The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness, what an enchanting novel this turned out to be! I read it over that beautifully sunny weekend just before Easter, and I couldn’t have chosen a better time – it matched the glorious weather to perfection.

First published in 1922, The Enchanted April, tells the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. The rather shy and mousey Mrs Wilkins proves to be a somewhat unlikely catalyst for the trip when she sees an advertisement in The Times appealing to those who appreciate ‘wisteria and sunshine’ to take a small castle on the shores of the Mediterranean, furnishings and servants provided – a prospect that captures her imagination on a dark and dreary afternoon in February. Before long Mrs Wilkins is joined in her quest by Mrs Arbuthnot – a woman previously known to her only by sight – who also appears to be transfixed by the very same ad and the idea of a break from her dismal routine.

As it turns out, both of these women are unhappy with their current lives, albeit in rather different ways. Lotty Wilkins feels trapped and belittled in a stifling marriage; her husband, Mellersh-Wilkins, is a stuffed shirt and a bully, someone who demands prudence and thrift in every department of their home life except the one that relates to his food. In this respect he is highly critical, dismissing any shortfalls in standards as poor housekeeping on Lotty’s part. Rose Arbuthnot, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any chance of ever being noticed by her husband, Frederick, a highly successful writer of rather salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. In the early days of their marriage, the Arbuthnots were very much in love; but all too soon the situation changed as Frederick began to throw himself into his work. As a consequence, Rose has filled her life with other things to occupy her time, mostly self-sacrificing charitable work in support of the poor and needy, primarily as a means of easing her conscience about the somewhat grubby nature of the source of Frederick’s income. In short, Lotty and Rose feel constrained by their respective circumstances, worn down over the years by a lack of love and affection – even though they are only in their early thirties, both of these women seem old before their time.

Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. 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 Schoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same… (p. 7)

Having overcome their initial reluctance to do something so daring, these two ladies from Hampstead decide they will reply to the ad and take the castle in Italy. The only real obstacle that remains is finding a means of funding the cost of the trip from their respective nest eggs, a task that would prove particularly challenging for Lotty given her personal circumstances. So, as a solution to their dilemma, Lotty and Rose decide to place their own advertisement in the paper in the hope of finding two suitable companions for the trip. Thus they are joined by Lady Caroline Dester, a glamorous young socialite who is seeking refuge from all the charming men who want a piece of her back in London, and Mrs Fisher, a rather crabby old lady who seems determined to live in the past, forever lamenting the loss of old friends and acquaintances from her beloved literary world.

On their arrival at the San Salvatore castle, these four very different ladies begin to connect and interact with one another, often with the most amusing consequences. There are some priceless scenes, especially at mealtimes, as the different personalities start to emerge, frequently clashing over the smallest and most telling of details. In this early scene, the elderly Mrs Fisher has adopted the role of grande dame at the breakfast table, almost as if she were the hostess or chief facilitator of the trip. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rose Arbuthnot is more than a little put out by this development, and so she tries to establish her own standing as joint hostess with Lotty Wilkins, a move which doesn’t quite go according to plan! The indomitable Mrs Fisher is the first to speak here.

She turned more markedly than ever to Mrs Arbuthnot. ‘Do let me give you a little more coffee,’ she said.

‘No, thank you. But won’t you have some more?’

‘No indeed. I never have more than two cups at breakfast. Would you like an orange? ‘

‘No, thank you. Would you?’

‘No, I don’t eat fruit at breakfast. It is an American fashion which I am too old now to adopt. Have you had all you want?’

‘Quite. Have you?’

Mrs Fisher paused before replying. Was this a habit, this trick of answering a simple question with the same question? If so it must be curbed, for no one could live four weeks in any real comfort with somebody who had a habit. (pp. 66-67)

Gradually over time, the castle begins to work its magic on the occupants, often in profound and surprising ways. Lotty Wilkins is the first to experience its bewitching effects, transformed as she is by the abundance of beauty and resplendent atmosphere at San Salvatore (the descriptions of the gardens are magnificently lush). And how could she fail to be when she opens her curtains for the first time in the morning, only to be greeted by the following sight?

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. (p. 50)

Almost immediately upon her arrival at the retreat, Lotty Wilkins comes right out of her shell, becoming bolder, more impetuous, more enthusiastic about life and all the possibilities it has to offer. As a consequence, she makes an audacious decision, one that she hopes will lead to the promise of greater happiness in the future. To reveal any more might spoil things for the reader. Suffice it to say that Lotty’s enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it catches the attention of the previously reclusive Lady Caroline. As a consequence, these two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that looks all set to last beyond the duration of the trip. Lady Caroline, for her part, also begins to question the value of her life to date and what may lie ahead for her in the months and years to come. Even the disagreeable Mrs Fisher starts to soften as she realises that the members of the younger generation are not all as shallow and as frivolous as she had previously assumed.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the one person who is most affected by Lotty’s optimism and enthusiasm is Rose Arbuthnot. As she reflects on the transformation in her new friend, the rather lonely and sensitive Rose longs to experience something similar. If only her life with Frederick were different, if only they could recapture the early days of their marriage, the first flushes of love and affection for one another, the feeling of being cared for and valued by an attentive partner.

