misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

BBC/Miramax's & Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April: unexamined nostalgia out of perplexing humbug

Dear friends and readers,

This Memorial Day weekend, Jim and I traveled to NYC to be at a friend's birthday party,and while there, we saw and talked to a few precious friends, went to the Neue Gallerie, the Met Museum, walked through Central Park -- that vast pastoral landscape become public playground & picnic Sunday area -- and visited bookstores. 

If that wasn't enough (I write about it in Two Day interlude: windows & walks), I read during all those times Jim & I were not talking, walking, sleeping, making love, I was reading

Elizabeth Von Armin's, Enchanted April : the opening of one scene from the movie

Elizabeth Arnim is apparently famous for her The Enchanted April. I now realize much of the most recent commentary is the result of  watching a film I too watched mostly entranced for a couple of hours this past Wednesday night: the BBC/Miramax The Enchanted April, screenplay Peter Barnes, director Mike Newell, producer Ann Scott, featuring Josie Lawrence (Lottie Wilkins), Miranda Richardson (Rose Arbuthnot), Joan Plowright (Mrs Fisher), Polly Walker (Lady Caroline Desler), Alfred Molina (Mellersh Wilkins, beginning his husband type as seen most lately in An Education), Jim Broadbent (as Frederick Artbuthnot, adumbrating his brilliant development of a comic yet seriously emotional comic type), Michael Kitchen (George Briggs, his career has been mostly playing out or against the sensitive male).

Miranda Richardson as Rose Arbuthnot far shot under umbrella, Jose Lawrence as Lottie Wilkins, closer up, possibly modeled on many pictures by Laura Knight in the same vein:

Laura Night, The Beach or Two Girls on a Cliff

I want to write about this film and book tonight because I've been told so often to read the book as if it were something specially wonderful -- and good -- and did not know until I saw the film a couple of nights ago, its recent high reputation stems from the (relative) commercial success of the low-budget BBC film.  Although until the film took its turn towards a conventional happy romantic ending, I enjoyed it intensely, and likewise read the novel as a refreshingly ironic satiric comfort book until it took its similar turn, both become (as Rebecca West said) humbug. Due to the long ending (which counts), the film is nostalgia for wallowing in bathos and then pretty pictures; the book is an angry attack on marriage as a tyrannical imprisonment by over-the-top (caricatures of) obtuse, exploitative, selfish men, which then (disappointingly) turns around to blame the women for their men's behavior.

First the film: the film's story presents two dependent upper class or gentry women whose husbands neglect and abuse them socially and emotionally:   Mr Arbuthnot writes silly salacious novels about glamorous women from history (victim iconography compensating luridly, spitefully for the women's luxuriating in their so-called powerful positions): all the while he leaves her strictly home alone while he goes to fashionable soirees to flirt and network.  Mr Wilkins berates, demands Lottie account for every penny spent, makes her his cooking slave. The women are isolated, bullied, never have a moment's self-fulfillment or pleasure.  One day Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence), a member of a women's club (modeled on upper class males) meets Rose Arbuthnut (Miranda Richardson) after Lottie has seen an ad for a "small medieval castle for rent in April. 

They consider the advertisement -- note funny clownish hats

Lottie slowly persuades Rose to rent a castle in Italy for a month to get away from the rain ... and everything else about their desperately futile sad lives. 

Allegorically named San Salvatore caslte

They find two more women to join in (only two apply) because they don't have enough money to pay the rent for a full month themselves: these are an older set-in-her-ways spinster, Mrs Fisher (Joan Plowright) and this super-beautiful heroine type who all the men continually "hit" on (to use Izzy's phrase), Caroline Dester (Polly Walker). 

What happens is they all bloom there once they get there.  Including the lonely castle-owner, George Briggs (Michael Kitchen - who plays in Falling a scary psychopathic abusive male who can fool women by his apparent sensitivity) who comes for a visit.  Yet how melancholy was the feel throughout, and especially the ending.

Where Michael Kitchen as the lonely eccentric Briggs is enchanted by Rose's absorption in her dreams in the gardens of the house

It had the cinematography typology of a Merchant-Ivory film yet was so very sad.  At each turn of the narrative the way the happiness was presented was nostalgic to the point of sadness: it was made implicit that hurt was at the bottom of this yearning the women and Briggs were manifesting and now fulfilling. Loneliness. The anonymity of isolated existences in the larger city world.

I was troubled by the film story line's ending: the very men who have made the two central women so miserable are their solution.  We are to believe  the philistine husband of Lottie (Alfred Molina, the father in An Education, a similar type) easily sheds his intense concern with money-making, networking with the upper class (e.g., Lady Caroline), worries about money (and control over his wife's "nest egg") and his business.  That the indifferent husband fo Ross (Jim Broadbent) cannot resist kissing her and when he does cannot stop so that they become a courting honeymoon couple by the end. This is the happiness this enchanted garden brings.  A saving grace is that it's made clear this was an interlude and all the characters are returning to the same London from which they have momentarily escaped.

