Have just spent the third evening of the month of May enjoying the film of the 1922 novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim entitled “The Enchanted April“…and so am a little too late to achieve the synchronistic timing of an April viewing but then, when I first felt the urge to watch it a few days ago I discovered, to my surprise, that the DVD wasn’t in my cupboard! I say “surprise” because its one of my longstanding favourites – both as a film and as a book since one is equally as true to intention as the other and each successful, in different ways, at conveying the jewel-like splendour of Italy in springtime, which is a big part of its attraction. From the very moment Lottie Wilkins first throws open her shutters to let in all the golden-amber light of the spring morning and hangs her head out of the window just far enough to take in the almost surreal beauty that is an Italian garden filled to brimming with wisteria besides glittering sea, you find yourself taking in a deep breath – almost a gulp – and holding it there, as though instinctively drawing in the very tonic that is Italy. All the more so if you have ever spent springtime in that glorious place (in which case I promise you spade loads of nostalgia and much longing to revisit by the time the credits roll). This will be the first year in several that we, as a family, don’t go to Italy for our holiday and I can already feel the pangs of longing for the place building up a head of steam for next year!
In fact, the story pivots on a longing to spend a month in Italy kindled, by an advert in a newspaper for the rental of an Italian castle promising ‘sunshine and wisteria’, in the hearts of two English women whose lives have become a dreary pastiche of ‘typical’ married life. Whilst my life is anything but dreary, I always find that I’m carried quickly and deeply into this story by some characteristics that I share with the main character ‘Mrs (Lottie) Wilkins’, and not only because of our shared name (my maiden name was Wilkins…and, growing up with it, I felt much as she describes: “She did not like her name. It was a mean, small name, with a kind of facetious twist, she thought, about its end like the upward curve of a pugdog’s tail.”) I particularly warm to her because of a propensity to spill her emotions, to gush, even to those she hardly knows and then to vocalise, with matter-of-fact understatement, her own quirk of ‘seeing’ things – even premonitions – that others miss entirely (“Have you ever seen things in a flash before they happen?” she asks whereas her travelling companion “turns over in her mind how best she could help Mrs Wilkins not to see quite so much; or at least, if she must see, to see in see in silence”). The flavour at the start of the story is of people hemmed in, corseted up in their own belief systems – through all of which Lottie Wilkins breezes like a breath of fresh air.
Another quality of hers that rings as familiar to me is the bullish determination with which she sets about securing her precious month in Italy, undeterred by how unlikely it all seems at the outset as she battles through rainy London to cook yet another meal for a husband who treats her like a rather silly child. For all that, she relentlessly ploughs forward with her project, sweeping others along with her ernest enthusiasm so that, in remarkably short time, the almost too-idyllic-to-imagine castle in Italy is at her disposal for a month – booked as a joint venture with Mrs Arbuthnot, a woman who starts out as a stranger and yet who is so utterly carried along (and to Italy!) by Mrs Wilkins that they become compatriots in a venture so outlandish for them both that they spend most of their journey there wearing matching expressions of remorse and terror at leaving husbands and familiarity behind; a reaction that doesn’t abate once they arrive there in the dark.
Having advertised for two further sharers of the castle in order to spread the cost, they are joined by an elderly lady entrenched entirely by her own rituals of behaving as she deems befits an old woman with a walking stick, professing to favour her own company and total immersion in dusty memories of her Victorian youth to companionship of any kind. The fourth member of the group is an aristocratic young woman who has become utterly jaded with a world of people who only ever see her beauty and fail to respond to, or even notice, any part of who she is ‘on the inside’. In time, both of these lonely, disengaged, somewhat navel-gazing characters soften to become fully integrated into the group and, by the end, have been utterly transmuted by the “tub of love” that they have all managed to create together in this magical place.
From the outset, you are left in no doubt that Lottie Wilkins is a women who perceives beauty wherever it is to be found and yet, somehow, her soul knows that she is due for a month of total immersion; that this will somehow release her from the remaining bonds that have crept into her own life and heart. “Up to now she had had to take what beauty she could as she went along, snatching at little bits of it when she came across it, a patch of daisies on a fine day in a Hampstead field, a flash of sunset between two chimney pots.” Her reaction to her very first view of her new home is captured by means of stunning photography in the film; in the book, you gain a little more insight:
“Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea. How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before all this…to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this…It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she was too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.”
This openness to the sheer power of beauty to transmute, of light to create connection with something infinite so that the bounds of her own physical form are as though dissolved – here again I feel massive kinship with Lottie Wilkins, and then she goes on to have the most profound realisation so far; perhaps the very thing she has come here to find out for herself, that none of this feeling of bliss or connection relies upon “doing anything”, least of all for anyone else. “For how astonishing to feel this sheer bliss, for here she was not doing and not going to do a single unselfish thing, not going to do a single thing she did not want to do”. The irony hits her that “at home she should have been so good, so terribly good” rushing around on errands for others, being the dutiful wife, feeling guilty for a moment’s thought spent on herself “and merely felt tormented”. The realisation that, actually, focusing upon the callings of her own soul is the source of all her new found joy comes as a revelation to her and transforms her perception of how she interacts with all around her. The surprise to both her and her travelling companion is that this new focus upon the desires of her own heart only renders her more capable of over-spilling with love and the desire to share and express love with everyone around her, even her husband. Soon enough, the light seeps into all of their hearts and magic starts to happen.
In summary, this story is an ode to the transformational power of travel to warmer climes in general and, in particular, travel to Italy; a phenomenon that anyone that has been there will mostly likely give the nod to. To no lesser degree, it is also a celebration of the transformational power of love. At the start, the story reads like a comedy of manners as interpretations of intention (even good ones) go awry and outspokenness and public demonstrations of affection are received with disapproval, distrust and extreme discomfort. By the end of their stay, all four women, the two husbands that have now joined their wives and the owner of the castle have relaxed utterly – in themselves, with each other and with life itself. Universally, they wake up to the vast array of possibilities that simply come with the territory when love is allowed in like the very light that is invited into the castle each morning as the shutters are thrown open. The descriptions of the gardens and of nature – in the book – and the wonderful photography that captures all of this – in the film – are utterly sublime. This is a classic ‘feel good’ story and for all its gentle plot and, yes (I suppose), predictable ending, it has a lot to say and many replays of the film version can easily be borne which is why, many years after first watching it (and probably a full two decades since reading it) “Enchanted April” now resides in my ‘favourite films’ pile in the cupboard – and remains just as relevant and enchanting as ever!
Other recommended films for Italophiles from the collection in my cupboard:
- ‘Under The Tuscan Sun‘, based on Frances Mayes memoir of the same name
- ‘Summertime‘ with Katherine Hepburn; still capturing the essence of Venice over half a century on (see my post via the link…)
- ‘Eat, Love, Pray‘ from the great book by Elizabeth Gilbert who makes an utter celebration of the sensory explosion that is Italy (see my other post…)
And for a similar feeling conjured up yet set in France (my other favourite place…)
- ‘A Good Year‘ – a smart and funny story about ‘what really matters’ and, above all, sublime light-filled photography of a vineyard and house filled to the brim with “the patina of a bygone era” that manages to slow down, captivate and heart-soften all who go there.