Some might think that a blog based exclusively on the novels you read is not the most useful service to be bringing to the overloaded internet. Not so! First I bring you a book to read in the heat, and now I bring you the perfect holiday read – or, even better, a book to produce the feelings of a holiday even if you’re not on one. I’m a public service on fire.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April is a work of pure charm and delight. It’s lightweight – extremely – in fact it’s surprising that it’s been honoured as part of the Penguin Modern Classics. It gives a badge of respectability to a book that I could easily have interpreted as a bit of 1920s girly froth. The outline is this: 4 female strangers hire a Italian castle for a beautiful month, moving from cramped lives in a rainy London to the glory of an Italian Spring. Under the influence of the beauty of their new home, their lives open up into long-lost happiness. So far, so frothy, but there’s more to it: it has a bracing touch of bite and perceptiveness. In the words of the Times Literary Supplement:
The Enchanted April sounds as if it would be an appallingly cloying cream puff of a fairy tale, but that would be to ignore that the author habitually kept a pot of lemon juice mixed with vinegar beside her ink-pot. With this bracing element there is additionally what can only be called a feast of flowers, hanging from every wall and pouring scent over the company.
This citrus-vinegar mix punctures the characters’ frequent self-delusions and puts the reader in no doubt of their various selfish impulses. But cascading over this is wave after wave of softness, light and joy. The narrative arc of the book, from closed tense unhappiness opening out into expansive warmth and positivity, is enacted not only in the setting – from London to Portofino – but in the characters’ minds, and most pleasingly in the experience of reading the novel, which bears you on this happy surge too. All is soft, shining and happy; with the seasoning comedy of von Arnim’s observation. You go through the sense of change with the characters, waiting like them for a twist which barely happens.
Reading The Enchanted April you breathe the warm air, see the lavish beauty of the gardens, and feel the peace of lying back on the grass. Come, pick up this slim volume, smile, and enjoy the summer.