Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Von Arnim’

My Top Five Literary Springs

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, when the hour of my precious lunchbreak struck, I sprang out of the bookshop and into the sunshine, hurried to Hampstead Heath and lay in the grass, grinning as blotchy patterns flashed on the lids of my closed eyes.

Spring is here.

What better way to celebrate these first moments of sunshine, these first breaths of balmy, flower-scented air than with five favourite springtime books? (Click on the various links if you’d like to read longer posts about them.)

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Enchanted April pbkI wrote about this last week, so here all I shall do is reiterate that it is a heavenly book. The plot is a bit daft, yes, but in a charming way. You read it and feel as though you are on holiday, that you are with those dotty ladies in San Salvatore, basking in the beautiful Italian spring. Let us briefly share Lotty Wilkins’s joy as she opens the shutters on her first morning:

All the radiance in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Beginning of Spring

It is 1913 and spring comes to Moscow, stirring revolutionaries into action and an English family into crisis. Penelope Fitzgerald is my favourite writer, as many of you know. This is a particularly good book, with her characteristically astute observations of a different place and time, laced with gentle humour, realised in beautiful prose. Towards the end, the children of the family go away with the mysterious new servant Lisa Ivanovna to their dacha in the woods, which is infused with the scent of the ‘potent leaf-sap of the birch trees’:

They had March fever. They were going out of the still sealed-up, glassed up house into the fresh, watery, early spring.

The house is ‘still sealed-up, glassed up’ against the fierce Russian winter, which is just coming to an end. The book closes with the definitive change of season and a wonderful passage describing the unsealing of the windows. Then:

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

This weekend, we Londoners were not so different from that Moscow house. We’ve spent the winter ‘turned inwards’ – cold, muffled, shrouded in darkness – but now we are out in the bright streets, in the parks, listening to the noise of the city and feeling the fresh spring wind.

3. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Illyrian SpringLady Kilmichael is fed up with her philandering husband and difficult daughter and so decides to travel first to Venice and then on to the Dalmatian Coast, painting as she goes. Her path crosses with that of Nicholas, a young man determined to be a artist, in spite of his parents’ disapproval. They travel and paint together, until things become a little complicated…

This delightful novel has a similar feel to The Enchanted April, in that as you read it, you are transported to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and the drowsy wellness that comes with a holiday. It also shines with descriptive travel writing. Ann Bridge was the wife of a diplomat and so was a seasoned traveller. This is one of my favourite views:

All over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its native habitat. Now to see an English garden flower smothering a rocky mountainside is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver colour and the flowers a silvery blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well have been content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

The description, with its precise renderings of different shades of colour, seems apt given that it’s seen through the eyes of an artist. I hadn’t realised that irises were native to Croatia. They are one of my very favourite flowers – especially the yellow variety which we saw in profusion in Scotland – and now, whenever I see them in a garden, I think of this vision of a mountainside covered in a silvery-blue sea of them.

4. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant NymphThis strange and powerful novel, written by someone who Anita Brookner termed ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’, begins with a wonderful depiction of the ‘Sanger circus’ holidaying in the Austrian Alps. They are not an actual circus, but a family of wild, musical children, headed by their father Sanger, a great musician, and added to by various other musicians, most notably young handsome Lewis Dodd. They spend their days cavorting around the mountainside and singing. When Sanger dies (we discover this at the beginning), cousin Florence, a sensible, cultured young English woman, comes out to the Tyrol in her ‘neat grey travelling hat and veil’ to take this troop of cousins in hand:

The children could not believe that they were really related to such a marvellous creature. They stared expansively.

Florence blossoms in the Alpine spring, charming the children and Lewis Dodd too. Yet when she takes them back to England, sending them to various boarding schools, and trying to settle down to married life with Lewis, she slips back into her English habits, but Sanger’s circus refuses to be tamed. As her imposed order begins to unravel, the lost carefree days of the Austrian spring seem more and more enchanted.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleOne of my very favourite, most comforting books, I Capture the Castle begins in spring, when the young American heirs to the estate first visit the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains, in all their bohemian squalor, roost. It is a novel packed with funny and delightful scenes, such as Cassandra’s interrupted bath-time; the brilliant episode when Rose, in her newly-inherited furs, is mistaken for a bear; and a magical night-swim in the moat. I suppose this makes it sound a little like a fairytale, but it’s too comical for that. Here is a bit from the moat swim. Cassandra has nobly taken one of the heirs swimming in order to let her sister Rose have a romantic tête-à-tête with the other heir:

We were in full moonlight. Neil had patches of brilliant green duckweed on his head and one shoulder; he looked wonderful.

I felt that what with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old moat, romance was getting a really splendid leg-up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other – I wondered if I ought to have got Rose and Simon to swim the moat instead of us. But I finally decided that cold water is definitely anti-affection, because when Neil did eventually put his arm around me it wasn’t half so exciting as when he held my hand under the warm car-rug after the picnic.

The spring of I Capture the Castle is the perfect setting for our heroine, the narrator Cassandra. She is in the spring of her life, just beginning to blossom.

These are five wonderful books, and this is a particularly good time to read them, with the feel of the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. And, when the weather inevitably breaks, let’s hope we can find comfort in the spring delights held within their pages.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these books, or any other suggestions for good spring reads.

Advertisements

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