I remembered enjoying the TV film of The Enchanted April so I ordered the DVD from LoveFilm. 1992! How can it be so long ago? I loved it all over again and may even buy it. As you’ll see if you follow the link, it starred Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Joan Plowright, Alfred Molina, Michael Kitchen and Jim Broadbent. Hard to go wrong with that lot.
Watching the film naturally made me want to read the book again and I found it just as charming and delightful as I’d remembered. First published in 1922, it’s a sort of fairy story. It begins in London in a wet, muddy February. Two women, not yet friends but members of the same club, spot an advertisement in The Times.
Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.
Both women are dissatisfied with their Hampstead lives and long for a holiday. Impulsive Lotty suggests they rent it together; cautious Rose eventually agrees. The rent is more than they’d reckoned on paying from their carefully hoarded little nest eggs so they advertise for two more ladies to join them. Mrs Fisher is an ‘old lady’ of sixty five, living in the past with the memories of eminent Victorians she has known. Lady Caroline Dester is one of those rich, stunningly beautiful young women who are bored by the constant attentions of tiresome men. Four very different women, four different problems, two of which are husbands: Lotty’s Mellersh and Rose’s Frederick.
San Salvatore, the medieval castle, turns out to be a place of enchantment, a place which changes people. After a difficult journey Lotty and Rose awake there to find themselves freed from household responsibilities and soothed by the blue skies and balmy air of Italy. Not even the autocratic ways of Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline’s determination to be completely alone can spoil the sudden happiness the place brings them. Elizabeth von Arnim conveys all this mainly through descriptions of the gardens and walks.
All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she (Rose) could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine … the wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, it’s prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums 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 colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach trees and cherry trees.
There’s much, much more in the same vein. Lotty, whose tendency to say exactly what she’s thinking so annoys Mrs Fisher, becomes convinced that this place could change anyone. Her husband, for instance, and Rose’s, would be transformed if they came here; Mrs Fisher will cease to be stiff, Caroline will find out what she wants. And lo! All comes to pass, just as Lotty foresees. For no one can resist San Salvatore.
In the garden that second week the poet’s eyed narcissus disappeared out of the long grass at the edge of the zigzag path, and wild gladiolus, slender and rose-coloured, came in their stead, white pinks bloomed in the borders, filling the whole place with their smoky-sweet smell, and a bush nobody had noticed burst into glory and fragrance and it was a purple lilac bush. Such a jumble of spring and summer was not to be believed in, except by those who dwelt in those gardens. Everything seemed to be out together, - all the things crowded into one month which in England are spread penuriously over six.
Just before the party leaves after that wonderful month, the whole garden dressed itself gradually in white, and grew more and more scented. How wise of the author to leave the story there and not to follow her characters back to London. This book is time out for the reader as well as for Lotty and Co., who spend a short time in heaven on earth.