Enchanted August, A Novel by Brenda Bowen

Enchanted AugustNot only are Elizabeth von Arnim’s works experiencing a surge in popularity, with The Enchanted April being republished as a Penguin Classic this month, but her 90-year-old novel has spawned a work of fan fiction in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August.

Bowen takes four same named characters and weaves a contemporary 21st century tale set on an island in Maine. A huge fan of first the movie and then the book, Bowen transposes von Arnim’s idea into the modern world and reinvents its magic.

Two mothers Lottie and Rose see the same advertisement posted on the noticeboard of the over-zealous Brooklyn preschool their children attend:

Hopewell Cottage

Little Lost Island, Maine.

Old, pretty cottage

to rent on a small island

Springwater, blueberries, sea glass.

August.

They dCIMG7226ecide to rent it and find two others to join them to reduce the cost, Caroline Dester, a celebrity who wishes to hide from the world following a recent public humiliation and Beverly Fisher, the somewhat grumpy and initially reclusive, older character, grieving after a heartbreaking loss and seeking solitude in the company of strangers.

Lottie and Rose reflect on their unhappy marriages; distance and absence incline them towards remembering better days in the early years and in a surge of optimism brought on by the island ambiance, Lottie invites her husband without consulting the others, while Rose procrastinates at Lottie’s suggestion that she do the same.

These four unlikely holidaymakers attempt to navigate living together for one month and discover an ironic comfort and lack of inhibition brought about in the company of strangers. Wounds begin to heal, the island changes their routine and shifts their perspectives as they discover the life-changing effect of a month-long summer holiday on a small island where there is little to do but relax and unwind.

Enchanted August is a pleasant read, even when aware of the plot as it unfolds; discovering how Bowen chooses to represent her characters and their various dilemmas is part of the joy in reading it.

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Traditional Maine Lobster Bake

It is very much an American version with its characters and setting just as von Arnim’s is essentially English even if set in Italy. One of the intriguing local aspects was the age-old lobster bake, something of a communal island lobster, clam, vegetable, seaweed, open fire culinary tradition that brings everyone together.

The island didn’t succeed in invoking quite the same charm and magic as Portofino did for me in the orignal classic, an idyll almost impossible to replicate, however it perhaps offers for many, a more realistic or attainable allure, the idea that one doesn’t have to travel so far to find a simple magic that can transform perspectives and lives.

An entertaining summer read, evocative of the charm, simplicity and transformative powers of a small island holiday.

Further Reading

Review of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Review of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Note: This book is an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

CIMG7226As soon as I learned that Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April was to be reissued as a Penguin classic, I jumped at the chance to read it. Elizabeth and her German Garden was such an engaging and entertaining read and I recall in the comments of that review so many mentions of The Enchanted April as a must read.

Elizabeth wrote The Enchanted April in a castello (an eleventh-century fortress with Roman foundations overlooking the Ligurian Sea) in Portofino, Italy, in April 1921. She had rented the place to get away from her own (sixteen bedroom) chalet in Switzerland… an extract from the Introduction by Brenda Bowen

Brenda Bowen has written a work of fan fiction, published in June 2015, one that mirrors von Arnim’s work, set in contemporary Brooklyn and Maine featuring four ladies who will rent a cottage (not castle) on Little Lost Island, Maine.

Enchanted August

One to Watch Out For, Fan Fiction

Enchanting indeed, not just the month of April, but all that made this original classic so; the villa San Salvatore (inspired by the Castello Brown pictured below) on the cliffs of Portofino overlooking the sea, the blooming buds and flowers of Spring, four weeks stretched out in front of four unaccompanied women with no social obligations, no cooking, cleaning, nothing to do but enjoy the gardens, the villa, the seascape and one minor challenge, to tolerate each others company.

They are four women who remind me of the semi-autobiographical and coolly calculating character of Elizabeth, in von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden, for though the four women in this novel sought company for this séjour on the Ligurian coast of Italy, it was purely for financial reasons, most certainly not for companionship, the first hint of von Arnim’s well-known and often quoted attitude towards visitors.

