Posts Tagged ‘1930s’

The Enchanted April

April 15, 2013

The Enchanted April pbkIt would seem that English women in the 1930s were all in desperate need of a holiday. As Mrs Wilkins explains to Mrs Arbuthnot in The Enchanted April:

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 hbkThe 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?

Where Angels Fear to TreadWhat 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.

The Constant NymphA 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.

Elizabeth Von Arnim

A Venetian Spring

May 23, 2012

A rather wonderful coincidence happened last week.

First I had better set the scene. I was in London, in my flat. It was raining. It had not stopped raining for months. In an attempt to look on the bright side I had written a blog for the Spectator about what happens when it rains in novels (here) … but I was nevertheless feeling glum. In part to cheer myself up, I began to read Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, the sort of charming, witty, graceful 1930s novel for which I have a particular weakness. Daunt Books has just republished it rather prettily. It begins with a very good line:

Lady Kilmichael took her seat in the boat train at Victoria hurriedly, opened The Times, and hid behind it.

Oh how I longed to hide behind a paper on a boat train to Venice! Lady K, as we will come to know her, sojourns at Venice before going on to Croatia. Venice is where she meets young Nicholas, who she will befriend and help to become a painter.

My thoughts right then were: 1. I bet an Illyrian spring is better than a London one, especially as I still need my winter coat outside and 2. wouldn’t it be heaven to be in Venice!

That’s when the husband said, Ems, do you think we could go to Venice on Saturday?

Now, much as I would love to be the sort of person who might just happen to pop over to Venice – or, come to think of it, Florence, Rome, Naples or anywhere else hot and foreign, preferably Italian – just for the day, I should admit that we were actually already going to Italy for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was on Friday, by Lake Garda, so going over to Venice on Saturday suddenly seemed surprisingly feasible.

It transpired that the husband had architectural reasons to be in Venice. The fact that they just so happened to coincide with my own reading was fortuitous to say the least. And so on Saturday, not unlike Lady K, I found myself on a train bound for Venice. Although I wasn’t hiding behind a newspaper. By then I wasn’t even hiding behind Illyrian Spring, having polished it off on the way to the airport; I was hiding behind Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles.

I first came across Giorgio Bassani a couple of years ago, when I was last in Italy and read The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. (Here is my post about it.) I very much enjoyed it, with its coming-of-age story set on a tennis court amongst the Jews of Ferrara. Set in the 1930s, you know it’s only going to end badly for them – and you’re told that right at the start – but it’s beautifully written and terribly poignant.

Well evidently I wasn’t the only one to appreciate Bassani’s work, as Penguin seems to be on a drive to publish new translations of the rest of his ‘Ferrara Cycle’. First out is The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. Perhaps it’s the first as it’s so short – really more a novella than a novel – but perfect for a quick Italian mini-break (and lighter than a Kindle!).

I’ve a feeling I’m going to enjoy the Ferrara Cycle, as it seems as though Bassani does that clever and deeply satisfying thing of sharing characters between books – a character who gets the limelight in one book plays a cameo in another. (This tends to happen in the best sort of short story collections, which I wrote about here.) So in The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, originally published four years before The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, we get a mention of the F-Cs while the narrator’s non-Jewish friend is talking about the ominous Racial Laws:

That kind of policy could ‘operate’ only if there were more cases like that of the Finzi-Contini family, with their most atypical impulse to segregate themselves and live in a grand, aristocratic house. (Although he himself knew Alberto Finzi-Contini very well, he had never succeeded in getting himself invited to play tennis at their house, on their magnificent private court!)

It certainly whets the appetite for a glimpse of their ‘magnificent private court’, on which so many games of tennis will be played in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

As well as characters, the two books share many of the same preoccupations: a coming-of-age moment, Jews, bicycles, tennis and local dialects. The latter is particularly interesting for a foreigner travelling around Italy and naively imagining that everyone there speaks the same language, Italian. Not so. Bassani’s characters often have recourse to a word or expression in their native local dialect to express something more deeply felt. For instance, at one poignant moment, the narrator’s father says of Fagati – the wearer of those spectacles – ‘Puvràz’, meaning ‘Poor thing’ in the Ferrara dialect. It feels like a more heartfelt, more genuine expression than if he’d used the standard Italian term.

It’s interesting that Bassani has called his book The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, whereas of course it’s not about those actual specs, it’s about the wearer of them – Fadigati. The title suggests that those spectacles are – sorry to use a silly word – a synecdoche of Fadigati, i.e. they represent him. Indeed, a glint of the gold rims in the darkened cinema is all that’s needed to betray his presence. And, if Bassani’s saying that these specs represent Fadigati, he’s also inviting us to take it along a step and wonder who Fadigati represents.

Fadigati is rich, cultured and gay. Let me remind you that this is 1930s provincial Italy, a time and a place where being outwardly gay was socially unacceptable. Fadigati does fine while his sexuality is under wraps, but as soon as it’s out in the open he is cast out from society. Then it’s a pretty rapid downward spiral. You better read it to find out how it ends.

Given the background to the novella is the introduction of the Racial Laws, which essentially legislated to cast Jews out from society, I don’t think it’s a leap to take Fadigati as representative of the Jews. So in writing about this outsider, Bassani is obliquely writing about these other outsiders. As in the Finzi-Continis, one worries that it can’t end well.

Inevitably Illyrian Spring was a much happier book than The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. While there is a journey of realisation in both of them, things wind up rather better for Lady K than they do for Fadigati or for the narrator of the latter.

A feeling of optimism pervades the first, whereas the second is laced with doom. The self-discovery of Illyrian Spring is joyful, self-affirming, full of excitement at the future (albeit tinged with a pang of lost love), but that of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is the realisation of forever being an outsider:

The sense of solitude that during the last two months had never left me, at that very moment became, if that were possible, even more acute: absolute and definitive. From my exile, I would never return. Never.

Of course this is the opposite of Lady K, who returns from her exile into the loving arms of her husband and fond embrace of her daughter. Her exile is self-imposed, not demanded by society.

The timing of the two books is uncanny – Illyrian Spring was first published in 1935 and, although The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles wasn’t published until 1958, it is set in 1937-8, just two years later. Two novels that meander by the Adriatic in the mid-1930s could not have more different narratives. Reading them one after the other, I couldn’t help but think just how much one’s fate was determined by class and by ethnicity. Thank god that these days there’s more of a level playing field.