Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we could come back so much nicer.
Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are miserable middle-class Hampstead wives, stuck in loveless marriages. Going into town to buy fish for their husbands’ dinners is more-or-less the highlight of their days.
We could add to Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, E.M. Forster’s earlier middle-class women Lilia Heriton and Caroline Abbott from Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Margaret Kennedy’s Florence Creighton from The Constant Nymph. This dire need of a holiday was not, however, just a middle-class thing; it was also felt by wealthier ladies. In The Enchanted April there is young, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester, worn out from too many parties. Or in Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge there is Lady Grace Kilmichael, who is fed up with her husband and children and wants to travel around the Mediterranean and paint.
Nearly a century later, not much has changed. We all could do with a nice long holiday. If I were to happen along the following advertisement, as Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot do at the beginning of The Enchanted April, I too would long to go:
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.
For our 1930s fictional counterparts, this advertisement proves to be a rare catalyst for independent action. They quietly defy their husbands, recruit two more women to their cause (the aforementioned Lady Caroline Dester, and formidable elderly dowager Mrs Fisher, who doesn’t stop banging on about her friendships with all the great, dead Victorian intellectuals), and rent this castle, San Salvatore, for April. As the name ‘San Salvatore’ might suggest, this holiday will indeed be their ‘saviour’, their salvation, from the dreariness of London life.
The Enchanted April could easily be a delightful, soppy story about women going on holiday and being transformed by joy. Mrs Wilkins, on her first morning in San Salvatore looks out of the window and feels utterly overcome with emotion:
Happy? Poor ordinary everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.
I have a weakness for this kind of sentimental gush, but for those of you who are a little tougher, fear not, for The Enchanted April is brilliantly balanced by Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful sense of humour. She is forever poking fun at her characters, wryly observing their habits, putting them in awkward situations and watching them stew. Take this, for instance, perhaps my new favourite literary food quotation:
Mrs. Fisher had never cared for maccaroni [sic], especially not this long, worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat, – slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher. He had during their married life behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out.
Perhaps you need to have more of an idea of pompous old Mrs Fisher before really getting the hilarity of it. Think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, all dressed up in lace, sitting down to lunch, bang on time, by herself, in a gorgeous yet shambolic Italian castle, and being confronted with a rebellious plate of pasta.
Needless to say, when I told the husband that he might be compared rather unfavourably to macaroni, he was a little troubled.
There are other very funny moments too. Mr Wilkins (summoned to San Salvatore by his wife) can’t handle the Italian plumbing. On arrival, the first thing he tries to do – in true English fashion – is have a bath. But he manages to blows up the stove. Then:
Mr Wilkins leapt out of the bath and rushed to the door, and only the instinct born of years of training made him snatch up a towel as he rushed.
He manages to run straight into Lady Caroline, a.ka. ‘Scrap’, who he is keen to impress because she is so posh. Indeed he has spent hours on the train carefully choosing his words of greeting, and yet here he cries out, ‘That damned bath!’:
No, it was too terrible, what could be more terrible? Only a towel on, water running off his legs, and that exclamation … Rarely did Mr. Wilkins use that word, and never, never in the presence of a lady or a client. While as for the towel – why had he come? Why had he not stayed in Hampstead? It would be impossible to live this down.
But Mr. Wilkins was reckoning without Scrap. She, indeed, screwed up her face at the first flash of him on her astonished sight in an enormous effort not to laugh, and having choked the laughter down and got her face serious again, she said as composedly as if he had all his clothes on, ‘How do you do.’
Some might dismiss this as no more than farce, but surely Von Arnim uses this comic instance to capture the essence of her characters. Here is Mr Wilkins, whose deepest instinct is for modesty and decorum, so of course he is excruciated by his improper behaviour to a Lady. Scrap manages to fall back on her impeccable manners. Mr Wilkins, amazed at her magnanimity, reflects ‘blue blood, of course.’ It is a perfect distillation of two different English classes.
These English women who go on holiday – usually to Italy – seem to flourish in their new setting. They are exhilarated and liberated by it and so are able to act independently, free from the restrictions they felt in England.
Von Arnim’s descriptions of Italy centre on the garden at San Salvatore, in a way that reminds me a little of how Vita Sackville-West wrote about the house in All Passion Spent, with its heavenly peach tree ripening in the sunlit garden. Von Arnim suggests that her female characters are not so different from flowers – one of them is even called ‘Rose’ – but most unexpected is the transformation of old Mrs Fisher, with her:
curious sensation, which worried her, of rising sap … a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon.
The plant metaphor is extended: ‘she might crop out all green … come out all over buds.’ Mrs Fisher, like the other three women, blossoms in the Italian Spring. They are able to be at their most natural and beautiful. All the lovely descriptions about the flowers blooming in the gardens come to be a reflection of the blossoming women who happily laze around in them. I’ve not read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s other famous book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I imagine something similar happens there.
The novel ends with a gorgeous description of the flowering acacias. And then:
When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.
The implication is that, having blossomed abroad, these women can return to real life still touched by the holiday. That scent of the acacias will stay with them, as will the transformative power of the Italian Spring. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot have been reunited with their husbands and will go back to London feeling rather a lot happier. It’s not so dissimilar to the end of Illyrian Spring.
These are happy endings, but suggest that holidays are somewhat flimsy. Yes, of course everyone feels better after a nice long rest, but nothing major really changes. After all, the characters return to their old lives. For how long will they be able to smell the acacias?
What about fictional portrayals of holidays which have a more profound effect on women? In E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, Lilia Herriton remains in Italy, which has tragic consequences. Her companion, Caroline Abbott, eventually returns to England but her heart is left behind in Italy, and one feels she probably won’t end up living happily ever after. Or, take Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph: Sensible, likeable Florence goes off to The Tyrol where she lands a musician husband and tries to tame several wild children. She brings them all back to England, but rather than slipping happily into her old English life she struggles with these wild appendages and, ultimately, fails.
A holiday can do us a world of good, yes, but sometimes the disjuncture between how one can be on holiday and how one can be at home persists afterwards. What if you can’t translate this new-found blossoming into your old life? What if a whiff of freedom only serves to poison your constrained future? Tricky questions which Forster and Kennedy were brave enough to ask.
Perhaps Von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April after the break-up of her second marriage, was relying on the fact that at least in fiction she could conjure a blissfully happy ending. Perhaps it’s best that we aren’t left thinking too hard about what might happen next, once Mrs Wilkins is back in Hampstead and has nothing to do other than buy fish for her husband’s dinner. Instead we are encouraged to believe in the magic of San Salvatore, trusting that the scent of the acacias won’t fade.
It was certainly a novel that I relished for its enchantment. Reading it last week, as London’s Spring at last began to stir, I felt like I was on holiday just by reading the book. I hope that the revitalising effects will last. For now, at least, the husband might be getting macaroni, not fish, for dinner.