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Rediscovered Classics: An introduction to The Enchanted April

Posted on 13th August 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien & Brenda Bowen
How an advert in The Times became a classic novel, Brenda Bowen on the life of Elizabeth von Arnim

Open a window. Or better, wander into a garden. Find a chaise, settle down, breathe in the scent, whatever it is, but breathe especially deep if there’s wisteria in the air. Put on a hat, or at least some sunscreen. Turn off your phone.

Now you’re ready to read Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April.

Elizabeth von Arnim wasn’t actually named Elizabeth, and she wasn’t as German as her name. She played Liszt for Cosima Wagner; she seduced her first husband on the banks of the Thames; she worshipped—and slept with—H. G. Wells; she was a cousin to Katherine Mansfield, a friend to George Bernard Shaw, and was advised by Henry James; she argued with her children’s tutor, a young aspiring writer called Edward Morgan Forster, over dinners in a drafty schloss. In her day, she was a huge literary success; she wrote under a pseudonym, and her anonymity added to her mystique. She lived in thirty-five different houses and had five children and fourteen dogs, but she fancied herself as spare as her hero Thoreau, as unencumbered as her adored Whitman. She sparkled and intimidated at dinner parties. She had perfect pitch, was careful about her weight, had a facelift in New York in 1916. She lived in Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland, and for a short time in the United States, and died in South Carolina in 1941.

From her obituary in the Times of London:

In 1898 she wrote her first book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, in which every day events, local life, and wise, homely, unsentimental philosophy are compounded with gentle fun, making up a work that was twice reprinted in its first autumn, eight times in 1899, and thenceforward nearly every year.

‘Gentle fun’ doesn’t really describe Elizabeth’s style. Her ardent friend and admirer, novelist Hugh Walpole, captures her much better:

Her expression was never gentle—amused, cynical, ironic, gay, ferocious, cold, ardent—but never gentle...

She was as unique as one of Benvenuto Cellini’s salt cellars...

She leaves, undoubtedly, some of the wittiest novels in the English language.

One such is The Enchanted April

This springtime nosegay of a book is the ultimate renter’s novel: a month in and out of a gorgeous place where extraordinary things happen; then let someone else deal with the plumbing. Elizabeth was herself hot and cold about the many palatial houses she owned or built or oversaw. She adored being a hostess—or said she did—and threw open her doors to almost everyone who hinted they’d like to visit her. ‘Guests can be, and often are, delightful,’ she writes in her memoir, All the Dogs of My Life, ‘but they should never be allowed to get the upper hand.’ She both sought out and despised the burdens of a great house: furniture (collectors of dust), servants (impossible to manage), and, almost always, a husband (disaster). Renting a house meant the furniture was not yours to keep polished, the servants were not your puzzle to decipher, and the husband was temporarily out of the picture. One summer, to escape her household, she dragged her children (and their tutors) around England in two tinker’s caravans, drawn by large dray horses, during the wettest August on record. They cooked out of an iron cauldron and slept under leaking roofs, and one of her daughters contracted mumps along the way.The holiday was not a great success, but it started a trend. Elizabeth started trends.

Elizabeth wrote The Enchanted April in a castello in Portofino, Italy, in April 1921. She had rented the place to get away from her own (sixteen-bedroom) chalet in Switzerland, which was impossibly and impassibly difficult to get to during the mud season. The castello, an eleventh-century fortress with Roman foundations overlooking the Ligurian Sea, was in English hands when Elizabeth took occupancy for that month in April. By the 1920s its owner was the British consul, who had bought the place from the Italian government for 7,000 lire, a bargain even then. He fixed it up, restoring it to its modest sixteenth-century state. When Elizabeth rented the place it had the unglamorous name of Castello Brown. It still does.

Elizabeth’s second daughter, named Elizabeth and nicknamed Liebet, wrote an appreciative biography of her mother (under a pseudonym—they were a family of many monikers). In it, she quotes from her mother’s journal of the period:

April 1 - Divine day. Went ... in our boat to Rapallo ... back on calm sea, feeling as if we were floating inside a liquid pearl...

