The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

For those who appreciate Wisteria and sunshine...

Before discovering this book I had never heard of "Elizabeth of the German Garden", as the author - in an attempt to hide her identity from her husband - liked to call herself. That name came from her first autobiographical novel, "Elizabeth and her German Garden". It created a sensation and Elizabeth von Arnim (her real name) was soon being described as a contemporary Jane Austen. She didn't just write witty trifles in the "Diary of a Provincial Lady" style, though. Her novel "Vera" is a dark thriller and this - "The Enchanted April" - is an exquisite novel of manners and social dilemmas, with a darker undercurrent of loss and redemption and forgiveness, all set in the giddy 1920s.

Lottie Wilkins is trapped in an unhappy marriage and is clearly depressed. But a chance reading of an advert in The Times at her ladies club transforms her life. The advert reads: "To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine". The piece offers a small mediaeval castle in Italy for the month of April. It seems an impossible dream, until she meets Rose Arbuthnot, with a face "like a disappointed Madonna" (Whose husband writes scandalous novels about fallen women under a pen name). What if together they take the castle, share the costs, and escape? Two other unhappy, damaged women, one old and sour, the other a young and beautiful socialite, join them.

Can a place and climate heal their sadnesses? A sentimental thought perhaps but a theme explored with humour and poignancy. More importantly, the book examines the idea that beauty, and escape, can bring an understanding that love cannot be weighed and measured. The experience brings each of them a clarity of thought. Although the this proves cathartic and painful, the overwhelming beauty of San Salvatore transfigures their view of the world. But what about the husbands? Can it redeem them in their eyes as well? Lottie is so overwhelmed with guilt at enjoying herself that she takes the extraordinary step of inviting the very man she has escaped from to join her in Italy. And that's when the fun really starts.

As the old dowager says... in her day, husbands were seen "as the only real obstacle to sin" !

This first edition of the 1924 novel has a particular significance for me, for one of the first dates I took my wife on was to see a film of the novel, starring Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright and Josie Lawrence. Shortly after we enjoyed our first holiday with her Italian family, in Tuscany during April. The flower pressed in the book - given as a Valentine gift - is from that holiday. It's a dusty old book I reread every April. With it's memories, pressed flowers, associations and above all it's storytelling, it never fails to enchant.


  1. Just introduced Lizzie to the film. not quite sure what a 12year-old's thoughts were but she seemed to enjoy it. My book copies of this, German Garden and The Solitary Summer are all modern paperbacks with no illustrations.

  2. This only has a frontispiece as shown, no other illustrations. The book is (as always) even better than the film, although the film is adorable. It's very often produced as a stage play as you will discover if you try Google Images. Some might find it whimsical and sentimental, but I think there is a darker truth underneath the wit and charm. Do the men really reform? No! What changes is the abilty of the women to accept them warts and all. They learn, unexpectedly, to love these frankly awful men. It's almost a Wagnerian theme, handled with a souffle like touch.

  3. I must hunt out a copy! Sounds very intriguing. I'd heard of the book but not of the play.

  4. Back from my own Enchanted April (well, a week of) in Cornwall full of camellias and sunshine!
    Can't imagine this as a stage play. I think it's the magical garden in this that appeals to me and don't know how they'd capture that on stage.