In The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, an exotic Italian villa becomes a retreat for four lonely London 1920s women in four different stages of life. By allowing herself a vacation, each woman “finds” herself as she needed to do, and the significance of friendship and love in their lives solidifies. It’s a reminder that we each need time for ourselves.
It’s an interesting classic from an historical view point, and the universality of women’s needs speaks to me as a modern stay-at-home wife and mother. Although some of the details aren’t the same anymore, the sentiments in Von Arnim’s forgotten classic haven’t changed much over the years. This is a great book for any person in need of a vacation to recharge, and it’s one I’ll be suggesting to my book club of busy women.
Isolated thirty-year-old Mrs. Wilkins was the one who first discovered the advertisement for an Italian villa. As the novel opens, it’s clear she’s intimidated by her husband and bored with her life. When she finds neighbor Mrs. Arbuthnot likewise dreaming about the villa in the advertisement, Mrs. Wilkins takes matter in to her own hands and reserves the villa, despite her fear of her husband’s displeasure.
By the time April comes, four strangers are ready for a month of reflection and friendship. The story is formulaic, but that does not take away the charm nor the humor. By the end, I found myself wishing I too could have spent April on the coast of Italy.
The Enchanted April reminded me of the getaways I’ve taken with my friends. One summer, my college roommates and I took a road trip across the Midwest: six of us borrowing my mother’s van for five days. A few years later, after some of us had gotten married, we met in a family cabin for two days: no spouses, just girls having a weekend-long sleepover full of gossip and giggling. One fall, years later, another friend and I toured Paris and Italy for a week. Von Amrin’s description of the villa at Portofino reminded me of Cinque Terre.
The fact that my husband and I haven’t had a similar child-free vacation since before my two-and-a-half-year old was born made this book all the more timely. Someday, maybe, we too will get away!
The novel illustrated what it meant to be a woman in the 1920s, and it made me glad to live when I do. As in the contemporary novel of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, The Enchanted April referred to each woman as called “Mrs.” Their identity was defined by their husbands, and the two young married women had to ask their husbands for money. Mrs. Wilkins truly was trapped with her dissatisfaction and boredom in her marriage, and Mrs. Arbuthnot’s only options were to adapt and accept her husband’s estrangement. In this novel, the ending was happy, although i’m sure in many real-life situations, it is not quite so easy to resolve deep-seated issues. I feel, by contrast, quite free in my marriage and life choices. Yet, it struck me that these 1920s books (I’m also thinking of Virginia Woolf) were so focused on the plight of women. There is much to learn from the past, and I suspect such limits to life options are still quite a real situation in many women’s lives today.
I’m glad this particular forgotten classic has been republished. This gives classics a good name. It’s a delightful and easy read, the setting is somewhat “magical,” and it has a universal theme, for we each have need of a vacation to recharge at times.
I picked up this book because I saw it in the New York Review Books catalogue. The Spotlight Series is highlighting this small publisher in May. Sign up before tomorrow to invite them to your blog as well!