Being with strangers, they each hoped to leave that part of themselves that must always meet the expectations of others behind. Mrs Wilkins  from Hampstead was the first to see the advertisement in The Times while visiting her London club.

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000,

The Times.

Mrs Wilkins was certain another woman her age was reading the same ad and having a similar response to it, so true to her nature (though not typical of society’s expectation of a response) she seized the initiative suggesting they rented the place together.

Her initial reluctance overcome, once the two women realised it was possible, they needed only a solution to the expense which Mrs Wilkins solved by suggesting they place another ad to attract another two like-minded female souls, thus we are introduced to the beautiful, ever charming even when she is trying not to be, Lady Caroline Dester and the somewhat disagreeable and much older Mrs Fisher.

Once ensconced in their lodgings, the four women interact and are given a well-portrayed and at times humorous glimpse into their individual characters, made all the more interesting by the fact that these women were most unlikely to have ever encountered each other within their existing social circles.

Enchanted April

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are pleased to have escaped their husbands, though they each harbour an underlying sadness for how things were when they were newly married. They are not aged, in their thirties, they have more the air of self-accepting middle age. However, they hadn’t reckoned on the effect of a stay at San Salvatore.

Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone, unmarried and disinclined, she detests the attention her beauty and natural charm attract. The formidable Mrs Fisher appears malcontent for no more reason than that she’s been on Earth at least twice as long as the younger women, having lost what youthful exuberance she may ever have had long ago.

‘Mrs Fisher doesn’t seem happy – not visibly anyhow,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, smiling.

‘She’ll begin soon, you’ll see.’

Mrs Arbuthnot said she didn’t believe that after a certain age people began anything.

Mrs Wilkins said she was sure no one, however old and tough could resist the effects of perfect beauty. Before many days, perhaps only hours, they would see Mrs Fisher bursting out into every kind of exuberance. ‘I’m quite sure, said Mrs Wilkins, ‘that we’ve got to heaven, and once Mrs Fisher realises that’s where she is, she’s bound to be different. You’ll see. She’ll leave off being ossified, and go all soft and able to stretch, and we shall get quite – why, I shouldn’t be surprised if we get quite fond of her.’

Things are about to change, as the castle San Salvatore, though solid and immovable, works its way into their psyches and each will fall under the spell of the charming fortress and its healing environment over the course of their four-week stay.

I thought The Enchanted April a wonderful, evocative read and witty insight into its very English characters, enjoyable for its sense of place and the lush season it evokes, von Arnim’s natural, subtle humour that she never ceases to inject into her narratives, in this novel there is no trace of the slight cynicism of her earlier work; she has allowed her four women to indulge this fantasy through to its natural conclusion.

And oh how fulfilling that can be for the reader, I know this little stretch of Italy and it invoked pleasant memories and incited future dreams of a possible return – with three women ‘bien sûr’!

Countess Elizabeth von Arnim

Born Mary (May) Annette Beauchamp in 1866, Elizabeth von Arnim was Australian by birth, English by upbringing, German and English through marriage, Swiss and French by choice and finally American by emigration. She published 21 books in her lifetime,  books where the central female character(s) were often witty and unreserved, possessing an unusual outlook on life. A number of them, including The Enchanted April were made into films.

An appearance of the novel Elizabeth and her German Garden in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, sparked renewed interest in the works of the author. That novel was so popular when first published, it was reprinted 21 times within a year of publication.

She was the cousin and contemporary of the New Zealand/English writer Katherine Mansfield. She died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1941.

KM logoElizabeth von Arnim Conference – In an extraordinary coincidence that I just discovered, the Katherine Mansfield Society is to hold an Elizabeth von Arnim Conference, at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge on Sept 13th 2015!

My review of Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

Elizabeth and her German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von ArminStaying overnight with friends in England just before Christmas, this book by Elizabeth von Arnim was placed on my bedside table and though there was no chance I would finish it, I was captivated and charmed by Elizabeth’s garden right from those first few pages.

