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Authors: Elizabeth von Arnim

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The Enchanted April

BOOK: The Enchanted April
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CLASSICS

THE ENCHANTED APRIL

ELIZABETH VON ARNIM (1866–1941) was born Mary Annette Beauchamp to a prosperous English family living in Australia. The Beauchamps returned to England when “May” was still young, and she spent her formative years there. In 1891 she married Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, a widower twice her age. The two settled on his family estate in Pomerania, where they raised five children and employed both E. M. Forster and Hugh Walpole as tutors. Von Arnim's first book, the autobiographical novel
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
, was an enormous success, and most of her twenty subsequent books were published under the pseudonym of “the author of
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
.” In 1912, following the Count's death, von Arnim set up house in Switzerland. There she became close to her cousin, the writer Katherine Mansfield, who was convalescing nearby, and began a romance with Francis, the second Earl Russell, (brother of Bertrand Russell) whom she married in 1916. The marriage quickly turned rancorous, but the Russells never divorced. At the start of World War II, von Arnim moved to the United States; she died in Charleston, South Carolina.

CATHLEEN SCHINE is the author of seven novels, including
Rameau's Niece, The Love Letter, She is Me
, and the forthcoming
The New Yorkers
. She is a frequent contributor to
The New York Review of Books
.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL

ELIZABETH VON ARNIM

Introduction by

CATHLEEN SCHINE

NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

New York

CONTENTS

Cover

Biographical Notes

Title Page

Introduction

THE ENCHANTED APRIL

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

Copyright and More Information

INTRODUCTION

W
HEN ELIZABETH
von Arnim wrote
The Enchanted April
in 1921, she was fifty-six years old. It is difficult when reading this deliciously fresh novel to remember that she was, in fact, a child of the Victorian age, closer in age to the story's grim old Mrs. Fisher than to the three younger women who inhabit a glorious Italian castle for the month of April. Born in 1866 in Australia as Mary Annette Beauchamp, she moved with her family to England when she was three. By 1898, she was a household name in Edwardian literature, or, more precisely, a household pseudonym. She had become and would remain for the rest of her life “Elizabeth of the German Garden.”

May, as she was known to her family, had traveled with her father to Rome in 1889 where she met the considerably older German widower Count Henning August von Arnim who followed her up the steps of Rome and beneath the trees of Bayreuth in matrimonial pursuit. In 1891, they married and entered the stiff, formal life of the Prussian aristocracy in Berlin before moving to what she later described as a “remote and beautiful old house”—a seventeenth-century schloss, abandoned for the previous twenty-five years, on the eight-thousand-acre von Arnim estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania. There, in 1898, the Countess von Arnim, as she now was, wrote her famous account of secluded country life,
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
. The book was hugely popular, selling out ten printings in the first year and going through twenty-one printings by 1899. It was a staple of the Edwardian lady's bookshelf, in the United States as well as England, and it still, remarkably, holds up. As Penelope Mortimer, who remembers her mother as a devoted reader of the book, has noted, “some of its descriptions of nature were over-lyrical, but so were Wordsworth's.” The author was identified only as “Elizabeth,” and the reading public amused itself trying to solve the mystery of who the anonymous author of this “novel” might be. Male or female? English? American? How old? “At Last!” cries out a
New York Times
headline revealing “Elizabeth's” identity a year later, but Countess von Arnim continued to sign herself “Elizabeth of the German Garden” or simply “Elizabeth” throughout her long literary career.

“The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter,” Elizabeth wrote in the
German Garden
, “not the house. In the house are duties and annoyances, servants to exhort and admonish, furniture, and meals; but out there blessings crowd round me at every step.” Here, in her first work, appears that need for escape from the obligations of a nineteenth-century lady that Elizabeth would write about again, with even greater subtlety and understanding of the twentieth-century ladies' lot, in
The Enchanted April
. And here, already, it is to the garden that she flees.

A romantic idyll,
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
was also a deft and amusing memoir of her life with the Count, affectionately referred to in the book as “the Man of Wrath,” and their three daughters. She went on to have another daughter and a son, and first E. M. Foster and then Hugh Walpole were hired as tutors for the none-too-academic children. No English tutor lasted more than six months at Nassenheide, and a few lines from the young Walpole's diary suggest why:

April 15. Got badly ragged by the Countess. Submitted moderately well.

April 19. The Countess thinks me “
farouche
” and I have never felt such constraint anywhere as I do here.

April 25. Got ragged about my novel after dinner.