April 2 - Lovely day again. Sat again staring openmouthed all a.m.

April 3 - Started writing The Enchanted April...

Elizabeth had two other companions in the castello that April, and a stream of houseguests ‘ascended on’ her, but she worked hard, writing the first draft of her novel in longhand and then typing it triple-spaced; then revising, typing again, and finally pounding out those two little words every writer loves. Karen Usborne, Elizabeth’s superb biographer, quotes Elizabeth as saying, ‘And as I typed the last full stop after the words “The End” my typewriter broke! So kind of it to wait till then.’

Elizabeth liked to take her stories from her life—in fact, even she confessed that she did things (move households, masquerade as a governess) in order to give herself something to write about. In the case of The Enchanted April, written just a few years after the end of World War I, the story is not so far from her own: two unhappily married English women glancingly encounter each other at their women’s club. They are both entranced by an advertisement in the newspaper.

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

On impulse, they take the place together. Rose Arbuthnot, saintly wife of a successful, if louche, novelist, wants to get away from the knowledge that her husband no longer seems to love her. Her companion, scattered Lotty Wilkins, needs a short burst of independence from her domineering mate. A castle in Portofino, even a small one, is ruinously expensive. Rose has some money of her own, and Lotty spends her nest egg to get herself there. Even with the added funds from the novel’s other two major players—jaded Lady Caroline Dester and formidable Mrs Fisher, who are invited only because they will defray costs—the financial situation is perilous. But nothing truly worthwhile comes without a price, and the four of them embark on the adventure.With enormous effort, some fear, much anxiety, and just the smallest bit of hope, they determine to spend the month of April together.

At first, it goes badly: they are ill-matched. Middle-class Rose and Lotty have a good deal in common, but Lady Caroline breathes the thin air of high social circles, and Mrs Fisher lives in the past, alone. Rose is doubtful that they will ever become friends with Mrs Fisher, but Lotty is undiscouraged: ‘“She’ll leave off being ossified, and go all soft and able to stretch,”’ Lotty observes about Mrs Fisher early in the book,‘“and we shall get quite—why, I shouldn’t be surprised if we get quite fond of her.”’

It doesn’t happen quickly. Both Caroline and Mrs Fisher – who never gets a Christian name – do not make themselves available to Rose and Lotty. They take themselves away physically, by choosing the most remote rooms in the castle. (‘Why herd?’ wonders Lady Caroline.) But more significantly, they remove themselves emotionally. Caroline, who has lost a beau in World War I, retreats into her comfortable aristocratic sang froide. Mrs Fisher masquerades her loneliness with disapproval:

Mrs Wilkins’s remarks seemed to Mrs Fisher persistently unfortunate. Each time she opened her mouth she said something best left unsaid. Loose talk about husbands had never in Mrs Fisher’s circle been encouraged. In the 'eighties, when she chiefly flourished, husbands were taken seriously, as the only real obstacles to sin.

The ‘chiefly flourished’ is trademark von Arnim.

But of course, as we might guess will happen, the landscape, the fragrance, the light, the sea all conspire to make this foursome come to love one another – and, more significantly, allow themselves to be loved. Even ironical Lady Caroline – or Scrap, as she’s nicknamed in the book – has to admit that her summer companions are now friends.

‘“They’ve been very kind,” said Scrap. “I got them out of an advertisement.”

‘“An advertisement?”

‘“It’s a good way, I find, to get friends. I’m fonder of one of these than I’ve been of anybody.’”

