Friday, June 10, 2016

Book Review - Elizabeth Von Arnim's The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Published by: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: 1922
Format: Paperback, 247 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Mrs. Wilkins sees an advertisement in The Times for a house rental in Italy for the entire month of April. The medieval castle of San Salvatore beckons to her. She sees herself there. But she couldn't possibly spend her money on something so frivolous, what would her husband Mellersh say? Anyway it's too expensive for one... but with two. Seeing Mrs. Arbutnot that day, looking at the same ad, something clicked in Mrs. Wilkins. She just knew that Mrs. Arbuthnot was just as dissatisfied with her life too. They could easily afford the place together. Mrs. Arbuthnot had the money that her husband sets aside for her, the ill gotten gains of his writing scandalous memoirs of famous mistresses, that she usually spends on God's work. It wouldn't be wrong, would it, to spend it on herself for once? Yet, to share this good fortune among only two seemed wrong. So soon they place an ad for two more people, and are joined by the elderly Mrs. Fisher, who just wants to be left alone in the Italian sun remembering her glory days, and Lady Caroline Dester, who just wants to escape her fame and infamy.

Once in Italy, they are all overcome with the beauty and the abundance of flowers. The burgeoning wisteria, the fragrance of the bushes. Mrs. Wilkins is the first to embrace the change the place has wrought in her, writing to her husband she was trying to escape from to join her. Her heart flowing over with goodwill and serenity that must be shared with all. Soon Mrs. Arbuthnot starts to unwind and see that perhaps she has been too hard on her husband and his writing. Mrs. Fisher remains obstinate and stoic, wanting everything her way, with her own space and her own memories, but she soon starts to flex, ever so slightly. Lady Caroline also begins to change, having all this time to just think and escape the pawing of everyone makes her come to some startling conclusions about herself. The house has a magic that changes all of them mysteriously and irrevocably.

One day I stumbled on an idyll movie. There were lots of British actors whom I recognized and this feeling of beauty and release and joy. That movie happened to be Enchanted April. While I only caught but a few moments of the film it stuck with me and one day when I stumbled on the book while browsing the shelves of a local bookstore I bought it immediately. I thought if the book had but a fraction of the charm that I saw distilled in those fleeting moments I watched on the screen it would be a luxurious escape. But as is often the case with me I had some very odd ideas about this book I had found. I was adamant that I would only read the book in April. Yes, a crazy thought, but I just had to do it. The book was called The Enchanted April after all! And I wanted my own April to be enchanted. So every April I would think, "This April, I'll read it." Yet life would invariably get in the way. Work, school, something always happened so that by the time I had the time to read it, it was no longer April and therefore I refused to read it. Then finally the stars aligned. I had the time and I was totally disenchanted. I don't know if it was the years of build up or just that I wasn't in the right frame of mind, but I not only disliked this book, I openly hated it.

The Enchanted April is supposed to be an escapist fantasy. The, wouldn't it be lovely to be there with them in Italy. Instead it made me feel bitter and angry towards all the characters. Oh, their boring lives of routine are so hard, let them luxuriate in Italian splendor that you can't take part in as you toil through a crappy Wisconsin April with tons and tons of work. Oh, it cost us nothing to live in this magical place and isn't that just wonderful, grumble, grumble. Very shortly I wanted to go and kill them all. Their lives aren't so hard that they needed this getaway! I need this getaway and guess what? I don't have the time or the money, so shut it ladies. Mrs. Wilkins' knowing and seeing were a tad too much, too affected for me. Mrs. Arbuthnot, besides having a stupid name, should get off her high horse and embrace the fact that she has money. Mrs. Fisher, well, I kind of liked that she was bitchy most of the book, but that kindness from a young man could turn it so, blurg. Then poor Lady Caroline, men and women all just love her so so much she can't get a moment alone. Poor darling. I can't help but wonder what the enchantments of April will bring to the rest of their lives... they thought they where dissatisfied before? I'm sure the honeymoon will soon be over and their lives will be even more unbearable, I can just see it... now why does that make me so happy?

Yet what irked me most wasn't this fairy tale fantasy that changed their lives but the idea that change can only be wrought by uprooting your life. That they couldn't have become contented in their lives without this experience. So what does that say to us mere mortal readers who don't have this opportunity? Your life will suck forever? This reminds me of the tripe spewed by those who think that only travel can expand your horizons. A friend who goes off to China or Vietnam and spends the next five years starting every conversation "when I was in..." Or even worse the "you'll understand when you travel." I have traveled some and want to travel more, but responsibilities and economies are realities that I face as most do. And the truth is you don't need to travel to effect change in your life. You don't need to go somewhere else to expand your horizons. People who tell you these lies are small-minded and don't have the depth to realize that just looking at the world around you and reading can be the biggest catalysts for change. Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest observers of the human condition and she barely left her house! It's change that comes from within that lasts. Yes, a journey or a story can change you, but you have to internalize it, have it become a part of you. Will this change of life stay in place for these characters once they return home? Because in truth it seems a superficial change that can not hope to last. 

But let's play devil's advocate. Say that these characters have changed, that their "internal growth" has fixed them. The truth is this isn't shown it's just told to us. They are just soothed by their surroundings and made whole. From the readers point of view nothing happened. They were miserable and now they're not. We don't see their internal struggle, we don't see how this seismic shift has happened, we are just observers, we aren't even along for the ride. That is the key. Most people label this book as boring but the truth behind this truth is that someone else's personal journey isn't interesting, it's annoying, unless you are taken along for the ride. Insight, commentary on the experience, anything to forge a connection with the characters so that their personal journey becomes your journey. So that you have internal growth at the same pace as the characters. A lot of people say that this book is the middle-aged A Room with a View. While I get the comparison, I would like fans of this book to go read the other. Because A Room with a View forges this connection that is forever lacking in The Enchanted April. You become so invested in Lucy Honeychurch's journey to find herself that at times you are in pain simply hoping that her life will work out. I never once felt that for any of Elizabeth Von Arnim's characters. Not even for a second.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Von Arnim herself sounds like a fascinating lady. She was a Countess (twice over!) with a husband in prison for fraud. They had a luxurious family estate in Pomerania where E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole came as tutors. I would like to have the wherewithal to hire E. M. Forster as my children's tutor, wouldn't you? But now going back to the parallels with A Room with a View, which was published fourteen years prior to The Enchanted April I'm starting to question her morals. Like she was sitting around one day and thought I could do better than my children's tutor, and promptly failed. Oh, and she just happened to be the mistress to H.G Wells!?! Sister-in-law to Bertrand Russell! She fled her second marriage by going to America and taking up with a publisher thirty years her junior. I want to read a biography on her! In fact, with such a fascinating and full life, why is her writing so darn flat? I'd like to read more about Elizabeth... not necessarily more by Elizabeth.


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