The Enchanted April

“Enchanting” and its close cousin “charming” are apt words for Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April. It’s an outwardly unassuming meditation on how one’s surroundings can change one’s mind, and gives a fair amount of early (1922) insight into British attitudes towards the rigidity of society, as well as to the ameliorative effects both of holidays (and possibly even of festivals). The relaxation of strictures and class stratification empowers not merely the sun but even the mere act of leaving England with an enchanting quality that slowly but surely changes its characters. In the book these qualities actually line up well with American philosopher William James’ categorisation of mystical experiences. First, he calls them ineffable, and indeed the characters have a difficult time putting into words precisely what is happening to them or what it is about the setting that is transformative; they merely keep repeating “San Salvatore” which doesn’t really explain anything, though one gradually understands. Second, he calls themnoetic, meaning that they seem to reveal truth. Most of the characters feel that something inside them is awakening which is more true than their previous lives. Third, they are transient, and cannot be sustained for long. Although here the experience lasts a month, the characters worry that the effects will dissipate on their return to London. Fourth, they are passive. Certainly Mrs. Wilkins and the others feel like it is the environment acting upon them rather than vice-versa. In other words their experience is almost like a meditation retreat, leading to a quasi-religious transformation, like Mrs. Wilkins becoming saint-like, a more powerful harmony with nature, raptures of gratitude, the dissolving of old selves. This is a beautiful sort of meditation, representing a kind of primeval British holiday, providing what holidays were invoked to provide: not just a break and refreshment, but rediscovery, renewed vigour, and a new love for life, caused by the beauty and unfamiliarity of a new environment, and which one hopes will bleed over into the everyday. It must also be said that certain scenes in this book are absolutely hilarious. An enchanting read. 

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