Monday 4 April 2022

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Arnim

"If that advert had been a real and current one I would have applied immediately!"

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, set during the English Civil Wars, followed in 2019. Both titles are now available in paperback.

The month of April in England comes in for both praise and disfavour. Robert Browning yearned for it while abroad, though where are the green shoots of the elms these days? T. S. Eliot had it the cruellest month, and looking at the frosted magnolias near my house I do have a certain sympathy for that point of view. But in truth, who could not love the Spring, with its birdsong and all those brave early flowers? We can always sow more seed if we’ve been caught out by a late frost. Some plants, like my winter lettuces, and those courageous tulips can stand up to all that April can throw at our gardens.

However, it is not an English April that Elizabeth von Arnim wishes to eulogise in her novel. On the contrary, her character, Mrs Wilkins, shopping on a wet London day, wishes to escape it. She had not suffered a long, Covid-19 winter, as have we, but she was not altogether happy, and sheltering from the sooty London rain she read this advertisement in The Times.

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z,Box 1,000, The Times

To be honest, if that advert had been a real and current one I would have applied immediately!

The novel was written in 1922, when servants were more common. At the same time, the idea of a married woman, travelling unaccompanied by her husband, to a place so far from home, to have a month’s holiday without him, well! That would have been somewhat unusual in 1922. Would Mrs Wilkins have dared to book the castle if a slight acquaintance had not agreed, along with two other women, to share the castle and its costs? Good for them say I! And so it turned out to be, in various, unsuspected ways.

This is a very funny book, but also poignant, sympathetic and at times thought provoking. It is also a wonderful way of making a virtual escape from the pandemic and drifting up to the castle gardens, overlooking the sea. There, we can lie back in the past, in our sun loungers with a glass of wine, and enjoy the fragrances, and the slow passing of time demonstrated by flowers going over, only to make room for different buds to appear.

"All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring."

I guess the author was very keen on gardens. She evokes the parade of flowering plants so beautifully I could almost smell their delicious aromas. The very names made me wish I were there. Judas tree, peach trees, freesias, irises, roses (oh the petals!) tamarisk, daphnes, lilies, fig trees, plums, olives and as she puts it, modest weigela. I can feel that wonderful warm breeze on my skin with the plum blossom falling, this very moment.

Of course a fine description of plants and place doesn’t make a novel. The author causes her characters to work hard in the plot, and she paints each one with care and humour. Nothing earth-shattering happens. The days pass, jockeying for position occurs. Each woman has their own way of managing their lives, some perhaps better than others. Stray men come and go, food is served and wine drunk. Manners are mostly preserved. As the month of April comes to a close I found myself wishing they could stay longer, so that I could stay too. This is a novel I will shelve, and take down during a particularly nasty storm on a February weekend. Ah!…balm for the soul!

There is a film, which I have not seen, but was well reviewed. I shall seek it out. I wonder if the scent of flowers is evoked successfully on film? It certainly is within these fine pages.

The Enchanted April is published by Alma Classics Evergreen (the edition shown) and also by Penguin Modern Classics.

Cynthia Jefferies' The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne is published by Allison and Busby.


Moira Butterfield said...

Thank you! I am seeking this out straight away!

Sue Barrow said...

I read this a few years ago with my reading group. We all loved it! Who wouldn't want to be transported to the Italian Riviera and exchange their April for the one we're having?