Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3
Pure Escapism. I would class both Muriel Sparks’ ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ and Elizabeth von Arnim’s ‘The Enchanted April’ as wholesome, relaxing, diversionary escapism, but in an entirely different manner to the chick-lit of recent years. Whereas the books of Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes and Helen Fielding mostly focus on single women, usually in their late-twenties to mid-thirties, who eventually find the right man for them, Sparks and Arnim choose older women as their subjects, which I found actually rather refreshing.
“Now, years older, successful, and happily a far cry from Kensington, she looks back over the dark days that followed, in which she was embroiled in a mystery involving anonymous letters, quack remedies, blackmail and suicide.”
This ‘she’ is one Mrs Hawkins, later known as Nancy, an enormously fat book editor, who is possibly one of my favouritest heroines ever. Like Flora Poste of Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, she gets on with her own romantic affairs with minimal trouble to her readers, whilst retaining a cool, calm and collected demeanour even as ridiculous and slightly ominous events occur all around her. Indeed, although there are anonymous letters, quack remedies and even suicide, and all are treated with reasonable gravitas, they never bring the tone of the novel down irrevocably. Yes, sometimes it’s important to read about depressing themes and realise there is no happy ending, but from time to time I don’t want to dwell on the gloom.
Mrs Hawkins also gives some valuable advice to aspiring novelists (of which group I count myself, though I don’t seem to be able to get going at the moment!):
“’You are writing a letter to a friend. . . . And this is a dear and close friend, real – or better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.’”
This, in fact, is just how ‘The Enchanted April’ is written (although not in the first person). Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot both attend the same club but have never spoken, until each is drawn to an advertisement in paper which calls to ‘those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine’. Together with two other ladies, who could not be more different to them, they rent an antique castle in Italy, or rather, in paradise. Natasha Tripney called the 1922 novel ‘a paean to the transformative power of travel’ and as someone about to embark on a gap year, this is just the sort of literature I like to read. The descriptions are gorgeous, the characters are loveable and there are one or two good romances in there too – all in all, everything you could want from an escapist novel.
Whilst Sparks’ book is more plot-driven, and looks at the atmosphere of Kensington and the publishing world, Arnim’s focuses on scenery, imagery and personal relationships. Both are enjoyable, with ‘The Enchanted April’ just edging ahead for me, purely because the ending is so beautifully tied-up. There are no loose ends, no one is unhappy, (despite their previous anxieties) and yet there is a small twist just to keep you on your toes. Easy to read, if you’re bored of the usual chick-lit, these are definitely worth a go.