Setting the tale on the exquisite and – at the time – largely undiscovered Italian Riveria helps the story along, of course. Elizabeth had a genius for description, and Castello Brown took her breath away: 

That first week the wistaria began to fade, and the flowers of the Judas-tree and peach-trees fell off and carpeted the ground with rose-colour.Then all the freesias disappeared, and the irises grew scarce. And then, while these were clearing themselves away, the double banksia roses came out, and the big summer roses suddenly flaunted gorgeously on the walls and trellises. Fortune’s Yellow was one of them; a very beautiful rose. Presently the tamarisk and the daphnes were at their best, and the lilies at their tallest. By the end of the week the fig-trees were giving shade, the plum- blossom was out among the olives, the modest weigelias appeared in their fresh pink clothes, and on the rocks sprawled masses of thick-leaved, star-shaped flowers, some vivid purple and some a clear, pale lemon.

What a place it is.

I write this as the wintry Ligurian Sea pounds on the rocks outside the window of my off-season hotel in Portofino. Through the window, up the hillside covered with Aleppo pines and olive trees and grape vines, there is a view of Castello Brown. The characters in the book struggle to get up that steep hill to the castle, and it is not an easy place to get to, even now. A plane to Milan or Pisa or Genoa. Or, if you’re already starting in Italy, a train to Santa Margherita Ligure, and a shockingly expensive taxi along the narrow, treacherous roads or a bracing three-mile walk to the tiny, delicate jewel of a town. And then: a nicely challenging hike up to the castello itself. Page upon page of the novel are devoted to the trip to San Salvatore, Elizabeth’s name for Castello Brown—and little wonder. It’s a tough climb up that hill. Hard enough now on foot, but by mule and cart in Elizabeth’s day it must have been arduous, not to mention scary. Here’s how Elizabeth, in her typically shorthand prose, describes one character lumbering up the hillside to present himself to Lady Caroline:

Footsteps. On the zigzag path. Briggs. Finding her out. Should she run?

No—the footsteps were coming up, not down. Some one from the village. Perhaps Angelo, with provisions.

She relaxed again. But the steps were not the steps of Angelo, that swift and springy youth; they were slow and considered, and they kept on pausing.

‘Some one who isn’t used to hills,’ thought Scrap...

The next moment the footsteps turned the corner of her bit of path, and stood still.

‘Getting his wind,’ thought Scrap, not looking around...

He came up to her and took off his hat. His forehead beneath the hat was wet with the beads of unaccustomed climbing. He looked ashamed and entreating, like a guilty but devoted dog.

No wonder the characters in The Enchanted April rarely venture into town: way too much work.

The Ligurian Sea in December is jade green, not blue at all, and in April it must be a shock of color, especially to the benighted English tourist of 1921. The characters in The Enchanted April fall under the spell of the water and flowers and, of course, the warm, generous, forgiving Italian light. 

[Lotty’s] face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea... Happy? Poor, ordinary, everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.

It’s a confection, it’s a dream, it’s a fleeting April romance, but oh, how hard to get this story out of your head. Who doesn’t long to find a place where one can shine like the sunlight? A place filled with lilacs and local wine and truest love, where we can all at last turn into the best version of ourselves? Such a place is The Enchanted April’s San Salvatore, where mischievous Puck, with his midsummer violet love potion, would not have been out of place. Lovers come together and part and come together again. Scales fall from eyes. Sunlight and moonlight play tricks. All is forgiven. No one can come away from this April without thinking, even for just a moment, that the course of true love, unsmooth as it may run, is certainly worth taking. 

Published on October 31, 1922, the book was an immediate hit. (‘Celebrated my book’s birthday by dining out,’ writes Elizabeth in her diary that day.) The Enchanted April was the author’s most popular novel since her first ‘Elizabeth’ book and its sequels, and like those it became one of the bestselling novels of the year. (The astute watcher of television’s Downton Abbey will have caught a glimpse of Elizabeth and Her German Garden in season two, when Mr Molsley offers it as a gift to Anna. In fact, any book with the word ‘German’ in it was not so popular in 1916, when the episode was set. He might have done better with Elizabeth’s The Pastor’s Wife, a very British autobiographical novel, published in 1914.) Two movies were based on The Enchanted April (the 1992 version earned Joan Plowright an Academy Award nomination and was filmed on location at Castello Brown). The novel was produced as a play in London in 1927 and on Broadway in 2003. Elizabeth, whose books were uniformly commercial successes, was on a roll. Her novel of the previous year, Vera, a dark look at marital relations, was something of a sensation and had been compared by critics to the work of Jane Austen. A number of the reviews of The Enchanted April continued to heap praise. The Nation and Athenaeum characterized the novel this way: ‘It may seem a little slender ... and possibly a little ‘in the air,’ but in reality it is a charming thing. The beauty of San Salvatore is kept constantly before us with the greatest skill, and the humour of the author has never been more delightful.What gives the book its greatest charm however is the brilliant study of the four contrasted women.’

