Monday, September 7, 2009

The Enchanted April

Elizabeth Von Arnim and Haddon Hall
I came late to Elizabeth Von Arnim, only really discovering her this year. I tried with ‘Vera’ a few years ago and failed to get beyond the first 30 pages, (I’ve now read it all the way through and found it to be one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever encountered) at the time it just didn’t click. Since then the serendipitous find of ‘Elizabeth And Her German Garden’ looking very seductive in Oxfam, coupled with the enthusiasm of Elaine at Random Jottings convinced me that another go was due. This time it did click. German Garden is a ‘nice’ book. Light, funny, and charming, it’s perfect for a languid afternoon in late spring when the garden begins to grow in earnest. I chose ‘The Enchanted April’ for much the same reason when I was due a week in the Scottish Borders in June.
It turned out to be far more apt then I expected. Early summer in Scotland has a charm all its own, like April in Italy everything seems to be happening at once. In middle England the bulbs had all been and gone, but in Scotland the last of them had lingered on to coincide with all the best of early summer. The same sense of enchantment lingered in the air, frankly wasted on the family occasion that had bought me there, but still intoxicating. Again the story is slight, but the characters are well drawn, if some of them give the impression of being sharply observed caricatures they are all the better for it, a little bit of acidity does wonders for the balance of the story which would otherwise be an overly sweet confection. I’m finding it hard not to stray into a wine tasters dialect at this point – but reading Von Arnim does put me in mind of drinking a fine old Riesling.
When I found myself at Haddon Hall again recently I was strongly reminded of ‘The Enchanted April’. Haddon has been used as Thornfield Hall in every version of Jane Eyre I remember seeing, and I had come to think of it as particularly Bronte in mood, but perhaps because for the first time ever I was visiting on a sunny day we spent some time in the gardens and it changed my view of the place entirely. I can’t argue that inland Derbyshire has anything much at all in common with the Italian Riviera, but something about the walk up to Haddon perched on its hillside, and inside the way house kept unexpectedly revealing another and then another discreet little garden or courtyard accessed through doors I would have sworn should have opened into thin air reminded me so strongly of Elizabeth’s description of Portofino that I had to go back and reread it.
One of the things I have come to love about Von Arnim’s garden books is the eminently re-readable quality of them. With only the slightest plot it’s the evocation of place and person; the flash of humour, that brings me back to them, and will continue to bring me back in the future. When I first read ‘The Enchanted April’ I only saw the magic in the Italian countryside, when I re-read it I appreciated the castle itself for the foil and framework it provides to the world outside its rooms. I saw Haddon totally afresh, and was bowled over by its charms, and this is the other thing I love about Elizabeth Von Arnim; for an ostensibly light read she really gets under my skin to open up brand new vistas in supposedly familiar terrain.

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