In various book group posts, I’ve read numerous requests for recommendations for “beach reads for summer.” There are always the recommendations for authors like Elin Hilderbrand, who sets many of her books in Nantucket. Ditto Nancy Thayer and others who use similar locations. However, why limit the settings of summer reading to the beach? Why not travel via books to an Italian fishing village/resort, a flower garden in Germany, a cottage in the Welsh countryside – or even to a besieged castle?
THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Armin (born Mary Annette Beauchamp) is a wonderful escape to a “small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. Mrs. Wilkins, who finds a newspaper ad for the castle in her London woman’s club on a dreary February day, knows that she is too poor to afford such a luxurious escape – but what if she found a few other women to share in the expenses?
This is the premise of Elizabeth von Armin’s most popular book. What happens after these four very different women, all dissatisfied in various ways, visit the lovely medieval castle in the sunshine of the Italian coast? Needless to say, they are transformed.
“The wisteria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering, and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce color.”
ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN is perhaps the second most well-known book of von Armin’s. It was published in 1898 with only the name “Elizabeth” as author. She claimed that her husband at the time, Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, known in the book as “The Man of Wrath,” would have found it improper for his wife to write popular fiction.
The book, an imagined diary, begins on May 7th, when she notes that she “danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden, in spite of my years and my children.” She describes the garden in great detail, surrounded as it is by forests and – in the middle of an oasis – a “gray stone house with many gables where I pass my reluctant nights…. The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has travelled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever seen me sew or cook,”
The descriptions of her garden and her joy in being outdoors with her three little girls are contagious.
“What a happy woman I am living in a garden, with books, babies, birds, and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them! Sometimes I feel as though I were blest above all my fellows in being able to find my happiness so easily…. I have had this month sitting alone at the foot of the verandah steps, with the perfume of young larches all about, and the May moon hanging low over the beeches, and the beautiful silence made only more profound in its peace by the croaking of distant frogs and hooting of owls,”
FAIRY TALE by Alice Thomas Ellis is an excellent antidote to the overwhelming love of nature that von Armin exhibits in the above two books. This author has a dry wit that I love, and a keen sense of irony. A very young couple, Eloise and Simon, have left London for the Welsh countryside to live in a cottage, encouraged by Eloise’s hippy-ish friend Moonbird. Simon does odd jobs while Eloise sews lovely white nightgowns by hand to sell in a local shop.
As Eloise sits under a tree one day while Simon is out, working on her sewing, she suddenly thinks that she might like to have a baby. Her cat leaps up, “its fur on end.” She suddenly goes into their little cottage with the cat and closes the door. The cat jumps upon an armchair; “,,,it still clearly had its reservations about something out there in the immensity of all the hills, the woods, something inimical to man….The soft smell of broken grass came through the window. It reminded Eloise that she had chosen to live in the country and should therefore avail herself of its amenities at every opportunity. Fine, sunny days were not to be lost hiding indoors from non-existent terrors.”
Some very odd little men (who turn out to be tylwyth teg, or Welsh mythological fairies), from an older, darker, pagan time, visit Eloise after she pricks her finger one day while again sewing outdoors. She and Simon have apparently trespassed upon their ancient land by living in that cottage. When, after their visit, she tells Simon that she is pregnant, he writes to her mother in London, asking her to visit. Clare arrives with her skeptical friend Miriam.
After a brief pregnancy, Eloise comes to the cottage with a baby – a baby with silvery hair and green eyes. When her mother’s friend Miriam looks out of the window later, she sees “Eloise leaning against the apple tree that held the mistletoe and the baby was at her breast, Such an idyllic scene should surely not have assaulted her senses with a deadly impression of parasitism; on an ancient wordless evil that need not rely on humanity for expression but persisted in corruption.” Nature is not “good” nor “kind” in this book. What happens next is funny, awful, dark, and evil. The ancient Welsh valley has won.
FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, by E. Nesbit, is simply delightful, especially if you enjoy British humor. To me, this book is more enjoyable for adults than children, perhaps because of the dry humor. Five children and their parents move from London to the country in Kent one summer, glad to be out of the city. “The White House was on the edge of a hill with a wood behind it – and the chalk-quarry on one side and the gravel pit on the other….and when the big chimneys were smoking and the sun was setting, the valley looked as though it was filled with a golden mist, and the limekilns and hop-drying mouses glimmered and glittered till they were like an enchanted city out of the Arabian Nights.”
As often happens in a Nesbit book, the parents are called away, and the children are left with the nursemaid and cook. While playing in the quarry one day, they uncover a Psammead, a sort of sand fairy, who is a cranky sort and tells them that they can have one wish a day that ends at sunset, when the wish will end. Because of the wording of the children’s wishes, each wish goes comically wrong, and they have to wait till the end of the day for things to return to normal. (And, of course, all the adults that they come in contact with don’t notice that anything is wrong, even when their home is turned into a “besieged castle.”)
Of course, everything turns out all right in the end, with the Psammead going back into his sand pit in the quarry – and the two girls requesting that they might see him again another day – which they will, in other books.
*Caveat: there is one chapter with “Red Indians” that is obviously not PC. (The book was published in 1902.)
I hope that you will enjoy at least one of these alternative beach reads this summer!
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.