The Observer and Country Life were also fans. Other, more highbrow, publications were not. But Elizabeth was very happy about the success of Vera and The Enchanted April. They put her on firm financial ground. 

Elizabeth was no stranger to financial pinches. Born Mary Annette Beauchamp, she was not aristocracy, though her father was related to one of William’s conquerors. She was raised in Australia (although it might as well have been Kent, so English was her upbringing) by ex-patriots Henry and Elizabeth Beauchamp, who were not terrifically lucky in business. They did manage to keep up appearances, however, and to stay financially afloat. The youngest of six, Mary, or May, as she was called, was a ‘peculiar child,’ according to her aunts, forthright and garrulous. She was not terribly pretty, and her father doubted she would ever be married. Nonetheless, he took her on the requisite Grand Tour, and she happened to be playing an organ in the Vatican (!) when her musicality caught the ear and the eye of a suitor, Graf Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, whose name conjured more respect than his credit rating. Von Arnim owned a sprawling estate in Pomerania, had another entailed to his unborn children, had lost his former wife and child in childbirth, and was looking for love. May was just what he wanted: tiny and pretty enough; of heir-bearing age; accomplished; a brilliant conversationalist, even at twenty-two; and into him. He proposed to her at the top of the Duomo in Florence, but it was a long wait before his affairs were, in his opinion, in good enough order to draw up a marriage contract. When he wouldn’t set a date, May went away with him for a weekend, offered her body to his willing arms, and then had her parents demand that they marry. The wedding took place in 1890 at St. Margaret’s Chapel in London: she was twenty-four; he was forty-nine.They stayed tempestuously married until Henning died at age sixty-nine. During their years together he was imprisoned (unjustly, as it turned out) for embezzlement, and he was close to bankruptcy more than once (with his writer wife’s earnings bailing him out each time). He did not believe in anesthetics during childbirth, so she could not use any (for the first two at least, before she prevailed), and he foisted on Elizabeth five children, the last two of whom she did not want. Worst of all, in his wife’s opinion, he removed and rinsed his false teeth in his finger bowl after every meal. She called him the Man of Wrath in her novels, but it was, in its own way, a successful match. She eventually gave him a son and heir. He gave her a title.

And he allowed her to write. Or, more accurately, he allowed her to publish. For Elizabeth was a consummate writer. She wrote in her diary almost every day. She kept up scores of correspondences with friends, lovers, children, scholars, intellectuals. She was never happier than when she was alone in the dilapidated orangerie on her estate in Pomerania, writing her novels, a dog at her feet. Or anywhere writing her novels, in fact. She describes what she felt after a narrow escape with a suitor who paid court while she lived in her chalet in Switzerland in 1921: ‘Back at work again, and daily more filled with that sense of harmony, of inner balance, which being at work has always given me.’

When she had to entertain guests, she had this advice on the work/life balance: ‘If you wish to be free, while still remaining hospitable, it isn’t a few guests you want, it is many. Fling your doors wide. Fill you house to the brim. Then they will be so busy with each other that they will have no time for you, and you can get on in peace with your next book.’ 

