In the opening of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the author describes the social condition in England at the arrival of World War I: Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.
Enchanted April, the 1992 Miramax adaptation of the 1922 novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim, concerns itself with the collective state-of-mind of women after that war. Four British women, strangers to each other, take a month-long holiday at an opulent medieval castle in Italy on the Mediterranean seashore, each with a completely different perspective and reason for taking the ultimately transformative vacation.
The spiritual adventure begins with Lotty (Josie Lawrence), who is desperate for a respite from her stifling marriage. Her husband, though a shrewd and successful solicitor, expects her to record all her purchases in a book and reprimands her for buying flowers. (“They always die and you have to buy more.”) Lotty sees a newspaper ad for the rental of the castle called San Salvatore and beseeches Rose (Miranda Richardson), whom she’s only seen in church, to join her and share the cost. After Rose, married to the much looser erotica novelist Frederick but confined by her self-imposed sense of duty and charity, reluctantly agrees, the two wives themselves place an ad seeking two other women to share the lodging, but they receive only two responses: one from Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), a stodgy, prudish dowager; and another from Caroline Dester (Polly Walker), a striking socialite who has grown jaded from the never ending attention and advances of men. Caroline wants only to be left alone in the garden for a month so that she can clear her mind and get herself “straight.” She is essentially cursed with her beauty, not only because she must work so hard to maintain it, but also because she is so obsessed with the idea of losing it that she can’t just enjoy it.
It isn’t evident why Mrs. Fisher decides to join them–perhaps to preserve diminishing traditions by asserting her Victorian sensibilities on the younger vacationers. When they first arrive at the lush, vivacious grounds, Lotty is overwhelmed by its beauty, so she casually mentions the fact that there’s no need for the extra accommodations in their rooms since their spouses won’t be joining them. Mrs. Fisher’s large, disapproving eyes are the first to scold Lotty; her mouth is second. “In my day, husbands and beds were rarely spoken of in the same breath. Husbands were taken seriously as the only real obstacle to sin,” she tells Lotty.
It is this culture of restraint and social decorum that the younger women are so eager to flee, but they take her reprobation in stride.
Eventually, each undergoes a personal metamorphosis amid the wisteria and sea air, so Lotty persuades Rose that they should welcome their husbands there. When Rose points out the irony of the invitation, Lotty defends it. “The important thing is to have lots of love about. I was very stingy with it back at home. I used to measure and count it out. I had this obsession with justice, you see. I wouldn’t love Mellersh unless he loved me back exactly as much. But he didn’t, and neither did I. The emptiness of it all.”
When Mellersh does arrive, his take on life is so diametrically opposed to that of the newly invigorated women that his point-of-view seems utterly out of place. “It would undoubtedly be best if one’s outward appearance and one’s feelings matched, but so often they don’t,” he tells the group over dinner, maintainingsociety’s need for propriety. “One can’t have everything.”
This conflict between an individual’s interior and exterior is a central theme of Enchanted April. In the Italian gardens, Lotty is able to find herself; she becomes the woman that has been buried inside her and, likewise naturally, each of her female companions undergoes a transformation of her own. Rose, who, according to Frederick, had the look of “a disappointed Madonna,” literally and figuratively lets her hair down and changes her attitude about her husband’s authorship. The natural resplendence surrounding Caroline day after day causes her to forget her own beauty and be introspective to find herself. Mrs. Fisher, who initially fights the temptation, finally gives in to the inspiration of the coastal villa to return to a long-lost innocence and appreciation of life.
Of course, considering the circumstances and the film’s title itself, these changes are anticipated; the focus then shifts to the men’s reception of the women’s refurbished psyches.
Much like the catharsis we vicariously receive from watching a revenge flick or the purging cry that’s triggered by a tear-jerker, Enchanted April offers a similar cleansing, albeit through the too often unappreciated ingredients of beauty, nature and jubilation.
The film Enchanted April is available to rent through the Long Beach Public Library system. For more information about obtaining a copy, call the Dana Branch Library at (562) 570-1042.
To read about some of the subjects related to this film, check out the following books: The Gardens at Giverny, A View of Monet’s World by Stephen Shore; Mediterranean, A Taste of the Sun in Over 150 Recipes by Jacqueline Clark; and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
This column is sponsored by the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association. For more information, contact them at (562) 595-0081 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.