learned about Elizabeth von Arnim's novel. The movie is largely faithful to the book and it is what induced me to track this one down and read it. Now if they'd just release the movie on DVD, I would be content.