The Spellbinding Magic of Setting in Enchanted April

Author’s note: Enchanted April is a British book made into a British film, with a very Anne of Green Gables feel to it. I feel like it’s a good match for this time we’re in, coming slowly out of a pandemic, since the novel was written in the 1920s just following the Spanish Influenza.

With a mood and tone like the gentleness and delight of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, Enchanted April is a delicious period piece exploring the importance of self-care and following one’s intuition for the greater good of wholeness, employing flower imagery and the power of place to gently unfold inner character transformation.

“For every after found a before must be lost. And loss is such an unbalancing thing (Barber),” Matthew Barber says in his 2003 play Enchanted April, capturing the magic of British writer Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 Enchanted April novel of the journey to wholeness through rejuvenation. Written in a castle in Portofino, Italy, following the trauma of the first world war and Spanish Flu pandemic, von Arnim’s work has been reproduced several times, with at least two-stage plays and a 1935 film directed by Harry Beaumont and featuring Ann Harding, Frank Morgan and Katharine Alexander, as well as a 1991 film starring Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, Alfred Molina, Michael Kitchen, and Jim Broadbent. I consider Peter Barnes’s screenplay for Mike Newell’s 1991 Academy Award-winning film Enchanted April, one of the most successful adaptations, essentially a new classic.

Woven with craft that maintains and enhances von Arnim’s healing tone of setting on character and story through contrast, symbolism and innuendo, the film captures audiences in a timeless way, speaking through its setting to a human timelessness beyond it, fitting for our current pace of slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic to gently enjoy the world again. 

The novel, plays and 1935 and 1991 films all work well in their mediums, each evoking the contrast between the grief-stricken, exhausted population of rainy London and the airy, freeing atmosphere of sunny Italy on the main characters. Each one hooks the audience in quickly with the attractive ad: “To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small medieval 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” (von Arnim).  

I’ve been most taken by the way the 1991 film delivers the earlier stories to a more contemporary audience, as relevant in 2023 as it was in 1991. The film’s initial use of black and white gently invites the audience into the early post-war 1920s with melancholy music and images, such as dreary faces of soldiers on a train, complete with someone coughing from dingy smoke behind the first main character shown, Lottie Wilkins. The visual nature of film allows the screenwriter to allude gently to the losses and injuries of the war, where 40 million humans in the world were killed, approximately 700 000 of them British service men, followed by the Spanish Flu pandemic, which infected a third of the world and took 50 million lives, approximately 228 000 in Britain, just by Lottie giving sixpence to a wounded soldier. Through this action and setting, viewers experience the tone of heartache and monotony the last few years has had on the main female characters, Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot, who are stuck in relentless ruts. 

 Colour comes slowly into the film. The delicious ad with its dreamy image of a flowering purple tree contrasts achingly with the London rain and the middle-class women’s prudent lives of overly virtuous service, Lottie Wilkins to her frugal solicitor husband, and Rose Arbuthnot to her popular author husband and excessive volunteer work with underprivileged Sunday school children. Their marriages have conflict and heartache, spoken and not. Though Lottie has seen Rose before, they communicate for the first time in the Nightingale Women’s Club, the lure of visiting the Italian castle compelling Lottie to approach the other housewife, who still considers the prospect of personal vacation an unattainable wish. “My husband says I have the face of a disappointed Madonna,” Rose sincerely confides, an emblem revisited several times through the film in paintings of a Madonna that characters like George Briggs, the owner of the Italian villa, admire, a clever way of layering a shot with meaning and tension, gently implying he’s attracted to Rose, unaware that she’s still married rather than widowed from the war, however inattentive her travelling husband. 

Flower symbolism is employed subtly in setting and dialogue, a motif through the story as characters struggle to find enough sun to grow. Von Arnim sets a tone in the first half of the novel of how smothered Lottie feels with her lack of personal power in the way gender roles are playing out in her marriage: “Wilkins she was and Wilkins she would remain; and though her husband encouraged her to give it on all occasions as Mrs. Mellersh-Wilkins she only did that when he was within earshot, for she thought Mellersh made Wilkins worse, emphasizing it…” (von Arnim). The sad mood is carried through the first act of the film, as Lottie and her husband Mellersh’s frustration with their tight budget and monotonous routine erupts into a verbal argument, complete with slamming doors when he sees that she’s come home with fresh flowers he assumes they can’t afford. “I’ve told you before about buying flowers. They are an extravagance of the most blatant kind. They always die. Then you have to buy more. We’re not rich. I own no stocks and shares. What would happen to you if tomorrow I were to be knocked down by a tram and you were still buying flowers? We have to watch every penny (Barnes),” he says, immediately cranky at the sight of something whose value he doesn’t perceive, registering only the cost. Their relationships to flowers are how the characters express themselves. In act one, for Lottie, they are needed spring color, the hope, desire and theme that, “If you wish for something hard enough, it happens (Barnes),” while for Mellersh, they are a luxury triggering his fear that any careless expenditure not written down and accounted for could undermine his long-term ability to support his wife and himself. Flowers move the story. Even Rose’s name is literally a beautiful flower. 

