#AW80Books: What do you get if you let Merchant Ivory loose on ‘The Golden Girls’? Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Enchanted April’.

I’m not sure where or when I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Enchanted April’. I’m always on the look-out for the tell-tale Forest green of old Virago Modern Classics when foraging in the charity shops of West Wales, and while I didn’t know very much about it at the time, the sparkling review on Shoshi’s book blog,  compelled me to read it immediately, not least in order to read it in the month it was set. Fortunately, a quick scan of my bookshelves revealed that this treasure was already mine.

I wasn’t the only one to be inspired, as not long after I’d started reading it, Madame Bibi Lophile also wrote a glowing endorsement of the book. I can only concur that it was an absolute treat and totally lived up to my already high expectations. Escaping their own separate sorrows, four women take a month’s tenancy of a medieval castle in Italy, enticed by the promise of ‘Wisteria and sunshine’.

Was she, too, picturing what it would be like, -the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Shoolbred’s and the Tube to Hampstead, and the dinner, and to-morrow the same and the day after the same and always the same….

Each character unfurls over the course of the novel, unable to resist the magic of the place. The women are all very different in character, and to begin with I couldn’t help thinking they resembled The Golden Girls, albeit in fine vintage frocks and hats instead of chenille and shoulder pads. The very capable Mrs Arbuthnot was, to me, Dorothy –

the very way Mrs. Arbuthnot parted her hair suggested a great calm that could only proceed from wisdom

–  Mrs Fisher certainly had the caustic qualifications to be Sophia –

Mrs Fisher, after a pause, said with sub-acid reserve that she had been unacquainted with both Keats and Shakespeare

The lovely, dippy Lotty Wilkins makes for a convincing Rose –

‘Oh of course – how ridiculous of me!’ cried Mrs Wilkins, flushing scarlet. ‘It’s because’ – she floundered – ‘it’s because the immortals somehow still seem alive, don’t they… I thought I saw Keats the other day,’ Mrs Wilkins incoherently proceeded, driven on by Mrs. Fisher’s look over the top of her glasses. ‘In Hampstead – crossing the road in front of that house – you know – the house where he lived -‘            Mrs. Arbuthnot said they must be going.                                                                                          Mrs. Fisher did nothing to prevent them.

– and it only requires a small stretch of the imagination to also see the self-centred Lady Caroline becoming Blanche in years to come.

Lady Caroline turned her head. She looked up at them a moment, surprised to see them so much younger than they had seemed that day at the club, and so much less unattractive. Indeed, they were really almost quite attractive, if any one could ever be really quite attractive in the wrong clothes.

However, this isn’t 1980s Miami. This is Italy in the early twentieth century –  Merchant Ivory territory, and as these women work out their angst against a beautiful backdrop of an Italian medieval castle while spring parades her bounty of blossom and flowers,  my crass analogy begins to fade, which is probably for the best.

The characters are vividly drawn, and as they each break out of their individual protective carapaces, their transformations are poignant as well as comic.

Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.

However, what could have ended up as escapist flummery is elevated by Von Arnim’s dry wit and crackling prose. I actually whooped with laughter in a public place while reading, and then tried to pretend it was a cough to save face. I think that’s the genius of the novel. The wry humour balances the lush evocations of the sea, the sunshine, the stunning Italian landscape, and the flowers – their heady fragrance hanging in the air, and it prevents the emotional impact of the novel from sinking into the sentimental.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

By the time I’d finished the novel I felt like I’d spent a month in Italy myself. I’d been so wrapped up in it I completely forgot to get the atlas out or have a nose at google maps, although I have done so since. It was the perfect choice for some armchair travelling for our Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, and while it does lend itself to an April reading, it’s far too good to postpone for the best part of a year. If you haven’t already done so, get hold of a copy and treat yourself to a few days of Italian sunshine, you certainly won’t regret it!