Virago has a reputation for republishing 'forgotten' books by women. Often they have been forgotten for a good reason, but not The Enchanted April. It's a feminine book, but it's not just for women.
Lottie Wilkins, a woman in a dull marriage, is intrigued by an advertisement offering a month in an idyllic Italian castle. Her interest piqued, she persuades Rose Arbuthnot, a vague acquaintance from her local church, to go halves on a month-long holiday. The halves become quarters as the high cost forces them to advertise for companions, bringing the ancient, waspish battleaxe Mrs Fisher and the young, bored, aristocratic eye-candy Lady Caroline Dester ("Scrap") into the party.
One by one, the women succumb to the magic of San Salvatore. Lottie needs little persuasion, her girlish enthusiasm and her need to be revitalised having inspired the plan in London. Rose takes longer, as her maudlin dissatisfaction with her husband's 'immoral' career comes into focus and at first makes her anything but happy. Scrap, sick of being shallowly admired for her wealth and beauty, takes even longer, as does Mrs Fisher, whose arrogance and stern disapproval of Lottie initially reinforce her rigid Victorian sense of decorum.
Von Armin's genius for description is reminiscent of her cousin Katherine Mansfield, but the real joy of the book is the way she subtly charts the thoughts and changing attitudes of the four women. While her style has something of the formality of early-20th century writing, she uses it to subtly weave some delicious humour and even satire into the story. For instance, Lottie's first impression of Rose is coloured by her appearance: "The very way Mrs Arbuthnot parted her hair suggested a great calm that could only proceed from wisdom," and this observation is often repeated to gentle comic effect. Mrs Fisher, answering a question about her even more formidable friend (whom we thankfully never meet), retorts, "Nobody has ever married Kate." Earlier, she compares the macaroni served at dinner to her husband: "He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out."
This is a beautiful and funny book. It won't provoke laughter, but there will be plenty of broad smiles.