Book Review

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim


Genre: Classic

Somehow I’ve managed to exist this far into life without having seen or read The Enchanted April. Finally I have gotten to the book and it is indeed delightful, although reading it immediately after finishing Gideon the Ninth was perhaps not the best choice (tonal whiplash!). This slow paced, lyrical novel is about friendships between women and the joy of literally having a room of one’s own, if only for a month.

The Enchanted April, written in 1922, is about four women who rent a castle in Italy together for one month (April, duh). The story is set in motion by an advertisement that reads:

To Those who Appreciate Wisteria 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.

Londoners Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot know each other (barely) because they attend the same church. Mrs. Wilkins has spent her adult life waiting on a demanding and disapproving husband. Mrs. Arbuthnot began married life madly in love with her husband, but after years of marital disappointment and the death of their baby, she’s turned all her energies towards charitable work and God. When Mrs. Wilkins, who is fed up with having taken care of other people for so long, spots the advertisement, she persuades Mrs. Arbuthnot to rent the castle with her, saying, “I’m sure it’s wrong to go on being good for too long, till one gets miserable. And I can see you’ve been good for years and years, because you look so unhappy.” Ouch.

In order to save money, they invite two other women, Lady Caroline and Mrs. Fisher, to join them and share the expenses. Lady Caroline is young and beautiful but her beauty and wealth have made her bored, cynical, lonely, and depressed. Mrs. Fisher is an elderly woman (with an omnipresent walking stick) who is relentlessly and illogically judgemental and won’t shut up about all the famous people her parents new when she was young. All you need to know about her is contained in the following delicious moment:

The two drivers told Lady Caroline boys would have to carry the luggage up to the castle, and she went in search of some, while Mrs. Fisher waited in the fly because of her stick. Mrs. Fisher could speak Italian, but only, she explained, the Italian of Dante, which Matthew Arnold used to read with her when she was a girl, and she thought this might be above the heads of the boys.

The plot, for most of the book, meanders along. The women dislike each other until they do not (Mrs. Wilkins, serene, “saw” that they would all become friends eventually, and so they do). They enjoy nature and think and experience Personal Growth. Despite irritations, things are quite relaxed. After all, as Mrs. Wilkins points out, “Have you noticed…how difficult it is to be improper without men?”

Ah, if only we never had to find out – but here they are, men, stomping in in the last third of the book. Oh, the cluckings of dismay I uttered, the, “Oh dear”s and the “tsk tsk”s and, on at least one occasion the extremely loud cry of “What? No! What are you doing? Why? Why?” Having had no idea how I invested I was in the book until I came upon the plot complications of the latter third, I was unarmored against the sudden onslaught of drama, as romances develop, die out, and re-form with lightning speed.

The joy of the book is not the plot, but the language and the dry, delicious humor. By page four we are gifted with:

The castle, being mediaeval, might also be dilapidated, and dilapidations were surely cheap.

Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible.

He produced the impression of keeping copies of everything he said.

On the lyrical side, we have passages like this:

She had no idea what time it was; she had forgotten to wind up her watch ever since, centuries ago, she last went to bed in Hampstead. No sounds were to be heard in the house, so she supposed it was very early, yet she felt as if she had slept a long while-so completely rested, so perfectly content. She lay with her arms clasped round her head thinking how happy she was, her lips curved upward in a delighted smile. In bed by herself: adorable condition. She had not been in bed without Mellersh once now for five whole years; and the cool roominess of it, the freedom of one’s movements, the sense of recklessness, of audacity, in giving the blankets a pull if one wanted to, or twitching the pillows more comfortable! It was like the discovery of an entirely new joy.

This would be a perfect wish-fulfillment novel were it not for the men, who present romantically happy endings that I find highly dubious. However, the very dubiousness of these romantic endings is part of the point, I think. This time in Italy is a vacation, not a whole life. Eventually everyone will go back to their previous marital arrangements, and probably everyone will forget all about staying on their best behavior, and the enchantment of April will fade. However, it is strongly implied that the love these four women develop for each other will not fade, and this will enable the women to live vibrant and meaningful lives long after their vacation is over.

I found this to be a slow, though short, read. It’s meditative and lyrical, and best not to rush it. I crammed in chapters between errands when clearly this book was meant to be read in a more leisurely and bucolic setting. On the other hand, it was quite lovely to be transported to a castle in Italy in my mind’s eye when I was actually in a school parking lot in Natomas, California.

I have to admit, though, that this book, which makes so many people so happy, made me rather sad. I hate to think of the women returning to their dreary homes. I hate to think of them returning to their dreary husbands, however charming their husbands may magically become in Italy. I’m become greedy. An April does not satisfy my greedy heart. I want all year.

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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  1. Sally says:

    I love the book,but I really prefer the movie from the 90s with Joan Plowright. i think it makes the romances feel like part of the character growth. But the book really fleshes out some scenes…so really I recommend both as necessary to enrich the other.

  2. Lisa F says:

    Yess, the movie and this book are wonderfully cozy experiences!

  3. Ruth says:

    The movie is wonderful — one of my all-time favorites (not just Joan Plowright, but Miranda Richardson)(to digress, I once started thinking about my favorite movies, and found one thing they had in common was a strong sense of place). I remember the first time I saw it, in the theater. It was a cold, rainy February night and we were transported to an enchanted April. When the lights came up the audience actually sighed. I think the movie must be more positive and hopeful than the book. I actually have the book but haven’t read it. Apparently I must.

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