Set post WW1, this is one book in that category of books of women travelling, quite often to Italy, to discover themselves and those around them. I am thinking of A Room with a View by EM Forster, Still Life by Sarah Winman or even the film Tea with Mussolini although they are expats.
Mrs Wilkins sees an advert to rent a castle in Italy for the month of April and longs to go. She has a small nest egg she could use but it is really too expensive until she sees Mrs Arbuthnott dreaming over the same advert. Both have reasons to escape, their marriages not working too well, and so agree to rent it. To reduce costs they then advertise for two more women who would like to go, it sleeps eight, and find them. Lady Caroline Dester who wants to escape from her beauty and being stared at and Mrs Fisher who is deemed to be ancient at 65 with a walking stick and stuck in the past.
Italy works its magic, the weather, the flowers and the castle itself and changes happen. First Mrs Wilkins is opened to love and invites her husband out, having gone to escape him, and their relationship is transformed although he does still pinch her earlobe as a form of endearment. And, by the third week Mrs Fisher feels as if she is ‘sprouting’ again, Mrs Arbuthnott has her husband with her and the romance is re-ignited, even if he had gone out chasing after Lady Dester, and Lady Dester thinks that there might be something in Mr Briggs who owns the castle.
It was the perfect book to read whilst recovering from a bout of COVID, not taxing but warm and transforming. A book of manners and worry all undone by the weather and vistas in San Salvatore.
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 color, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colors of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.p103
The writing is wonderful. I love the way von Arnim compares the now deceased Mr Fisher to macaroni (would we say spaghetti nowadays?).
Mrs. Fisher had never cared for macaroni, especially not this long, worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat – slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always, too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher. He had during their married life behaved very much like macaroni. 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.p123
Von Arnim is a great observer of people and the small things that make them up, how communications can be misread, selfishness or being too selfless (is that selfish?). She describes very well the fact that the house does not have one leader – she who decides what will be eaten and when – but allows the women to find their way in the group. Her description of the effect of female beauty on men is very detailed and her character of Caroline Dester is particularly well-drawn for nowadays. A beautiful young woman who is fed up with being ‘ogled’ at and ‘grabbed’ who has come out to Italy to get away from that and to try and ‘think’.
A wonderfully enchanting and recuperative read.