Summer Reads: A Double Header: Italy and Maine

Destinations: Italy and Maine

Books: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen (NEW in June, 2015)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (originally published 1922, NEW in Penguin Classics in June, 2015 with introduction by Brenda Bowen.)

Four women who are strangers come together to rent a vacation home for a month. They become friends, renew romantic attachments with the men left at home and experience the magic of place.

That describes both of these books. The venerable The Enchanted April (Penguin Classics), first published in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim and the new book inspired by that one–Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen.

I realize that the style of Elizabeth Von Arnim can seem a bit dated–the book is, after all, 83 years old. But I enjoy the trip back in time and a refresher course in the dry wit and emphasis on propriety of manners seen in books from England in the 20s.

Of course, the thing that everyone enjoys about this book is not the time travel, but the travel to a gorgeous piece of the world–Italy–somewhere near a coastal village, in a mansion practically smothered in flower beds, where flowers bloom all summer, presenting a constantly changing foreground for the mountains and the sea.

I had seen the movie (1992), but not read the book. I remembered gorgeous scenery, but not much more.

I am very glad I had this opportunity to read Von Arnim’s original book. Two women meet in a private club in London where they both have noticed an ad for an Italy villa for rent in Italy. Lottie Wilkins persuades Rose Arbuthnot to join her there, and they recruit the beautiful and well-born Caroline Dester. The fourth character, Mrs. Fisher, is an older woman who likes to name drop about famous people she knew, and judge everyone around her.

 There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

Von Arnim’s well-crafted sentences of description are what was missing from the movie, although the movie showed us the scenery that we can only imagine in the book, as when Lottie first looks out her bedroom window in Italy.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violet and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

As I rewatch the movie on Netflix, Joan Plowright, as the very proper Mrs. Fisher, recruited to help pay the rent, still cracks me up. Mrs. Fisher’s mannered observations bring to mind Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.  And lo and behold, Elizabeth Von Arnim makes an appearance in Downtown Abbey, so perhaps the writer was influenced by her as he penned the character of Violet.

Please don’t skip the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Enchanted April.  It frames the book perfectly, and sets the scene for the time and the style. Perhaps it will lead you to Brenda Bowen’s book, Enchanted August

Bowen, who obviously adores Von Arnim, updates the 1920s book’s concept, placing it firmly in the 20th century. Playing to an American audience rather than the British home of the other author, the book is set in Maine. The two women who launch the idea–Lottie and Rose, and the woman trying to escape all her adorers, Caroline Dester, share the names and character traits of the matching characters in The Enchanted April.

Class disparities in the American version are  based on occupation and celebrity rather than inherited titles.  Lottie and Rose meet at their children’s upscale preschool in Brooklyn rather than in a private club in London. Caroline is a movie star instead of a titled wealthy woman

Lifestyle changes in the past 80-plus years are striking. The large cottage in Maine has no servants. Unlike their predecessors in that isolated Italian villa, where they had only each other, the ladies interact with other summer residents on the small island somewhere near Mount Desert.  The two younger women have children–an encumbrance that would merely have cluttered the lives of the women in Von Arnim’s book. And of course they must worry a great deal about computer reception and cell phones with no signal.

While the women in the English book take advantage of the isolation to contemplate their lives, the American women busy themselves with projects–Rose in the village library and Caroline with a teen age drama group. Is this lack of introspection an American trait, or a casualty  of the cultural changes between 1920 and 2015?

Admittedly, in 1922, Caroline Dester also has no desire to tax herself with introspection as she lies in the sun in the Italian garden:

It was very curious, and no one in the world could have been more surprised than she herself, but she wanted to think. She had never wanted to do that before…She had not been there more than a few hours when this strange new desire took hold of her.

I found one other difference to be perhaps whimsical but. to my mind unnecessary. One of the characters–the fusty older woman, Mrs. Fisher– became a fusty older gay man, Beverly Fisher, grieving the passing of his partner, a famous poet.  At the risk of sounding incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive, I have to ask,”Why has it become obligatory to include at least one gay character in every book, movie, and TV show?” Does that make up for pretending they did not exist for the past 200 years of American literature and entertainment? I don’t think so. The question should be, what does this sex change of a character add to the book?

Answer: The character of Beverly Fisher is pivotal to Enchanted August, replacing the cook in the original version with his gourmet creations, eliciting much more sympathy than the older woman in the original, and in general practically stealing the show. But it takes away the intimacy of a women-only retreat and their sharing of knowledge about their own development and the men they deal with or have dealt with.

In general, Enchanted August presents a lovely escapists novel for summer reading. But Brenda Bowen’s writing is uneven. She took a great chance in allowing her first adult novel to be compared to the seasoned writing of Elizabeth Von Armin. There are times when Bowen rises almost to the eloquence of Von Armin, although she is writing about a much less eloquent age. And through most of the book I was eagerly turning pages to see how things would turn out for one of the characters, who were appealing each in their own way.  However, there were also times when the plot seemed to bog down in trivia and the unnecessary intrusion of subplots concerning the island’s summer crowd.

Which place would I most want to go for a month?  If I could travel back in time, as well as distance (and at 1920’s prices), the Italian villa would be a dream.  But all things considered, I have to admit that I would probably be most comfortable in a large cottage on an island in Maine.

How about you?  Would you like to inhabit the world of The Enchanted April, or that of Enchanted August. Or does a month away with three other women sound awful. Or if you’re a guy–would you join these four women if invited?

Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.