Lottie’s disconnect at home pushes her beyond pleasing men to find someone else who needs flora as much as she does. When the women cross paths again in church, the persuasive Lottie appeals, “I’m sure it must be wrong to be good for so long you become miserable. I can see you’ve been good for years, and you aren’t happy. And…I’ve been doing things for other people since I was a little girl, and I don’t believe I’m loved any better (Barnes).” There are different types of unfulfilling middle class marriages, whether feeling used as an image to uphold a husband’s prestigious solicitor career, then chastised as a servant who’s overstepped the home economics boundaries, or simply not being seen, lost in a mountain of charity work while a husband is out drinking in his pen name. A month in Italy would be a refreshing change from all of it. Lottie and Rose join forces to rent the castle, recruiting the seventy-year-old widow Mrs. Graves, whose name indicates a serious upper class matron, and the young aristocrat war widow Lady Caroline Bramble, to share the cost. By taking action in spite of Mellersh’s initial opposition, using her meagre nest egg from her clothing allowance to fund her part of the rental of the flowering Italian villa, Lottie challenges her lot in life, subtly overcoming the mindset of what her husband thinks they can’t afford and where his fear and control are really coming from. It’s not an overt all or nothing feminist political move of entirely tossing the yoke of unjust relations, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but an organic inner healing of listening to her strong intuition and engaging self-care that sets the ball rolling for a healthier marital connection later in the film. She looks within to find the right answer for herself, a place to blossom.  

The four women cast off to Portofino, Italy, a vacation spot typically reserved at the time for Europe’s wealthiest and the setting for the second half of the film that contrasts with everything wrong with their London lives. When they wake the next morning, they are lit up in magical Italy. Slower shots achieve full blossoming color, allowing the viewer to drink in the first glorious moments as the women open the window to exquisite scenery, morning itself a symbol of a new beginning. Music plays like wind over water, signifying freedom, rebirth and possibility. Their response to the setting is filled with symbolism. Lottie lets her hair down, wears loose clothing and relaxes in a field of wild clover. The housewives are resurrected, embracing a humanitarian approach to recovery. The peaceful setting allows all four women to let go of the different burdening expectations of their gender and class–woman as servant, helpful with her husband’s business image, Sunday school teacher, honorary mother to poor children, sexy girl, and proper elder–to be who they are inside. Where Mrs. Graves was lonely in London with only good books from deceased authors to keep her company, and Lady Caroline was aching to be appreciated for her inner beauty rather than just seen as decorative on the arms of men at flapper socialite events, they are finally met with what they want. Caroline finds rest and needed alone time, while Mrs. Graves discovers real life human companionship that takes years off her life, allowing her to symbolically leave her walking stick behind at the end, where it almost magically becomes part of the mystical outdoor setting. In the right location, the characters soak in the sunlight they need to flourish in the present, at one with nature. 

When the men arrive shortly after midpoint, they bring the status and bustle of London, which is initially disruptive, paradise interrupted, with Mellersh having a comic mishap with the bathroom water pipes to symbolize the chaos of their presence. The shot of his big, bare foot in the bath is a stamp of intrusion, as his sense of entitlement and arrogance in presuming to understand what the Italian workers were warning him about results in steam protruding out of the room from a pipe explosion. The husbands don’t belong at first. Mellersh is there to win the business of Lady Caroline, rather than to relax with his wife, and Rose’s husband presents the tension of a tryst, since the audience knows that Lady Caroline has seen his flirtatious author persona at parties in London, while he is dropping in briefly to see Rose, not expecting those worlds to meet. His double identity creates drama and a potential love triangle, complicated by the villa’s owner coming to woo Rose. Lighting is used to suggest sexual attraction. The size of the candle flame in the shots with Rose’s husband is at first bigger when he’s with Caroline, as innuendo and nervous confusion abound in the evening scenes. 

When the hiccups pass and the power of place lets the husbands relax, the shackles of roles and expectations loosen and they too return to their inner selves and reconnect with their wives, truly seeing them for the first time in ages. George Briggs, the owner, who was drawn to Rose’s inner beauty, not seeing well visually, becomes a perfect soulmate for Lady Caroline, who can finally be appreciated for more than her good looks. The full moon is symbolically in the shot as Caroline gets the good guy. As couples are united with their best matches, almost reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mrs. Graves declares, “I want the living (Barnes),” and Lottie reassures her they will be lifelong friends. Their reawakening for the Easter season leaves the sorrow of World War 1 behind. 

The use of setting in Enchanted April drives dynamic growth. With character names, flowers, clothing, a walking stick left to become one with nature and a respectful air come over the interactions of the group, change is unveiled through elements of craft. The screenwriting genre allows writers to enhance story through visuals, to layer images with spoken and unspoken depth, and Barnes does this well in the journey of the relationships. With a philosophy of wholeness “to change what we have into what we wish for (Barber),” the characters are transformed by their time together at the villa, truly seeing and appreciating each other as individuals. The film closes with the Italian countryside reborn in white blossoms, a symbol of innocence and purity, with ending narration, “We could smell them even in London (Barnes).” The main characters return home, casting off shadows and blooming in the grace of renewal. Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, made and remade, the easy-going story Enchanted April still casts a magical and enjoying spell on viewers decades after the films and play were created and a century after the novel was penned.  

Reference Material 

“Enchanted April” STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 12 Sep. 2020. <>. (film script) Enchanted April novel play 

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Cynthia Sharp holds an MFA in creative writing and an Honours BA in English literature and is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, as well as The Writers’ Union of Canada. She was the WIN Vancouver 2022 Poet Laureate, one of the judges for the 2020 Pandora's Collective International Poetry Contest and the City of Richmond, British Columbia’s, 2019 Writer in Residence. Her poetry, reviews and creative nonfiction have been published and broadcast internationally in journals such as CV2, Prism, Haiku Journal, The Pitkin Review and untethered, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. Her work is featured regularly in classrooms in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Cynthia is the author of Ordinary LightRainforest in Russet and The Light Bearers in the Sand Dollar Graviton, as well as the editor of Poetic Portions, a collection of Canadian poems and recipes honouring Earth Day, all available in bookstores and libraries throughout the world. She resides on Coast Salish land, inspired by the beauty of west coast nature.