A discrete advertisement in The Times, addressed to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine,” is the prelude to a revelatory month for four very different women. High above a bay on the Italian Riviera stands the medieval castle San Salvatore. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the gentle spirit of the Mediterranean, they gradually shed their public skins, discovering a harmony each of them has longed for but none has ever known. First published in 1922, this captivating novel is imbued with the descriptive power and lighthearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnim is renowned
Published in 1922, this book starts with Mrs Wilkins seeing an advert for a castle to rent in Italy posted on the front of the times. Married to a solicitor, with a small nestegg of £90 and looking at the rain outside she wonders if she could ever spend money in this way
After reading the advert in her local club, she spots Mrs Arbuthnot, who goes to the same church as Wilkins but the two women have never talked.
Both women are married and both have different reasons to disappear from their husbands – Wilkins because she fears she has become a non-entity and that her husband doesnt even notice she exists. Mrs Arbuthnot because she realises that she and her husband have grown apart – him to concentrate on writing his books, her to work on the things that fill her time as he keeps himself away from the marital home – including working in the church and following doctrine replacing what she feels she has lost with her husband, thereby pushing her husband away even further.
They agree to take the castle, and search for two other women to share the expenses with.
Lady Caroline, young, beautiful, wanting to be left alone but realises that ultimately whilst very busy her life is essentially empty
If no one an San Salviatore had ever heard of her, if for a whole month she could shed herself, get right away from everything connected with herself, be allowed to forget the clinging and the clogging and al the noise, why, perhaps, she might make something of herself after all. She might think; really clear up her mind; really come to some conclusion
Mrs Fisher, the oldest, stuck in the past where the people of the day can never match the famous people who she knew when a child as they were always more intelligent, interesting, better mannered or more dominant. In turn she has turned into a bitter old woman who thinks everyone goes against her on purpose
The four women arrive at the castle at the beginning of April and the place, surrounded by all the lovely flowers and flora, soon begin to shed their previous selves, some quicker than others. Very quickly Mrs Wilkins (Lottie) decides to invite her husband along. He does turn up, and is stunned at the change he has found in his wife. Because of his job as a solicitor, who needs more women clients, he is solicitous towards all the other women in the house too.
Mrs Arbuthnot (Rose) is more reticent to invite her husband, but finally she does. However, he arrives at the castle, not looking for his wife, but looking for Lady Caroline, with whom he has become infatuated with whilst in London. However, in seeing his wife changed so much for the better, he realises his mistake and returns to the marital house.
Mr Arbuthnot realises: Why had she not been attractive sooner? Why the sudden flowering?
He little realises the competition he had from Mr Briggs, the owner of the castle, who has been briefly infatuated with Rose and come to pay a visit. Unfortunately, Rose is almost immediately eclipsed with the arrival of Caroline into the room, which distracts Briggs. Briggs in the mean time has melted the icy heart of Mrs Fisher, who realises she was stuck in the past with the dead and needed live young people around her to bring her out of herself.
So ultimately, everyone gets to be where they should be, helped by good weather, good food, a little absence from each other and the benefit of a little solitude. Everyone is so middle classed British, stuck in that weird bit between the wars where people are still feeling the impact of the Great War, but haven’t really lost the Victorian Class system yet.