I love books. I love flowers. I love travel. Put the three together and sprinkle with a generous dose of friendship and love and I have something tailor made to help me retreat into my own fantasy world. The Enchanted April, written in 1922 by Elizabeth von Arnim is as enchanting as the title implies and satisfies many of my literary longings. The story has an old-fashioned charm seldom found in modern books. It is as gentle and refreshing as the breeze that wafts on the Mediterranean coast where the plot is set. Reading the book is like doing what the characters are doing literally; sipping afternoon tea languidly in a sunny and lush garden with wisteria cascading down a pergola. You can almost smell the flowers.
Lottie Wilkins is a lonely and neglected married woman who comes across an advertisement in a newspaper at her local woman’s club:
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria 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.
She convinces, Rose Arbuthnot, a woman whom she knows by sight in church, to accompany her on the trip. They find two other women to share the castle with them in order to defray the expenses of their stay. So the four English women who come from different walks of life and who are strangers to each other decide to leave rainy and miserable England to go on the month-long retreat in Italy. They each have their own idiosyncrasies and manage to get on each other’s nerves in the beginning. Lottie Wilkins is self-effacing, “the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.” She is married to an ambitious but thrifty solicitor who is finicky about the fish he eats but who scarcely pays any attention to her needs. When she gets nervous, she talks incessantly and has a tendency to blurt out absurdities. Rose Arbuthnot is a pious but unhappy woman whose life revolves around the four compasses: God, Husband, Home and Duty. The virtuous woman described as having “the face of a patient and disappointed Madonna” is scandalized by the lifestyle of her husband who makes a living by writing salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. Margaret Fisher is a stern and selfish old widow who just wants to spend her days reminiscing about the luncheons at her father’s house with eminent men like Tennyson, Carlyle, Browning and Ruskin. She prides herself on speaking the refined Italian of Dante which unfortunately is not the kind the cook understands. Lady Caroline Dester is a stunningly beautiful socialite who just wants to be left alone. She is tired of being pampered by her parents and of the advances made by men who fawn over her. Cynical and embittered on the inside, she cannot help being charming and gracious on the outside even if it is her intention to be rude.
San Salvatore is in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. Elizabeth Arnim herself lived some time in this place drenched with flowers and bathed in sunlight. As a floraphile, ( Is that even a word? ) I enjoyed reading the minute and exquisite descriptions of the flowers:
The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nastartiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce color.
San Salvatore has a magical effect on its residents for along with the flowers, the characters start blooming too. Lottie is the first one to succumb to the spells of her surroundings. She becomes more confident and effusive and misses her husband so much that she writes a letter to him inviting him to join her in the castle. Rose begins to realize that she is beautiful and can win back her husband’s affection. She misses her husband too and after much deliberation, sends him a telegram inviting him to join her. Ironically, these two ladies first came to the castle to escape from their husbands. Mrs. Fisher becomes less stiff and self-centered and realizes that it is not enough living in the past. Lady Caroline realizes how empty her life is and starts reaching out to the others. Friendship and love start to unfold like the petals of the flowers around them. And then husbands and other men start arriving one after the other to disturb the equanimity of the women in their haven. Will the dispositions of the men change as well? Will love be rekindled and rediscovered in this captivating setting? Or will the characters fall in love with people other than their spouses?
The book reminded me a lot of E. M. Forster’s writing. Not only is it a witty comedy of English mores set in a foreign locale much like A Room With a View, it also exemplifies Forster’s maxim” Only Connect” which has become my own mantra for living my life. It is essentially a story about friendship, love and connection. Sometimes you have to reach out to love by accepting the people around you with all their quirks. The most delightful character is Lottie whose exuberance and optimism end up being infectious:
“She’s burst her cocoon,” thought Lotty; and swift as she was in all her movements, and impulsive, and also without any sense of propriety to worry and delay her, she bent over the back of Mrs. Fisher’s chair and kissed her.
“Good gracious!” cried Mrs. Fisher, starting violently, for such a thing had not happened to her since Mr. Fisher’s earlier days, and then only gingerly. This kiss was a real kiss, and rested on Mrs. Fisher’s cheek a moment with a strange, soft sweetness.
When she saw whose it was, a deep flush spread over her face. Mrs. Wilkins kissing her and the kiss feeling so affectionate. . . Even if she had wanted to she could not in the presence of the appreciative Mr. Briggs resume her cast-off severity and begin rebuking again; but she did not want to. Was it possible Mrs. Wilkins liked her– had liked her all this time, while she had been so much disliking her herself? A queer little trickle of warmth filtered through the frozen defences of Mrs. Fisher’s heart. Somebody young kissing her–somebody young wanting to kiss her. . .
Lottie believes that people can only be happy in pairs whether romantic or platonic and that she is the other half of Mrs. Fisher’s pair and that they will end up being close friends. Don’t you feel that you have stepped into a Forsterian universe? I was hardly surprised then to learn that E. M. Forster was a tutor to Elizabeth von Arnim’s children.
The book was also made into a charming but slow-paced film entitled Enchanted April and directed by Mike Newell. I hope I am not being a literary snob like Mrs. Fisher when I say that the book is better than the film. There are many funny passages in the book that made me chuckle, like the bathroom scene with Mr. Wilkins, and the tense interactions between Mrs. Fisher and Mrs. Arbuthnot vying with each other over who will preside as hostess at the table. Though the film retains a lot of the humor, some of the subtleties are lost in translation. Besides, the character development through the use of internal monologues made the transformation of the protagonists more compelling in the book.
The story made me realize that happiness is a choice. We can choose to be content with what we have; it is a question of perception and perspective. Happiness is about enjoying the present moment, about literally stopping to smell the roses. The fairy tale transformation brought on everyone by the place can seem implausible. I was quite sad to put this book down when it ended and to leave the enchantment like Cinderella forced to leave the castle by midnight. The characters themselves have to leave San Salvatore. Does the magic end there? I was wondering about the future of the protagonists. Will their love continue to blossom? Will they have children? Will they ever return to San Salvatore? It would be wonderful to write a sequel to this story. Sunny April will not go on forever but you hope in your imaginary afterworld of the fiction that the characters will continue basking in its afterglow even after they return to dreary England.
Now if only I had a vacation rental in Italy with interesting companions and a retinue of servants to ponder love and life, I would have my own epiphanies!