57: The Enchanted April

I think I must, subconsciously, have put off writing about this book because I didn’t know how to tackle it. Certainly, when I finally came to try, I sat for quite some time puzzling. No approach seemed quite right. I still don’t know that I’ve got it.

The premise is four women – the vague and sometimes oddly insightful Lotty Wilkins, the terribly virtuous and devout Rose Arbuthnot, the strict and opinionated grande dame Mrs Fisher, and the beautiful and world-weary Lady Caroline “Scrap” Dester – renting the Italian castle of San Salvatore for a month (no prizes for guessing which month). “After a bit,” says Lotty, “everybody needs a holiday.” Advertised for “Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine”, the best description I can come up with is this: San Salvatore is a place where you don’t have to tell yourself that you’re happy. You just are. You can’t help it. The beauty and the peace cast a spell that strips away everything that makes you bad-tempered or disagreeable.

The finer feelings and the uglier ones are both leporine breeders. Cross and unhappy people become crosser and unhappier, isolating themselves and lashing out in a pre-emptive and retaliatory self-defence which only reinforces the need for higher, more isolating walls and sharper, more damaging pre-emptive and retaliatory strikes. Pleasant and happy people, on the other hand, become more pleasant and happier, casting down the walls and sending emissaries of peace and goodwill to their fellows, which emissaries only reinforce the needlessness of the walls.

And the more he treated her as though she were really very nice, the more Lotty expanded and became really very nice, and the more he, affected in his turn, became really very nice himself; so that they went round and round, not in a vicious but in a highly virtuous circle.

But the first step in this process is easier described than taken. When we are unhappy and cynical; when our first reaction to our fellows is suspicion and hostility; and when they justify this reaction by being suspicious and hostile themselves – in such a case, how (even if we recognise the state of affairs) can an effective overture be made? What can catalyse this process? What can break the impasse and solve the collective action problem?

San Salvatore can. San Salvatore will make you happier despite yourself. It will remove you from the stresses of London, tell you not to be content with discontent, and gradually and by degrees so act upon you that you can’t help but be happy. And when you are happy, you and everyone around you will become happier. It’s like a sort of reverse-smoking. (“Happiness seriously helps you and others around you.”)

It is true, von Arnim seems to tell us, that no man (or woman) is an island, that one cannot be perfectly happy in isolation. Immemorial custom tells us this. To be human is to need, for complete fulfilment, the company and love (in every sense of the term) of our fellows. True as this may be, however, we often need a bit of a push first – something to get us going in the right direction.

It is, regrettably, this feeling which mars the ending. Scrap – wonderful Scrap – ends up with an implausible and unsatisfying ending, one which demeans her as a character. She is unquestionably hard done by. Von Arnim should have had the courage and the faith in her readers to leave Scrap’s story unfinished, something to be imagined for the future, not crammed in now. She has newfound self-respect, newfound happiness, the love of her new friends. Bunging in a romantic “happy ending” makes it anything but.

The Enchanted April
Author Elizabeth von Arnim
Published 1922
Pages 262
Best character Scrap. Wonderful, compelling, ultimately hard-done-by Scrap.
Best line “They had lived for a time in the very heart of poetry.” Or else “if you have once thoroughly bored somebody it is next to impossible to unbore him.”


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