[…] and once again Rose wondered at Lotty, at her balance, her sweet and equable temper – she who in England had been such a thing of gusts. From the moment they got into Italy it was Lotty who seemed the elder. She certainly was very happy; blissful, in fact. Did happiness so completely protect one? Did it make one so untouchable, so wise? Rose was happy herself, but not anything like so happy. Evidently not, for not only did she want to fight Mrs Fisher but she wanted something else, something more than this lovely place, something to complete it; she wanted Frederick. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by perfect beauty, and her one thought was to show it to him, to share it with him. She wanted Frederick. She yearned for Frederick, Ah, if only, only Frederick… (p.103)

Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming novel has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. At times, I was reminded of Winifred Watson’s equally adorable book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a story that also captures a sense of joie de vivre and escapism from the constraints of an unfulfilled life.

Von Armin takes great care in portraying each of her central characters with enough subtlety and depth, thereby encouraging the reader to invest in these women from an early stage in the story. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are particularly well developed, especially in the fleshing out of their marriages and the different challenges they face with their respective husbands. Lady Caroline is also painted in a nuanced fashion. At first, it would be tempting to assume that she is simply selfish, spoilt and rather ungrateful for the attention others lavish upon her; but as the novel progresses, a different side to her personality starts to emerge, one that is more thoughtful and vulnerable. Even the fusty Mrs Fisher is portrayed in a manner which ultimately encourages the reader’s sympathies as it becomes clear that she too is rather lonely and isolated in her restricted life.

All in all, this is a most delightful novel with much to commend it – another strong contender for my end-of-year list.

The Enchanted April is published by Penguin Classics and Vintage Books.

60 thoughts on “The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    Great review. I am glad you really enjoyed the novel. How charming is that advertisement? ‘To enjoy wisteria and sunshine? I have this book on my TBR and the only reason I am postponing it is because I do not own a copy. I am currently reading Miss. Pettigrew lives for a day. And I cannot stop laughing. I think I would greatly enjoy Enchanted April too when I pick it up

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! No wonder they were so taken with the prospect – such a breath of fresh air compared to the dark and dreary weather in London that day. I think you will love this book when you get a chance to source a copy. There’s definitely a touch of the Miss Pettigrew about it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi. It’s hard not to gush about this book as there’s just so much to enjoy here! I definitely think it would stand up to a re-read – April would be the prefect time to do it, especially given the tie-in with the title. :-)

      Reply
  2. kimbofo

    I read this book a couple of years ago and loved it. I’ve just bought “Elizabeth and her German Garden” by the same author, which I’m looking forward to reading soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just the most wonderful book! It doesn’t surprise me to hear that you loved it as I recall your fondness for Miss Pettigrew – another charming read with a similar transformation at its heart. Elizabeth and her German Garden sounds like the natural follow-on read from Enchanted. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
  3. inthemistandrain

    Just read and enjoyed, prompted me to pick up “Vera”. Oh my, how different but very, very good, I’d really recommend.

    Reply
  4. Poppy Peacock

    Fab review Jacqui – really reminded me why I loved this book when I read it @10yrs ago (the film is delightful too). Wanting to revisit it as it is Virago’s Book Club choice this month

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. I’m glad my review revived a few happy memories for you. It’s a delightful book, so warm and uplifting especially towards the end. You know it’s funny – I’ve ended up with two copies of this book, neither of which are Viragos! Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate to read it in April, even if I couldn’t claim to be participating in the Librarything/Virago group!

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Super review as always Jacqui.

    The characters sounds so well crafted.

    Sadly, Mellersh-Wilkins sounds like some people I know of. Too bad that such folks exist.

    It is really a nice thing when atmosphere and whether complement the book that one is reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. What I liked about von Arnim’s approach was the care she took in fleshing out the details of Mrs Wilkins’ and Mrs Arbuthnot’s marriages and the very different challenges these two women faced. There must have been so many others like Lotty and Rose, left to wither away in rather restricted lives. I thought von Armin did a great job in capturing that. It’s what made the transformation in San Salvatore so joyful and liberating.

      Reply
  6. realthog

    An excellent account — many thanks. It’s one of those books that are forever on my “must get round to” list. Hm. I see it’s on Gutenberg, so I really have no excuse . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It’s a wonderful book, and it suited my mood just perfectly. There’s a film adaptation too, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch it. I have a very fixed impression of the characters in my mind, so I’m a bit concerned about doing anything that might disturb this!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Wasn’t it just! I loved all the different transformations that took place, each woman changed in a slightly different and distinctive way. A most charming novel indeed.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You are most welcome! I hope you get a chance to read it one day – it turned out to be such a treat. I do love these women writers from the early-mid 20th century, they’re more my cup of tea than many of the novelists writing today.

