I watched Enchanted April sixteen years ago, when it first came out. I remember taking my father to see it for his birthday in November 1992. The weather was terrible: dreary and cold and refusing either to rain or snow. During the film, we watched Josie Lawrence, Miranda Richardson, Polly Walker, and Joan Plowright fall in love with Italy, and with each other, and with the very love that was in the air in their holiday home, and when we came out of the movie theater, it was hard to believe we were back in the world again.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel is one of the very, very few I’ve read that I’m not sorry I saw the film first. The spell the movie weaves is the same as the one the book provides, and having the gorgeous images of the Ligurian coast in my mind does nothing but enhance the writing.
The story is about two women, Lotty and Rose, who are self-sacrificing and “good” almost to the point of martyrdom, and who see an advertisement in the Times Agony column:
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 1000, The Times.
This small text unleashes all that is to follow. The women, under its spell, find themselves doing the most improbable things: they find two other women, complete strangers, to share the cost; they recklessly spend their small savings; they dodge, fib, and outright lie to their husbands; they travel to unknown places, speaking no Italian, just to get to the sunshine and the wisteria. It could mean disaster, for them and for their painfully constricted marriages.
But instead, it’s heaven. As soon as they arrive, the stunning beauty of the castle of San Salvatore and its garden speaks to them, soothes them, touches them. They find they don’t have to be martyrs any longer; goodness comes naturally. And — the biggest surprise of all — they want the company of the people they thought they were trying to escape.
This is a love story, of all sorts of love. Romance, certainly, but also friendship, self-understanding, and perhaps most of all blossoming. Von Arnim never misses an opportunity to talk about humans in plant terms: they grow, they wither, they twine and bud and blossom, their sap rising in the beauty and love of the place. I have also always thought that there is Christian symbolism in the book, going deeper than the surface faith that makes the women so miserable in London. After all, among many other things, the very name of the castle, repeated over and over on their first terrifying journey there, is San Salvatore: holy savior. Its warm welcome is a better example of grace and redemption than the sobering good works that ground the life out of the characters before they found a way to live inside love, refusing to go out of it for any petty insult.
This novel is a lovely, charming, sweet book, with moments of sly humor and moments of insight. If the weather is cold where you are, I can’t think of a better idea than to open this to the first page and slip inside: surely you, too, are one of those who appreciate sunshine and wisteria.