The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is one of my favourite books and one of the first classics I ever read. It was first published in 1922 and is set largely in Italy, though it begins on a dreary February day in London. Mrs. Wilkins, a shy and rather downtrodden woman, is sitting in her woman's club reading The Times when she comes across this advertisement:
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria 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.
Excitedly she summons up the courage to approach another woman in the club, Mrs. Arbuthnot, who reminded me very much of Julia Stephen (Virginia Woolf's mother) or a young Vanessa Bell (before she was married): devout and charitable, always thinking of others to the point where she is almost exhausted by it. Both women, unhappily married and yearning to escape, cannot resist the temptation of this small Medieval castle in San Salvatore, so when they discover they cannot afford it between them they advertise and find two more women to join them: the socialite Lady Caroline Dester and the elderly Mrs. Fisher who, it seems, was personally acquainted with every great Victorian from her childhood.
At first there is some tension between the four women, understandably given that not only are they all very different but they all are barely acquainted. Gradually though the beauty and serenity brings them the peace and insight to come together, and also, most importantly, to come to terms with themselves and their lives.
The novel's premise is a simple one, and it has an almost fairy tale like feel to it meaning there are no real surprises, but that's what makes the novel work: one can concentrate on the scenery that von Arnim conjurers up so beautifully one can really imagine being there without the distraction of twists and turns. It's an outstanding novel, stunning, gentle, and, as the title promises, enchanting. The sort of novel that a reader can never forget.