From the Archives: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April

As part of Virago Reading Week, Danielle at A Work in Progress has written a lovely post on Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer:

This is a book that could easily be devoured, but I’d rather take my time and savor it.  I was reading it at work in our break room, but it was so noisy I shut the book and set it aside preferring to take it somewhere quiet where I could escape into its pages.  I wish I could spend my summer this way.

May 2nd–Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, ‘I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life.  I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.  Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told I am out, or away, or sick.  I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests.  I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.  On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds.  I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me.  Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace”

There’s much to be said about silence, don’t you think?  I already think there is too much noise in the world and so much more than in von Arnim’s day.  But I especially like the idea of the sort of silence you would find in a garden–not a complete silence, but the sort of hum you would find in nature.  I’ll be taking my book to peaceful, quiet corners and imagining the solitude von Arnim writes about.

In another post Danielle mentions how much she enjoyed von Arnim’s The Enchanted April; I followed her link to her earlier review of that novel, which in turn sent me browsing through my own archives until I found my comments on it. It’s hard to believe it has been more than three years since I read it, as the pleasure it gave me is still very vivid in my reading memory. Here’s what I wrote then, reproduced not because what I think what I had to say was particularly eloquent or original, but because it’s nice to linger a little in thoughts of love and flowers on this cold day.

The Enchanted April is delightful. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected, light but touching, warm but poignant. Without extended explicit social commentary, it shows its women realizing, emotionally more than intellectually, how the constraints of their usual world confine them, but also how they contribute to their own diminishment. More than the movie version, the novel maintains some skepticism about the rapprochement of the women and their husbands (for instance, we always know, though Lotty doesn’t, that Mellersh is well-behaved mostly because he hopes to gain clients, and we also know the comedy of errors that nearly erupted because Frederick comes to see the wrong woman). But what I wasn’t expecting was the marvellously tactile quality of von Armin’s prose:

The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom–lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavendar, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers…

The obvious comparison is with A Room with a View (and I learned from the afterword in my edition that Forster tutored von Arnim’s children for a time). But this novel is about adults coming to terms with their lives and loves, and so it has more wistfulness, and more lurking pathos, than Forster’s. I loved Mrs Fisher’s gradual emergence from what Lotty calls her “cocoon” (even if it is, like Lucy’s awakening in A Room with a View, basically at the expense of the Victorians): “Her great dead friends [Ruskin, Arnold, Tennyson…] did not seem worth reading that night. . . . No doubt they were greater than any one was now, but they had this immense disadvantage, that they were dead. Nothing further was to be expected of them; while of the living, what might one not still expect?” The afterword remarks, rather unexpectedly, “The novel is the lightest of omelettes, in the making of which the least possible number of eggs gets broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level.” Well, call me incorrigible, and a pedant (I’ve been called worse, goodness knows), but I enjoyed the novel so much it lit a little spark of scholar’s curiosity in me and made me curious to look up a former M.A. student of mine I haven’t heard from in a while whom I recall had proposed a Ph.D. project on von Arnim. It also (especially in combination with our first snow of the season) made me dream of going back to Italy!

(Danielle and I are both reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for the Slaves of Golconda‘s January session. There really is something comforting about escaping into thoughts of summer when the view outside is all ice and slush!)

6 thoughts on “From the Archives: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April

  1. Shelley January 27, 2011 / 1:43 pm

    If I remember correctly, the film version of this novel is also one of the few places (besides Foyle’s War) where the excellent Michael Kitchen can be seen.

  2. Annie January 27, 2011 / 2:06 pm

    Shelley is correct, Michael Kitchen, whom I’ve had the good fortune to see on the stage on several occasions, was in the film. However, I think the fact that I saw the film first rather spoiled the book for me. There are some fairly substantial differences, especially towards the end and I was expecting the book to work out as neatly as the film. I really wish I’d experienced them the other way round. but unfortunately I hadn’t come across von Arnim until I saw the film version. Still, I suppose that is something for which I should be grateful. Imagine if you’d never come across her at all!

  3. Rachel January 27, 2011 / 5:05 pm

    Beautiful thoughts! I think Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing has a depth to it that is easy to overlook. How wonderful to do a PhD on her! Perhaps this can be something that happens in my future?! Thank you so much for participating in the Reading Week – I have been delighted to discover your blog through it !

  4. Carolyn January 28, 2011 / 1:53 am

    I was also very inspired by Danielle’s post yesterday to start reading Elizabeth & Her German Garden and it also has that same beautiful tactile writing. I’ve also been pondering going back to university for a Masters, sometimes I think about Victorian literature and sometimes early 20th century — although is it possible in Canada to study obscure female British novelists like Rosamond Lehmann or Elizabeth Bowen?

  5. Rohan Maitzen January 28, 2011 / 12:50 pm

    Carolyn, I’m sure it is possible to study these authors at the graduate level (all you need is a program with some people working in early 20th-C British fiction, which is almost anywhere, really)–but the question of whether you really want to go back for an MA is a vexed one in other ways (see, for instance, the discussion here). Mind you, an MA is not the same kind of commitment that Ph.D. is, and if you are interested in expanding your intellectual horizons rather than going all-out academic, that’s not nearly as problematic. We could discuss this more by email if you want, and I’m sure Craig Monk, as a former professor of yours, would also be happy to share his thoughts / advice about graduate school too.

  6. Da nielle January 28, 2011 / 9:53 pm

    I love that you see her writing as something worthy of exploring on a deeper level–I think so, too, and am curious if your student did write their dissertation on her? It does have the quality of a light, fluffy omelette, but to say that’s all seems somehow dismissive, too. And her other books have that same tactile quality to them, which makes for really lovely reading. I’m really enjoying the Jansson as well and have made myself stop so I have something nice to look forward to this weekend. (Very kind of you to link back to me by the way–thanks!).

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