Month: January 2016

Summer Reading: The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922) is really a spring book, about awakenings and new beginnings, with pages full of flowers and April showers. However it also has the atmosphere of summer holidays; of the seaside, of white dresses and warm breezes and hours spent lying in the shade. As a summer break read it is ideal, for it focuses on the space for self reflection and personal change that a good holiday can provide.

In the first chapter Mrs. Wilkins discovers an advertisement in The Times, “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.” She soon convinces three other women to join her on a month long holiday, escaping husbands, would-be-lovers and dreary London weather.

I learnt of The Enchanted April by way of the film made in 1991, a classic in its own right, which I had the pleasure of watching a few years back. The film is quite true to the book, and manages to capture the wonderful light of San Salvatore, as well as perfectly casting the lead characters (except perhaps Lady Caroline.) What it cannot hope to replicate though, is the charm of von Arnim’s prose, her gentle wit and the fact that most of the text is spent exploring the characters’ meditations, largely about themselves. It is not a story in which much happens externally; a few visitors arrive at the castle, some furniture is moved, there is a disagreement over the catering expenses. Whenever it looks as though something truly dramatic might happen it is always averted, usually thanks to Lady Caroline – “But he was reckoning without Scrap”! This subverts our narrative expectations with subtle humour, setting up the conditions for melodrama and then sorting everything out in a polite English manner before it becomes a problem.

From all of the above you might think this a dull, conservative sort of book and nothing could be further from the truth. Each of the women is escaping from something: an inattentive husband, excessive good-works, a surplus of attention or the memories of her glory days – and each, through a process of self reflection and sun bathing, comes to personal realisation and acts upon it. In the second half of the book their reverie is disturbed by the arrival of male guests and each of these is a wonderfully well realised character in himself. I loved von Arnim’s ability to create good outcomes from selfish motivations, showing that some people do the right thing for the wrong reasons, but this can still facilitate happiness.

The Enchanted April is a gentle book, and would probably make less of an impact if it were published today, but it is quietly revolutionary. The women each claim an independence, even within their existing relationships. Many early 20th century classics are about broken marriages, affairs and women fighting to free themselves from restrictive circumstances. Elizabeth von Arnim does something else, she works inner transformations and expresses the longings of most people as fairly simple, and happiness as something that can be found by looking at the world in a different, perhaps Italian, light.

Skye M. W.

Image: Roses, Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893 (I could live in this painting.)

*What a pity it is we don’t commonly use the spelling ‘wistaria.’ Is there any prettier name for a flower than wistaria? Wisteria sounds too much like hysteria and that is all wrong.

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Summer Reading: Cider With Rosie

There are some books that are entirely seasonal, and cannot be fully appreciated at the wrong time of year. In summer I find myself craving desert fables, Mediterranean travelogues and heady, green poetic prose – to this later category belongs Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. I picked up my copy (above) from a charity shop last year, and put off reading it until the weather was warm and sultry. It’s an out-of-doors sort of book, for reading on uncut lawns beneath wilting, over-blown roses.

Cider With Rosie is a memoir, a rural elegy of an early 20th century childhood in a semi-isolated village where modernity had yet to catch on. Laurie Lee is a poet writing prose, always trying to break away from the form. The first chapter is some of the most languid and sensuous stuff I’ve ever read:

Here I discovered water — a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold.

The tone changes as each chapter reveals a vignette of some aspect of Cotswold’s life; vivid portraits of local characters, village gatherings as seen through the eyes of a young boy, native folklore and darker happenings, all heavily mythologised.

Lee’s own character is only a vague presence, a spectator through which the scenery is experienced. He writes distinctly of youthful memories, his description of summer brought me physically back to my own out-of-doors childhood, despite the different climate and landscape:

…of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil…

However it is, without doubt, a boys’ book, a masculine perspective, and all of Lee’s women are of some other species, separate and remote. The chapter which receives the most praise and inspired the title I found underwhelming. Rosie is nothing but a cameo, a stand-in for Eve, an archetype, never a person. The adolescent boys are predatory and disturbing under the veil of ignorance he casts over them.

Despite this, the whole book is dominated by one incredible woman who feels more three-dimensional, sympathetic and real than Lee himself; his mother, Annie Lee. The chapter dedicated to her is easily the best and she wanders through the rest of the book with armloads of wildflowers, holding up buses, losing her corset under the piano and reciting poetry on cross-country walks. She is an Anne Shirley; an indomitable, scattered, romantic figure who seems to possess an endless supply of optimism and hope. I could relate to her compassionately, but never pity her despite her circumstances, her courage and loyalty forbade it.

I fear Cider With Rosie is a slightly dated classic now, not because it achieves its aim of preserving a slice of rural history, but because the Arcadian vision of England it presents is out of fashion, and it fails modern standards of discrimination, but I feel it is still worth reading for the beauty of its prose, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Skye M. W.