The Enchanted AprilJuly 20, 2010
Thanks to Mystrygirl87 for pointing me in the direction of The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim. It’s exactly the sort of book I like–or at least it should be. I started out by loving it, and finished by finding it kind of frustrating.
The Enchanted April is the story of four unhappy women who rent an Italian castle together for a month. Lottie Wilkins is shy and nervous and stifled, and knows it. Rose Arbuthnot is stifled too, but doesn’t know it–she’s been using religion as a substitute for happiness, so admitting that she’s unhappy would require admitting that religion isn’t sufficient to make her happy, and obviously that won’t do.
The two of them find the advertisement for the castle — placed by its owner, a Mr. Briggs — together, and advertise in turn for a couple of housemates. They find Mrs. Fisher, an elderly lady who apparently does nothing but reminisce about the days when she knew Ruskin and Tennyson and Carlyle; and Lady Caroline Dester, who spends most of her time being irritated that people won’t leave her alone because she’s so beautiful. Sure, Caroline, that’s a terrible problem. I mean, I get the wanting to be left alone bit. People are frequently irritating. But, on a list of irritating habits (ranked by irritatingness, if that’s a word) complaining about how being stunningly beautiful has ruined your life is going to be pretty high up on the page.
Still, Caroline was the character I ended up liking furthest into the book, maybe because I started liking her later than the others. Lottie and Rose are great at the beginning. Von Arnim gets into their heads in a way that reminded me a little of Eleanor Hallowell Abbott’s The White Linen Nurse. And it’s fun to see Lottie blossom when they first arrive in Italy. It’s just that, from then on, having blossomed is her only character trait. Rose gets a little bit more development. and it’s lovely to read about her wanting to snap at people after trying for so long to be angelic, but then she becomes pretty much a nonentity.
What really bugs me, though, isn’t so much von Arnim’s sloppy characterization as her insistence on bringing romance into a book that shouldn’t need it. Or, not romance so much as men, I guess. I have no objection to men in general, but I really thought this book was going to be about women being self-sufficient. Instead, both Lottie and Rose’s husbands show up and rekindle their relationships with their wives (Lottie’s in a friendly way, Rose’s in a romantic way), Mrs. Fisher finds herself longing for a son, and Caroline, the avowed man-hater, falls in love. It’s that last bit that bothered me the most, because there’s this sense that, because this nice young man has fallen in love with her, she has no choice but to return his feelings. Which, if you think about it, is a bit creepy.
Still, there were a lot of really great bits toward the beginning, and a few towards the end, like the friendship between Caroline and Mr. Arbuthnot, which was adorable. I liked the writing, and I liked the characters when it seemed like von Arnim knew what she was doing with them. It just started out feeling kind of organic, and, in a mild way, feminist, and then a bunch of men were shoehorned in. It felt contrived and it felt unnecessary, and I wouldn’t be so annoyed about it if I didn’t like the book so much to start with.