      Reply
      1. Donald Whiteway

        I am with you there. I have recently read two Elizabeth Bowen works and have ordered A Game of Hide and Seek. I am so enjoying them!!!!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I loved A Game a Hide and Seek. Elizabeth Taylor at her most subtle – I do hope you enjoy it. Bowen is marvellous too. I read The Hotel a couple of months ago and found it very intriguing. Which of hers have you been reading?

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              So I see! Thanks for dropping by to comment on my piece about The Hotel. I’m not familiar with Friends or Relations, but I do have a couple of her other novels on the shelves: The Last September and The Heat of the Day.

              Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        It is of course meant as a compliment! I have the book on the TBR pile, and you have given it a little upward nudge. The reference to Miss Pettigrew has also been helpful, as that too is a ray of sunshine book

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Marvellous! I think there’s a good chance you will like this a great deal. The writing is good, as is the attention to character. A classic that has stood the test of time.

          Reply
  7. heavenali

    Fab review. I love this book so much. I recently bought a copy for my mum and was anxious that she enjoy it. She is currently reading it and seems to be enjoying it. Phew! Your review makes me long to re-read The Enchanted April. Though I am likely to read another von Arnim after my current read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How lovely! I’m so glad your mum is enjoying it too. It really is the sort of book you want to press into the hands of friends and family, hoping they will feel just as evangelical about it as you do.

      Which von Arnim are you thinking of reading next? I know she’s the Librarything Virago author of the month, so I’m expecting to see a few reviews flying around.

      Reply
  8. susanosborne55

    Lovely review, Jacqui. You mention a film adaptation in one of your replies – if it’s the one with Michael Kitchen and Joan Plowright you might consider watching it. I loved the book then saw the adaptation a few years later and loved that too. It’s beautifully done.

    Reply
  9. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I loved this one too, I was introduced to Elizabeth von Arnim by a friend who gifted me Elisabeth and her German Garden, which is a wonderful novel and quite hilarious at times, and when I reviewed it, I recall many people mentioning The Enchanted April, which I think is more well known, but both are equally good in my opinion, so glad you picked an opportune moment to read it Jacqui! Not surprised its like to become an end of year favourite, it has much going for it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I remember your review of Elizabeth and her German Garden, Claire – a very evocative read if my memory serves me correctly. I have an old Virago copy tucked away somewhere, so maybe I should try to save it for a while. She writes so beautifully about the flowers and lush landscapes here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jonathan. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it whenever you get a chance. Some readers have found it a little too rose-tinted for their tastes, but I thought it was just wonderful.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      In some ways, I’m not surprised to hear that you didn’t take to this one, Guy. I had a feeling it might be too fairytale-like for your tastes.

      Reply
  10. Naomi

    This is a book that I want to read so badly that I bought it last year. And of course, I still haven’t read it! But, thank you for the reminder. :)

    Reply
  11. Caroline

    I liked this very much as well but didn’t care for Elizabeth and her German Garden. It’s a bit like a fairy tale. There are a few really lovely ‘Brits abroad’ books and thus us one of the loveliest. I was so disappointed when I read the next one and found it so different.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting. I think I may have mentioned this to you before, but I tried to read Elizabeth and her German Garden last year and didn’t get very far. I decided to put it aside in the end and pick up this one instead (plus it was on my list for the Classics Club, which gave me an additional incentive). I’ll try again at some point, maybe next year. You’re right about the ‘Brits abroad’ category, and this is a lovely example. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel is another good one, albeit more mysterious and oblique.

      Reply
  12. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. It is indeed an enchanting book, one of my favourites and always a joy and pleasure to read. What a lovely weekend to read it too, just perfect. I’m sure I scrolled past references to the film which is definitely worth the watch. It has all the charm of the book, and a fantastic cast too. You’ve made me feel all nostalgic, maybe I’ll have to read this again. Old Mrs Fisher and her ‘stick’, so memorable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I’m so delighted to hear that you love this one too. Maybe it could tempt you back to the world of fiction one day? It’s such a wonderful comfort read. Mrs Fisher reminded me of a character from Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, the arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot (not to be confused with Rose Arbuthnot here) who hobbles around the shared rooms with the aid of her stick. I can’t remember if you’ve read it, but there are some interesting parallels between the two.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        Perhaps I ought to have qualified my current fiction troubles as being centred around books I haven’t read before, I seem to have no difficulty in re-reading fiction books I have read before and enjoyed. This being one of them, which I know would slip easily down like a cool draught of refreshing water. I haven’t read Miss Palfrey but I am very tempted to read more Taylor and both Miss Palfrey and A Game of Hide and Seek are very tempting books.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah. that makes a lot of sense. Mrs Palfrey is a treasure, a beautifully bittersweet story about friendship and ageing. I think you would enjoy it a great deal.

          Reply
  13. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great! I think you’d love it, Caroline. Plus it would fit nicely with your older women in fiction series, Mrs Fisher and her trusty stick…

      Reply
  14. Pingback: Wisteria and Sunshine – #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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