This is such an apt novel for the time of year, but I’ve found myself thinking about it recently for two other reasons. Of course spring is on it’s way, but this year is something of a personal renaissance. I’ve been shielding since the second lockdown, because I have multiple sclerosis and it means I have a few issues with swallowing and breathing. This was a personal choice, but thank goodness I did, because I did receive a government letter four weeks ago telling me I should have been shielding. A brilliant bit of irony. So now I can have friends come and join me for a dog walk or sit in my garden for a cuppa together. I can’t explain how joyful this makes me feel. I will feel connected to the world again – well, as much as I ever want to be. I can also have my hair coloured silver blonde with lilac dip-dye! Hairdressers here I come.
The other reason is that four weeks ago I moved to my new home. It’s an 18th Century cottage in a really happy village, and I feel like the real me is re-emerging. We’d been living in the city, on a relatively new estate and I had no idea how much of an effect this as having on my mental health. I was sitting on my reading couch at the weekend with the sun coming in, next door have an apple tree and the branches hang over the fence, so I can smell the blossom when I have the window open. On Sunday afternoon we had a pot of tea and our Easter cake outside in the garden, where an enormous jasmine hangs heavily on the wall wafting a heady scent over the whole garden. I started planning what I’d like in the garden across the seasons and that always feels like a corner has been turned. It’s as if we went into hibernation in winter 2019 and we’re only just coming out and that feeling reminded me of the characters in this novel.
The premise of the book is that a discreet advertisement appears in The Times, addressed ‘To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine’. On offer is a small medieval castle for rent, above a bay on the Italian Riviera. Four very different women – the dishevelled and downtrodden Mrs Wilkins, the sad, sweet-faced Mrs Arbuthnot, the formidable widow Mrs Fisher and the ravishing socialite Lady Caroline Dester – are drawn to the shores of the Mediterranean that April. As each, in turn, blossoms in the warmth of the Italian spring and finds their spirits stirring, quite unexpected changes occur. These characters drive the novel, as it is their responses to each other and to Italy that take centre stage. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are the first to respond, both ladies living resignedly, but quietly, in unhappy marriages. They are joined by Lady Caroline, a younger, beautiful woman who has found that her looks can be more of a burden than a blessing. Finally, there’s Mrs Fisher. A formidable woman who has a very strong will, which she tries to impose on the other women. The author is so perceptive when it comes to human foibles and how personalities rub against each other when living side by side. Tiny little acts of pettiness and selfishness can take on huge importance in these situations. However, what the author also shows is that one person’s character failing can have a transformative effect on someone else. One woman’s need to be in charge, inspires assertiveness in a quieter, more timid member of the party. The early chapters are a comedy of errors and miscommunication as the women try and often fail to understand each other.
The author deliberately creates an opening that feels like being under a rain cloud. The weather is miserable and cold, each woman feels unhappy or have lost themselves in some way. Then as they’re thrown together for this month in the castle we wonder if they’ll ever get along and if Italy will work its magic on them. The second half of the book feels like entering spring, the sun is shining and the surroundings start to work on each woman, even Mrs Fisher. The characters and the surroundings come into bloom. There are vivid descriptions of the castle and its gardens so the reader can really visualise the setting. It feels like a literary painting. Slowly, each woman begins their transformation. In the case of the married ladies, they invite their husbands to join them in Italy. Could this special place transform their marriages, relight a spark or remind them of the deeper love they once shared?
The novel is charming and light, without falling into whimsy or sentimentality, showing extraordinary skill in the writer. Despite barely having a plot, the book can be read as a satire on class and society post WW1. It could be read as a travel novel or just a study in how a different culture, characters and nature can soften and change us for the better. There isn’t a single character here who isn’t changed by the magic of Italy, and that’s the final reason I love this book. I was meant to get married last spring and go to Venice for my honeymoon. I picked the perfect hotel room with a double aspect and a balcony over one of the smaller canals. It would have been my third trip to Venice, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. The first time I visited we arrived at night and took a water taxi in the dark across the lagoon. We arrived at a small jetty and it was so quiet, just the sound of water lapping against the buildings. The lamplight was reflected in the ripples on the surface, as well as tiny lanterns as we stepped up into a small garden. We walked through a courtyard with pots, pergolas with hanging plants and the tiny points of light hanging within. It was such a surprise because gardens are rare in Venice, but there it was. I did feel changed by my visit. I felt amazed that such a beautiful place actually existed and that I could go there whenever I wanted. It improved my confidence, my creativity and taught me to go a bit slower. If I never go abroad again in my life, I’ll be happy because I went to Venice. This book captures some of that transformative feeling; its a witty and delightful depiction of what it is like to rediscover joy.
Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) was an Australian-born British novelist who was married to a Prussian aristocrat. Her most famous works include Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Enchanted April