Still, in those early days of her writing career, Henning cut and censored her first book to his liking before his wife sent it off looking for a publisher. The manuscript found an immediate taker in Macmillan. They rushed the book into print in 1898, with the author’s name only ‘Elizabeth’ on title page and spine. Even with her husband’s changes, whatever they were, Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a funny, discursive, sharply observed affair: a peek into another way of living that featured a castle, a series of maddening gardeners, groves of trees, beds of flowers, and children who said funny things in two languages. It is a chance to spend time with the kind of woman we’d all like to have at our country houses, if we had country houses. The ‘Elizabeth’ of the novel has a personality very like the author’s, though not quite as mercurial. She is the prototype of the ditzy rich girl of screwball comedy. She’s a direct descendant of Emma Woodhouse, without the matchmaking, and, as far as I’m concerned, she spawned Bridget Jones. (A diary line of Elizabeth’s, from 1899, commenting on her second novel, The Solitary Summer, could actually have been written by Bridget: ‘Read it through—mixed feelings—chiefly disgust. Futility that cannot be uttered. Am, after all, a poor fool.’) The decidedly upper class characters of English novelist Mary Wesley’s books, Preston Sturges, and even Patsy and Eddy of Absolutely Fabulous would recognize Elizabeth (the character) as one of their own. It’s a welcome escape from real life to hang out with the hugely amusing Elizabeth in her German garden (even though the actual garden at Nassenheide, the von Arnim estate, was by all accounts little more than a patch of weeds). So popular was that first book and so mysterious the author’s identity that the Daily Mail of London made it front page news and conjectured that the author might be Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. In our own age, where there is no such thing as privacy, it’s hard to imagine the intrigue surrounding Elizabeth’s identity, which was eventually uncovered. It was as if J. K. Rowling suddenly turned out to be Prince Charles.

The Countess von Arnim—soon largely known as Elizabeth—was thrilled to be a published writer. Her success as a professional flew in the face of the German highborn society of which she was forced by title to be a part, and the book afforded her financial independence. Elizabeth and Her German Garden was soon followed by The Solitary Summer, another hit featuring her ‘Elizabeth’ character, and another, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, which The Spectator called ‘a series of watercolor sketches in words.’ The novel remains a delight to read: a self-mocking diary of five hilarious days ‘roughing it’ in bucolic splendor. Next came other triumphs: The Pastor’s Wife; Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight, a childlike fantasy, which Elizabeth adapted into a stage play that was a critical and financial success in London; Christopher and Columbus, a book about her sojourn in America; and Vera, the exposé about her relationship with her shockingly abusive second husband, Earl Russell. (Revenge is a dish best served in print.)

By 1922, when The Enchanted April was published, Elizabeth had competently disentangled her first husband’s complicated estate (and paid his debts). She had briefly been the joyous mistress of H.G. Wells and was now the unhappy wife of the bizarre and domineering Francis Russell, whom she refers to as ‘Doom’ in her memoir. Her children, who adored and feared her, were pretty much grown (each with his—or mostly her—own complicated relationship with Elizabeth). It was a good time to rent a place in Italy.

The novel was in part responsible for the hordes of English tourists who holidayed on the Italian Riviera in the period between the wars. ‘It also contributed to the feminist cause,’ Usborne writes in ‘Elizabeth,’ ‘for after it was published it was no longer considered outrageous for women to leave their husbands and go off on holiday on their own or with each other.’ A stretch, maybe, but I for one am on such a holiday as I write this. 

Elizabeth continued to be a hit factory as far as her writing was concerned. She turned out another five novels and her memoir before she moved to America in 1939, full of despair about the world and the war and Hitler’s power. There she wrote Mr. Skeffington, which was the sentimental story of a faded beauty who was not able to understand— until it was almost too late—that she could be loved for more than her beauty alone. The book had surprisingly strong reviews. It was sold to Warner Bros. for $50,000 and was made into a movie in 1944 starring a somewhat miscast Bette Davis. Elizabeth did not live to see it. She died in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 9, 1941. 

‘The object of a journey like mine was not the getting to a place but the going there,’ she wrote. If you are indeed nicely settled out of doors in a garden, or you’re near that open window, or even if you’re not: turn the page and take the journey up the hill to San Salvatore and into The Enchanted April.You won’t even mind the climb.


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