Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is an almost perfect book.  Actually, I can think of not one thing to criticize, and much to praise highly, so perhaps it IS a perfect book.

Elizabeth von Arnim led a very interesting life.  She was born in Australia, and was Katherine Mansfield's cousin.  She married a German Count, and wrote her most famous book, "Elizabeth and her German Garden" (1898) about their castle in Prussia.  I have read that book, and could appreciate its charm, but frankly, it IS mostly about gardening, and I am not a gardening fan.

This book came along much later in her life (1922).  She had by this time lost the German castle to debts, been widowed, had an affair with HG Wells (more of him in a post soon), and married a second time, this time the elder brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.  Her second husband was by all accounts mad, and the marriage scarcely lasted three years. 

So this book was the fruit of much experience.  Whereas her idyllic life as a Countess, young wife and mother in the "German Garden" was only faintly touched with darker shadows (the husband was referred to as "The Man of Wrath"), this book  represents an escape from husbands altogether.

Two unhappily married wives decide to rent a castle in Italy for a month's holiday.  This was an astonishingly radical idea for 1922.  Neither had any income of her own, but each had a small "nest egg" which they decided to supplement by advertising for two more tenants to share the rent. 

One of these, an elderly widow, is not a very nice person.  In fact, she starts off as decidedly unpleasant.  She provides a balancing act to the other, a young  aristocrat of superlative beauty, who merely wishes to escape from "grabbers" (men of any age, who, on encountering her, fall in love with her and become perfect nuisances).

All four are transformed and re-born under the magical and benign influence of the extraordinary castle and its remote setting, in the perfect climate of the Italian Riviera in April.  (It is thought that the book is based on the author's experience of staying at Portofino, indeed a wonderful location).

The old lady mellows and develops charm, the young beauty reviews her life, and decides that it has been rather shallow up to now, and she must do something with it.  The two wives are reconciled with their rather awful husbands, who both show up at the castle during the month.

The whole book is written with the most beautiful sense of humour. Almost everything described in it, except the scenery, is screened by an amused authorial irony.  Husbands of every description, the problems of beauty, loneliness, the Italian language, aging, selfishness (as exhibited by the two sub-tenants) are all pointed out as objects of wit with the very lightest touch imaginable.  On top of that, some really original insights into aspects of the female condition, which would not become mainstream until many decades later, are slipped in here and there as throwaway lines. 

A book to savour and enjoy,  although nothing much happens.  At the end, they all go home again.

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