May 7th – I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales. The gentleman owl says, and she answers from her tree a little way off,, beautifully assenting to and completing her lord’s remark, as becomes a properly constructed German she-owl. They say the same thing over and over again so emphatically that I think it must be something nasty about me; but I shall not let myself become frightened away by the sarcasm of owls.

I left without the book, only for it to land on my doorstep late January on my birthday, and in these cold harsh months when the comforts of a garden are not so easy to find, when I have been finding solace instead in the nature essays of Kathleen Jamie and the short stories of Tove Jansson (review to come), this novel was a welcome respite.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fiction, though reads very much like an autobiography and was initially published anonymously in 1898. The author (a cousin of Katherine Mansfield) is said to have been born in Sydney, in NZ and in England, I’m not sure about any of that, but her parents did leave Sydney and return to England where she was raised (while her father’s brother and family remained in New Zealand).

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

It seems likely that Katherine Mansfield spent time with these relations when she moved to England herself, I found one reference confirming this, a comment by the journalist (and relation of the two) Louise Ahearn, who is currently researching Elizabeth’s life and it is mentioned in the book that Katherine visited her cousin at the home she built Chateau Soleil, in Switzerland.

On a tour of Europe, while in Rome with her father when she was 23-years-old, her talented piano playing was overheard by Il Conte the German Graf Henning August von-Armin-Schlagenthin, who was travelling to help get over the death of his wife and child the previous year. After a persistent courtship they were married and soon settled into upper-class life in Berlin, where she gave birth to three girls in quick succession.

Nassenheide Schloss, the family estate by Alexander Duncker ex wikipedia

Nassenheide Schloss, the family estate by Alexander Duncker ex wikipedia

Not happy in Berlin and homesick for England, in 1896 she was introduced to the family estate Nassenheide, ninety miles north of Berlin in Pomerania. A seventeenth century-schloss, located at the time near the German border (now in Poland), it had been a convent and had not been lived in for more than 25 years, surrounded by an unkempt, rambling, derelict garden which Elizabeth immediately fell in love with. She insisted on living there and it seems she got her way (at least for the summer months), much to the chagrin of her husband, whom she affectionately refers to in the novel as the Man of Wrath.

The book captures many moments of appreciation of this unorthodox wilderness the character Elizabeth is so content within, and equal moments of candour at the annoyance of those who dare impose themselves to visit. She has difficulty keeping the gardener who often hands in his notice while she somehow convinces him to stay, until events dictate that drastic action is necessary to get rid of him.

The gardener has been here a year and has given me notice regularly on the first of every month, but up to now has been induced to stay on. On the first of this month he came as usual, and with determination written on every feature told me he intended to go in June, and that nothing should alter his decision. I don’t think he knows much about gardening, but he can at least dig and water, and some of the plants he plants grow, besides which he is the most unflaggingly industrious person I ever saw, and has the great merit of never appearing to take the faintest interest in what we do in the garden. So I have tried to keep him on, not knowing what the next one may be like, and when I asked him what he had to complain of and he replied “Nothing,” I could only conclude that he has a personal objection to me because of my eccentric preference for plants in groups rather than plants in lines. Perhaps, too, he does not like the extracts from gardening books I read to him sometimes when he is planting or sowing something new.

The author is at her best when describing her longing for the garden and the simple pleasure it brings her, though equally adept are her recounts of conversations with city ladies of her social standing, capturing their inability to comprehend that it is by her own choice that she spends so much time in this savage wilderness, they are convinced they must feel sorry for her and that she has been deposed there, belonging as they do to that breed of women who absolutely require the regular company of their peers and the invitations to social occasions, something Elizabeth does her best to avoid.

Content with the book, inspired by but lacking the garden, we instead take a drive and a stroll around a much closer abandoned ruin, appreciating its beauty among the weeds.

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Ruins of L’oppidum de la Quille, Puy Sainte Réparade

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The fading winter light of Provence, Puy Sainte Réparade