books

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.

Reading on Public Transport

There is a singular advantage to public transport over the freedom of personal conveyance; since all responsibility for directing the vehicle is given over to another one can use the time usually stolen by a journey to read.

There are, of course, other ways to make use of this idleness. Staring out the window and contemplating any subject that drifts across one’s awareness may be equally profitable, as might sketching other passengers, or in lieu of pen and paper, inventing clever projects and ambitious ideas without any obligation to get up and initiate them. Some choose to have loud personal conversations, seemingly oblivious to their being surrounded by thirty curious strangers. These too, may provide a diversion, though, like a hospital waiting room with the television playing midday soaps, something that can only be endured for so long.

Reading, however, is the best of these options. To begin with there are so few portions of a busy day in which no guilt need be attached to something as indulgent as a good book. Public transport and in particular buses, which are never in a hurry, provide an opportunity like no other. This is also an ideal time to engage in reading something arduous or long unfinished, as the option to switch to a more exciting book is removed. The activity of reading additionally acts to separate the reader from fellow travelers in such a way that few dare approach or speak to them, so solemn they appear. While statistics are currently unavailable it seems likely, based on anecdotal evidence, that passengers are less inclined to sit next to an individual who is reading and, if forced to, will keep to themselves out of respect for this sacred state of concentration.

The varieties of transportational reading are many. Newspapers were once a popular choice but seem lately to have fallen out of favour. Paperbacks are conveniently lightweight and still widely available. Students may be easily identified by sheaves of exam notes, text books or unit readers, and indeed university routes provide a final chance to at least glance at those readings one is about to confidently discuss. For particularly long or scenic journeys, audio books provide the perfect solution, likewise for overly noisy or crowded buses, or when one does not wish to advertise their choice of fiction. Failure to remember to bring reading material has led to resourceful alternatives, such as surreptitiously reading over a neighbour’s shoulder or developing an unusual fascination for bus timetables.

It should be noted that there are various potential dangers involved in this occupation. The most prominent; becoming overly engrossed in the text and missing one’s stop. This can, however, have the benefit of extending the journey so that a few more chapters might be got in and a charming anecdote made of the late arrival. Another threat is the rare but persistent friendly reader. The friendly reader, unlike the genuine bibliophile, does not subscribe to the code of introversion generally accepted among the truly bookish. He will start by asking what it is you are reading (even if the cover is angled in such a way that he can read the title for himself) and then proceed to engage you in conversation, despite any aggravated tone of voice or raised eyebrow you might employ as deterrent. This discussion will quickly veer from your choice of book to his personal tastes and reading habits and soon become a monologue from which there is no easy escape. The best you can hope for is that his stop comes before your own and, failing that, it must be considered how far you are willing to walk.

The question then, is how best to select reading material for such occasions. On a practical note, the book should be neither overly large, heavy or fragile, as one may be forced to read standing up, in which case it must be held in a single hand. Short stories are an excellent option, as one or two may be completed during the journey, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction. One should never carry a book they are ashamed to be seen with. This is, after all, public transport and one’s choice of book is as likely to draw notice as one’s hat. Some readers have even been known to select books entirely on this criteria, choosing an impressive French or Russian novel to complete their look. These frauds can be easily identified by how often they turn the pages. Finally, anything overly popular or controversial at the time should be avoided, as this is likely to attract the attention of both the friendly and over-the-shoulder reader.

Despite the inherent dangers, the avid reader should take full advantage of public transport for the opportunity it presents to both catch up on neglected reading and feel infinitely superior to those playing video games on their phones.

This mock-essay was inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s Pagan Papers (which you can read here.) The Merriam-Webster assures me that ‘transportational’ is indeed a word, though the OED begs to differ.

Skye M.W.