“The Countess,” Walpole wrote to a friend,

is a complete enigma. I don't see much of her but, when I do, she has three moods (1) Charming, like her books only more so (this does not appear often). (2) Ragging. Now she is unmerciful—attacks you on every side, goes at you until you are reduced to idiocy, and then drops you, limp. (3) Silence. This is most terrible of all. She sits absolutely mute and if one tries to speak one gets snubbed.
1

Life at Nassenheide seems, in spite of the Countess's ragging, to have been on the whole a serene affair, full of picnics and country rambles; and the famous garden, as Walpole describes it, was “beautiful in a wild rather uncouth kind of way.” Elizabeth's love for the wild, for the freedom of nature, appears, along with the idea of escape, throughout her work and her own life. She shook off the constrictions of Prussian society by convincing the Count to move to Nassenheide. After he died, she tried England, eventually found it narrow and wet, and headed for the mountains of Switzerland. “I changed the air. Widows are mobile creatures, and can change any amount of air, choosing where and how they will live in a way unknown to wives,” she wrote later. The widow built herself the Château Soleil, large and inaccessible—“our nest on a mountain.” The novelist Frank Swinnerton—one of her many guests; they invited themselves or just showed up on the way to somewhere, though the château was on the way to nowhere—described the place as “a palace of idleness in a fairy tale.” It was there that Elizabeth spent time with her dying cousin, Katherine Mansfield (born Kathleen Beauchamp) who had moved to a chalet nearby. “We lay in my room talking about flowers until we were quite drunk,” Mansfield wrote. It was there also in 1914 in the constant flow of unexpected guests that the man who was to be Elizabeth's next husband appeared. Elizabeth describes him “climbing up the ice-covered path to my front door.… [not] so much a guest as Doom.…He wore goloshed, cloth sided boots into which the tops of his trousers were tucked, and a starched white collar.…If he stayed, it was even then plain that he would stay indoors.…And I would sit with him. And together, in a sitting position, though neither of us yet knew it, we would advance towards both our Dooms.” Indoors. For Elizabeth of the German Garden, indoors is where doom resides.

Because of the war, Elizabeth left the château and retreated to England where, in 1916, she married Doom, who was in fact John Francis Stanley Russell, second Earl Russell, and the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, and it was, indeed, a disastrous marriage. Within a year, Elizabeth left him. They never divorced, but he did take her to court for theft, publicly and absurdly, when she had movers take her own possessions from the house. He was not, by anyone's account, a pleasant man, and in
Vera
, a darkly comic look at the effects of tyrannical love on sunny innocence, Elizabeth used his model to create a devastatingly cold, sadistic, egotistical husband worthy to stand beside such villains of refined brutality as Trollope's Mr. Kennedy or George Eliot's Grandcourt.

It was just after finishing
Vera
while vacationing in Italy that Elizabeth began
The Enchanted April
. The novel's medieval Italian castle is based on a Portofino
castello
Elizabeth and some friends rented for the month of April in 1921. (Von Arnim's lyrical descriptions apparently caused the spot to become a retreat for the literary-minded traveler. When Vita Sackville-West took her sister-in-law there to convalesce, Harold Nicholson blamed it on “Taschnitz editions of the works of Lady Russell.”)

After the fearsome
Vera
, Elizabeth wanted to write something happy, and nothing could be happier than the four women of
The Enchanted April
, each escaping her own particular chilly loneliness as she succumbs to the warmth of San Salvatore. “The simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings,” thinks Mrs. Arbuthnot, “the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.” Mrs. Arbuthnot is a sternly good church lady who has turned away from her husband because he writes biographies of the mistresses of kings—an abundant, lucrative, but, in his wife's eyes, improper subject. She meets Mrs. Wilkins, a sadly insignificant lady married to a man who dominates her even as he barely notices her. These two first encounter each other “in a woman's club in London on a February afternoon,—an uncomfortable club, a miserable afternoon…,” each noticing an advertisement in
The Times
: “To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine,” it begins, and so begins, too, a comedy of errors in which there are no errors—in which everything is right, everything is more than right, everything is, as Mrs. Wilkins says, “heaven.”

The ladies find two other ladies to join them and defray the cost of wistaria and sunshine—the absurd Mrs. Fisher, obsessed with her own desiccated respectability (“one was not sixty-five for nothing”), and Lady Caroline, a young beauty so exquisite that “she could never be disagreeable or rude without being completely misunderstood.” Lady Caroline wants to escape being admired for a month, Mrs. Fischer hopes to sit quietly and escape from the vulgar future into the dusty Victorian past of her imagination. Mrs. Abuthnot is escaping the cold, numbing goodness of her life, and the weary Mrs. Wilkins is escaping, simply, her husband, an ambitious solicitor who “encouraged thrift, except that branch of it that got into his food.”

What Elizabeth manages to do so gloriously with these ladies and her gently schematic plot is to explore the very basis of love and beauty and happiness. She writes about women rebelling against the world of men, yet she is so sensitive to the subtle differences of one woman's unhappiness from another's that there is never even a hint of polemic. Along with the need for freedom, Elizabeth recognizes that other need, a longing to love and be loved, and she writes about this yearning with respect and uncompromising tenderness. At the same time, she refuses to abandon these women to the whims of the male world, and with the generosity of San Salvatore itself, she won't abandon her male characters to that sad, lonely fate, either. With her unforgiving wit, Elizabeth forgives. She forgives them all and gives to them all the blessings she herself found in her German garden decades earlier: freedom and flowers.

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