Back in the 1980s I used to like watching a TV theatre-sports programme called Whose line is it anyway? It has reappeared recently and is still just as enjoyable. One of the actors I always admired from it was Josie Lawrence (the woman who makes up songs on the fly).
This reminded me about a film called Enchanted April which came out in 1992. Josie appeared in it with Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Alfred Molina. The story it was based on was by one of my favourite authors Elizabeth von Arnim.
The film featured Josie as the wife of a stiff-necked conservative husband in the years before WW1. She wanted to go on holiday but he was uncooperative, so she advertised for other women who would like to rent a villa in Italy. The disparate group thus formed ventured into the unknown with some trepidation and the sharp edges of their personalities initially made for some discomfort, until the magic of of Italy began its work. As with von Armin’s books, her film characters are so clearly and sardonically observed that they made me gurgle with delight.
Elizabeth von Arnim is herself rather remarkable. A relation of Katherine Mansfield, she married a Prussian count and whilst married to him wrote a book called Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was a bestseller at the time ( I noted that it was even mentioned in the series Downton Abbey when Mathew Crawley’s valet gave it to fellow servant Anna).
Her marriage was not happy and she left the count and went back to England where she eventually married George Bernard Shaw’s older brother who was an Earl. This marriage was even worse and she accused Shaw of being abusive. She ran away to America and got her revenge by writing a book called Vera. This book managed the oxymoron of being both very funny and an account of an abusive marriage. It left her husband looking such a prat that its publication is supposed to have led George to comment “never marry a writer”.
Perhaps inevitably, her wicked sense of humour saves its sharpest barbs for men and Germans, so if you are sensitive to the unfair treatment of these groups leave her books on the shelf. Otherwise I guarantee they will brighten up the darkest winter day.