This novel about the search for happiness was first published in 1923. I have just re-read it from my mother’s worn but lovely copy. The book has been republished in recent years, but the older format speaks its own language. She had folded inside the front cover reviews, now faded and fragile, of the 1992 film made from the book. Let me assure you up front that I, too, enjoyed that film version thoroughly. This post is not a slam on movies made from books — at least not in this instance. One might wonder, then, why I chose this book for my blog — whose purpose is to keep extraordinary books alive in our imaginations, not slipping out of sight over the cultural horizon — since the book has been made into a film twice (1935 as well as 1992), was early adapted as a stage play (1925) and has recently been adapted yet again, into a Broadway musical (2003). I have not seen any of these older and further adaptations, but their existence speaks of a work whose substance exceeds its original time and place. At the very least, “Italy” still spells enchantment.
The prolific author, Elizabeth von Arnim, billed herself as simply “Elizabeth.” This copy says, “By the author of “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” I want her book on my blog because her writing is so nearly perfect. She makes her penetrating observations of character and motive at once succinct, beautiful, and often funny. A book club I once belonged to dissolved in laughter over von Arnim’s novel Vera at the unexpected scene where the heroine looks up to see her husband falling helplessly past their living room window. Death funny? Yes, under von Arnim’s spell. The husband was a conventionally arrogant so and so, as I recall, and there’s an ironic rightness to his demise. Von Arnim’s heroines are usually mildly trapped in the conventionally stifling marriages which their societies seem to accept as a woman’s rightful state. The Enchanted April takes us along with four English women who, under the sunny influence of a medieval Italian castle on the coast, find the inspiration and courage to reboot their relationships with husbands and other men.
It’s just possible that Elizabeth went on a bit too long detailing these transformations, but who cares? We are there, as a fifth woman with a deliciously long month in which to reinvent our lives inspired by the kaleidoscopic evolution of a fragrant Italian garden in April. Ellizabeth herself had visited the castle, giving her voice added authenticity.
This faded fronticepiece from the 1923 novel conveys something of the atmosphere of the setting within which the four strangers forge, or otherwise form by quirk or default, new self-awareness and relationships with each other and with the men they invite or otherwise find inserted into their month of joint solitude.
The reason I wish the original 1923 story preserved is twofold: 1) Elizabeth’s exquisitely pungent writing, and 2) the wide and deep exploration of her characters possible to a thoughtful prose writer.