Just one day out of life. It would be, it would be so nice1.
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
First Published: 1922
Date Reviewed: 9th May 2014
Mrs Wilkins likes the sound of a castle in Italy, a month’s holiday, and after much badgering enlists a relative stranger, Mrs Arbuthnot, to join her. Deciding they should make it cheaper, they interview and then invite two others. Away from society, away from routine, away from their husbands, the castle is great idea. But from the start things don’t go quite to plan. Caroline got there before the initial two holidaymakers, and has planned the meal times. Mrs Fisher has taken over the nicest sitting room. Mrs Arbuthnot’s a little disheartened by the change in roles, but Mrs Wilkins is adamant it doesn’t matter. They should all enjoy the holiday and use it to make their lives happier. She’s the only one who thinks that way.
The Enchanted April is a novella that focuses on the changes in four women that occur over the course of their holiday. Some changes are sudden and big, others take a long time and are smaller, but by the end everyone has changed in some way. There might even be others who change, too.
The book is very much character-driven. The plot remains simple – a holiday in Italy – and the characters never leave the castle grounds, excepting one who goes only a little further afield and whom the reader is not invited to join. The emphasis is on transformation, the castle simply a pretty backdrop – it’s as though it’s there so that you as a reader can also go on holiday and in your relaxed state can be more aware of the women you read about.
The characters are as follows: Mrs Wilkins is determined, perhaps a little flighty, and sees the good in everyone. Mrs Arbuthnot is more down to earth, but it’s interesting to see the change in her – she sounds very set in her ways, traditional, perhaps old before her time. Caroline is a Lady, and very pretty, so pretty that she has trouble getting away from leering men. She also has an issue with her voice making everything she says sound wonderful. And Mrs Fisher is a grumpy older woman who you know has the potential to enjoy the holiday if she’d just let herself go.
Whilst the book is a simple then-contemporary story, quite a lot rests on Mrs Wilkin’s ‘seeing’ things happening in the future. It’s not magical realism and nowhere near being paranormal, but it does leave you to consider the power of suggestion, even if it’s just that Mrs Wilkins is incredibly optimistic. Whichever it is, Mrs Wilkins puts everything in motion, and the fact that she may not, at first, seem as grounded as the others, means little.
There is a twist in the tale, about half-way through, where the dynamics change. Depending on how well ensconced you were with the book by that time and depending on how you viewed the women (their holiday and the resulting freedom) this twist may come as an unwelcome shock. It does make you rethink the initial suggestion that these women need and deserve a break, and that they are only now able to remember who they are as individuals, but at the same time von Arnim shows how that this twist could be just as important in the long run. It may be good to focus on the women, but how much of their lives back home would be altered for the good if it’s only them who are different?
Yet it could be argued that the real reason the twist exists is to show that at the end of the day the women are no longer truly their own people. One situation in particular may leave a bad taste in your mouth for its secrets, and the twist is the very thing one of the characters had come to the castle to avoid. The ending is also somewhat convenient and not quite believable – it’s as though von Arnim suddenly read what she’d written and decided that it wouldn’t do at all as it was.
For the most part the characters are developed, even Mrs Fisher and her very sudden change that seems tacked on the end of the story, but in regards to Caroline there could have been more time spent on description. ‘They hadn’t reckoned on Scrap [Caroline]’ is a constant statement made by von Arnim, but whilst on some occasions, and luckily on the most important occasion, this is explained, on the whole ‘Scrap’ could’ve been afforded more time.
The Enchanted April offers a short reprieve from life, for all involved, and much promise for their future. And it offers a holiday for you, too, for there is surely an unmarked fifth invitation from Mrs Wilkins waiting for you in the pages.
1 Lyric from Holiday by Madonna.
May 12, 2014, 1:51 am
I read about half of this last year and didn’t really like it. I’m not sure if I wasn’t in the mood or if it was just not the book for me, but I felt guilty because it seems like one of those books that everyone reveres. Your thoughts make me think I should give it another try, especially as I am going to Italy in October. And I really want to know what the twist is now!
May 12, 2014, 6:52 am
Who knows, maybe :)
May 12, 2014, 10:52 am
I love this book – perhaps because I first encountered in the film version, perhaps because of the real ‘star’ the garden. Actually it took me a while to figure what you meant by ‘the twist’ as I’d not really seen it that way. Full review here http://www.ourbookreviewsonline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/enchanted-april-by-elizabeth-von-arnim.html
May 12, 2014, 12:53 pm
I’m a fan – so much so that I’m going to have a little brag and say that I’ve been there and stood outside the gates of the villa (sadly, closed, but a girl can dream!) and attempted to peer over the walls (high) to see the legendary garden (run down). Perhaps Scrap’s underdevelopment is actually part of her characterisation – she represents a type rather than a what she is herself. Hmmm.
May 12, 2014, 2:44 pm
I first encountered this as a movie and enjoyed it, although later when I read the book I saw that some of the issues you mention had been glossed over.
May 12, 2014, 3:53 pm
Hmm, not a big fan of the novella. I’m not sure if I’d actually enjoy this but I’m intrigued by your reflections.
May 12, 2014, 6:03 pm
I have a copy of this on my shelf to read. It’s been sitting there for a few years now.
It sounds like an interesting story. I admit I’m still not ready to race home and grab it off the shelf to read right away. Although, you have reminded me its there and I really should give it a read one of these days.
May 13, 2014, 8:55 am
This book sounds great, I think I’ll need to add it to my TBR pile!
If you like this I think you’ll like A Room with a View (if you’ve not already read it). I’ve decided that all good character awakening novels are set in Italy.
May 13, 2014, 11:45 am
I’m always on the look out for interesting novellas and this does intrigue me… But your comment about the twist makes me think twice.
May 15, 2014, 1:55 am
I really like Enchanted April. The film is lovely, too. I need to read more of her works. Do you plan on reading more?
May 30, 2014, 2:39 pm
Anbolyn: It is quite a slow book and not much happens for quite some time, so I can see why you gave up on it. It’s worth giving it another go, yes, I’d say. Thinking of the books you read you might enjoy the latter section. It’s very much about the characters and what the author wants to say.
Maryom: I’ve heard the film is very accurate, I’d like to watch it at some point. I see it as a twist because it’s out of the blue somewhat, the whole [spoiler incoming] let’s get away from everything in our lives. Thanks, I’ll give yours a read :)
Vicki: You know, I’d thought it was a fictional castle at first, so I’ll have to find a photograph. Oh that’s a very good point, she is a type, though at the same time there’s enough there, so to speak, to make you interested in her as an individual. I’m going to have to think on that for a bit, really good point!
Jeanne: I suppose it’s more obvious in words, detail, than on screen?
Tracy: I’d say it’s worth a skim to see if you’d like it, but it is slow. I struggled with it for a while.
Literary Feline: Your thinking is appropriate, really, it’s not really a rush home to read book (at least in my view). It’s definitely more of a lazy day book.
Alice: A Room with a View is on the periphery, as such, but if you think I’ll like it I’ll put it on my list. It must be the culture. We’re just too must-always-be-doing-something for it to work as well here, even in the countryside.
Jo: I did find it a bit ‘oh’ – it really depends on what you were enjoying exactly up to that point. For me it was the concept and promise of personal development which I felt was automatically hindered by the twist.
Violet: I would like to, yes, but I’m not sure which to move on to – Elizabeth and her German Garden, perhaps?