Mr Wilkins will not follow instructiosn from the servants and apologizes to the comically stunned snobbish Mrs Fisher

It's more than that it's fairy tale:  you have also to be upper class to aspire to such a castle and Caroline's money pays for a lot of this -- backed by Mr Wilkins's deep pockets once he arrives.  The poverty of the Italian servants and plumbing is a joke.  The dream itself won't stand much attentiveness.


I decided to read the book to see if it was indeed similarly sad; if the ending was also an erasure and reverse of the story's premises.  It was yet worse. After positing in unqualified grotesque imagery a feminist fable of ogre men and abject virtuous heroines (Lottie is fearful, anxious, without the slightest self-confidence or esteem; Ross a bland Lady Bountiful to her "poor", obsessive attender of churches, Sunday schools), super glamorous heroines (Lady Caroline as princess) and lonely stubborn spinsters living in their childhood spoilt indulgence (Mrs Fisher), the narrative shows them undergoing a process of meditative brought on by the beauty, quiet, lack of activity, entrancing flowers, water, shabby elegant castle

Lottie in the film struck in bemusement

Caroline similarly riveted

Rose ditto

A meditation which in each case in the book has the woman teach herself how she has been at fault for the way her man or the world treated her.

Lottie comes to the conclusion she has been a "mean dog" to her husband; her obedience and sadness has made him rightly despise her; she didn't really care what he ate, looked upon herself as a low driven slave and must learn to see how beautiful is loving sacrifice; he then cannot help but respond to her beautiful serenity by generosity. 

Rose sees she has bored her husband silly by her priggishness over his books; she has frightened him by her prayers. It's not that (as we are shown at the opening of the book) that he is an obtuse insensitive man made uncomfortable by her intangible ethical kindness and love of high culture; oh no; her yearning was narrow.  Nowadays she'd rush out and buy pornography for her man. 

Caroline sees that that she has been tawdry, ungrateful. These men endlessly grabbing at her (the opening vision of men in the book from Caroline's point of view anticipates Jane Campion's take on James's Portrait of a Lady) are rightly at worship; she sees her future as black if she doesn't mend her ways.  The self-berating is ceaseless and intertwined.  When  Caroline as "Scrap" (her belittling nickname by the end, one given her by her parents) sees that she is a "sour ungrateful spinster" she connects herself to Mrs Fisher who takes the best sitting room in the castle, won't share it, and disdains the others as frivolous and shallow nitwits.

Mrs Fisher in the first phase of the time at San Salvatore

i am writing about this because I see the novel described as "acclaimed" and reviews declaring that anyone who looks into this gossamer is spoiling it.  Spoiling what?  Such adjurations are meant to intimidate and to silence. Since I love genuine escape, and gentle irony I find myself intensely dismayed by the book's reversal. It begins in a mood of continual sceptical irony that is just delicious. Quietly all sacred cows of beliefs are sent up; the tongue-in-cheek feel shows everyone to be play-acting at some level and is liberating. Mr Briggs's house filled with books, pictures, odd beauties everywhere is a desperate as Mr Wilkins's philistine appetites.  The book is a comfort book for 3/4s of the way through by its telling you not to shed illusions of romance and realism too; there's no more meaning in the hierarchies chased by Mr Arbuthnot than the rituals of the servants. The brightest person in the book until it takes its dive is Domenico, the servant who runs the castle. The fears of our two heroines are funny because everything at some level is quietly funny.  Lottie's inability to imitate social norms exposes them as phony through and through.

So what happened?3/4s of the film, 2/3s of the book are true to Elizabeth von Armin's miserable marriages;the last part is deceptive, false and you are carried along by the same tone as the earlier part of the book and the magic of the beautiful descriptions. The process can be seen in little in her depiction of Briggs.  Her first instinct is right; her story line to bring an end to the original insight is crass buying into what she supposedly rejected.  Briggs is mesmerized by young male lust when he sees Lady Caroline.  Having deluded himself by a romance vision of Rose as a "disappointed Madonna" who resembles a Raphael portrait in his castle, he drops her unceremoniously to chase after Lady Caroline like a stalker; at first Caroline is horrified, for all that she fled is in front of her; then the switch, she feels she is wrong, she should appreciate his adoration and begins to manipulate him. Mrs Fisher completes the process by looking upon him fondly as an aging grandmother would. 

By all means watch the film and take pleasure in its music, its pictorial photography -- a la Merchant-Ivory of Italy -- the early funny-bitter scenes. Enjoy and comic and subtle acting.  To give the film its due, it slides over the berating of the book.  The transformation of the men remains unaccounted for except by the idea that the place transforms the hearts and minds of all.  There is no ritual punishment of the women in the film, no humiliation --  a common event in many a woman's romance film.

By all means read the book and amuse and release and liberate yourself by its endlessly witty ironical send-ups of silly mawkish stereotypes and imprisoning goals.  That is, until your eyes glaze over as the text becomes Lottie endlessly serving Melleresh devotedly in their room, Mrs Fisher becoming coy under Lottie's ministrations, and Rose sticky with a bounder's kisses.

Who could think this at all like E. M. Forster (with whom von Armin is compared)? someone who has not read the content of what is in front of her or him.  It's possible another of her novels is like Forster, but not this one. 

Tags: 20th century, adaptations, costume drama, female archetypes, film adaptation, women's art, women's films, women's novels

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