ITALY. Author and poet Erica Jong once described Italy as “one of the few places that tolerates human nature with all its faults. Italy is the past, but it is also the future. It is pagan, but it is also Christian and Jewish. It is grand and tawdry, imperishable and decay. And it is still, for all its layers of musty history, a place that enhances existence, burnishes the moment.” As March nears its end and blends into April, Italy emerges from its brief winter slumber. Unfolding in gentle splendor, each Italian spring soon blossoms into the world Erica Jong so eloquently depicted. Earlier in the 20th century British novelist Elizabeth von Amin offered a similar world view.
April in Italy is enchanting indeed. Especially for writers like Elizabeth von Amin.
In 1922, Elizabeth von Amin expressed thoughts similar to Jong’s in more detail in a book inspired by her month-long holiday in the Italian Riviera. Many critics say The Enchanted April is von Amin’s best work. Whether or not that is true is of little consequence. That’s because the author’s greatest contribution to literature was her ability to capture the true essence of Italy. And particularly the magic of the Italian spring.
The Enchanted April tells the story of four unhappy British women with dissimilar backgrounds. They decide to share expenses to escape the dreary, cold dampness of England to bask in the sunshine of Italy.
Two of the women, Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins, belong to the same ladies’ club but have never spoken to each other. Simultaneously and coincidentally, they happen read an ad in a London newspaper enticing the reader to rent a small, furnished medieval castle in Italy for the month of April.
Both women, who are seeking a break from unhappy marriages, come together for the first time. They decide it’s time to drown their cares by seeking out the magical potential of the sunny Italian spring. But they also decide to find two additional female companions to help defray expenses. After interviewing various candidates, the newly formed partnership reluctantly add Mrs. Fisher, an elderly curmudgeon. They also take on Lady Caroline Dester, a beautiful, self-centered loner who seeks privacy from the advances of male suitors.
On to Castello Brown and a world of increased possibilities
Set in the 15th century Castello Brown, which became the set for the 1991 film version of the novel, von Amin’s charming story begins as a comedy of errors. But the comedy – and the errors – are gradually transformed by the rejuvenating “pixie dust” charm of Italy’s magic.
Von Anim described it this way, as narrated via the observations of Lottie Wilkins, who adores the Italian spring.
“All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it.”
As the story progresses, so too do the personalities of its characters. Von Anim portrays them as transfixed by the healing power of their surroundings. Each woman, in her own way, is in the process of rediscovering love. Again, Lottie Wilkins:
“Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze lifted her hair. How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this…to have been allowed to see, to breathe, feel this…What could one say, how could one describe it?”
The captivating ambience of April in Italy never fades
No other country has been more written about than Italy. It’s captivating ambiance washes over you like some grand elixir of life. Erica Jong discovered that “The seven deadly sins seem somewhat less deadly in Italy; the Ten Commandments slightly more malleable. This is a country that not only accepts contradictions; it positively encourages them.”
To which Elizabeth von Anim concurs through her novel’s main character, Lottie Wilkins.
“According to everybody she had ever come across she ought to at least have twinges. She had not one twinge. Something was wrong somewhere. Wonderful that at home she could have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish.”
From the moment visitors cross the border into Italy, no matter from what direction, they find a spirit of human freedom that overtakes them. That spirit presents the world, for all of its faults and scars, in a showcase of natural optimism that unleashes human inhibitions.
“Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and rejoicing in being naked. She was stripped.”
Writers continue to obsess on the intangible magic of Italy. G.W. Bush concurred.
The intangible magic of Italy has been sought after by writers, poets and musicians for centuries. Everyone knows what it is, yet no one can quite manage to harness the energy of the glorious Italian spring.
As Erica Jong observes, “What do we find in Italy that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human that other countries lost long ago.”
In the end, in both the 1920s novel penned by Elizabeth von Amin as well as its later cinematic version, the early depression and sadness of its central cast are washed away like an outgoing tide. Subsequently, those negative senses and sensations are replaced by an incoming tide of renewed joy and anticipation of life. So much so, in fact, that George H.W. Bush watched the film to cheer himself up after losing the presidential election in 1992.
April is upon us. Along with that enchanting Italian spring. Elizabeth von Anim realized this almost a century ago and captured the essence of Italy in her glorious literary symphony of a novel. Don’t try to analyze it. Just accept it as Ms. von Anim did in nine simple words: “Beauty made you love, and love made you beautiful.”
That’s Italy. That’s Amore.
— Headline image: View of the Amalfi Coast from Ravello captures the charm of Italy (Courtesy: Ravello.com)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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