“In springtime, the only pretty ring time,/When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding” (William Shakespeare)

Things are not going well, reader. I won’t bore you with details, but as I survey the Beckettian wasteland that is my life (never piss off a bibliophile, we can exaggerate and self-pity in such literary terms) two things bring me solace: one, that the forty minute commute to my circumlocution-office job gives me fixed time to read (apart from one particularly bad day where I spent the journey staring out of the window into the abyss of my existential crisis gardens of south London); and two, that my favourite season is finally here. Hooray for Spring!

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So this week I thought I’d look at novels that are linked with Spring in some way.  Firstly Haweswater by Sarah Hall (2002). The connection to Spring is tenuous at best – I chose it because it’s set in the Lake District, which thanks to Wordsworth is irrevocably linked with this time of year. Hall’s highly accomplished first novel centres around the true story of the valley of Mardale being flooded in 1935 to create a reservoir to supply water to Manchester.

“This valley, with its own natural shape, created as the earth’s muscles cramped and pulled with ferocious sloth millennia earlier, was perfect.  Six miles down, at the bottom of the dale, where the fells curved towards the ground and flattened inwards, hard volcanic rock came to the surface, and it would be possible to lay down a flat arm of cement and brick.”

Images from here and here

The Lightburn family work the land, raising sheep and living lives deeply connected to their environment. Janet, their daughter, works as hard as anyone, refusing to let her gender limit her. She is formed by her strong independent nature and the land that surrounds her:

“There are deaths that have made more sense than lives here. But nothing hangs in the balance. She has been pressed between two vast mountain ranges without claustrophobia or repression; each year she is re-forged. She accepts the weather and the ability of the rain to overwhelm all else. It’s inconsequential. This is a sacred place.”

The charismatic and glamourous Jack Liggett arrives from Manchester to tell the villagers that their entire lives are about to be literally swept away, and Janet’s pious mother has a horrible sense of what is to come:

“There was a vast black bird in her heart, she said to him, foreboding. It warned her of sickness and ill change, lifting its morbid wings. And with the dark man in their midst there was danger, she knew it. But Samuel could not understand. And how could he see fear taking shape or feel its feathery wingtips along her ribcage?”

Haweswater is a beautifully written account of ordinary lives caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Hall has a deep understanding of landscape and a sensitive approach to her characters. It is a sad, poignant novel, but not depressing: people, like the land, mostly endure.

“He was here, within reach. The landscape had him enfolded, safe, like bark holding back the spreading rings of a tree. She put her face in the grass and her tears swept down concave blades and soaked into the dry earth, into the fossils and claws and muscles of rock from thousands of years ago.”

If that all sounds a bit depressing, my second choice may be more to your liking: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922), which I was inspired to rescue from the depths of my TBR by reading Shoshi’s wonderful review.

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This novel is an absolute joy: a heartwarming, silly, acerbic, funny, insightful joy.  Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are drawn to an advertisement in The Times which promises “wisteria and sunshine” at an Italian medieval castle for the duration of the titular month.  Mrs Wilkins is in need of a change:

“She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.  Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation reluctant; she was shy. And if one’s clothes and face and conversation are all negligible, thought Mrs Wilkins, who recognised her disabilities, what, at parties, is there left of one?”

While Mrs Arbuthnot needs space to work out what on earth to do with her marriage:

“And Frederick, from her passionately loved bridegroom, from her worshipped young husband, had become second only to God in her list of duties and forebearances. There he hung, second in importance, a bloodless thing bled white by her prayers.”

They decide to take the plunge, and advertise for two more women to join them, ending up with young and feckless Lady Caroline and older and self-absorbed Mrs Fisher. The women take a while to adjust to one another, but the magic of Italian Riviera is impossible to resist (as is von Arnim’s writing, permit me a lovely long quote):

 “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she was there to see it. Such beauty; and she was alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.”

Surrounded by this picturesque scene, all the women, wanting to escape their lives for a variety of reasons, undergo a healing process, a regeneration. If this makes the novel sound worthy and heavy-handed, it really isn’t.  It’s a wonderful study of group dynamics and how what we need can be brought to us by the most unlikely people. Even Mrs Fisher is powerless to resist:

“She knew the feeling, because she had sometimes had it in childhood in specially swift springs when the lilacs and syringas seemed to rush out into blossom in a single night, but it was strange to have it again after over fifty years. She would have liked to remark on the sensation to some one, but she was ashamed. It was such an absurd sensation at her age. Yet oftener and oftener, and every day more and more, did Mrs Fisher have a ridiculous feeling  as if she were presently going to burgeon.”

Von Armin doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of life: “She felt small and dreadfully alone. She felt uncovered and defenceless. Instinctively she pulled her wrap closer. With this thing of chiffon she tried to protect herself from the eternities” but what she suggests is that if we open ourselves to possibilities, the insurmountable becomes surmountable, our fears conquerable. If you need a lift; a fun, escapist read that still has something to say but does so with the lightest of touches, then The Enchanted April is for you. Enchanting indeed!

To end, there has been Shakespeare galore this weekend as it is 400 years since his death, and I opened this post with some of the weakest lines he ever wrote 😀 To redress the balance, here are some of the greatest lines he ever wrote:

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27 thoughts on ““In springtime, the only pretty ring time,/When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding” (William Shakespeare)

  1. Fascinating. I know we have to have reservoirs but I hate the flooding of valleys – it destroys so much in the way of heritage. As for the von Arnim, I really must read this soon – it’s been on my shelves for too long. Hope the Beckettian wasteland improves soon….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haweswater brought home the devastation of the reservoir, without sentimentality, but it really affected me reading about it.

      I hope you enjoy the von Armin, I think you will 🙂

      Either things improve or I’m changing my name to Vladimir: win-win 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Huzzah! The Enchanted April is in my books-to-be-read-sooner-rather-than-later stack (it ticks the box for a reading challenge) so I’m very pleased to read yours (and Shoshi’s) praise. The quotes you’ve selected bring to mind one of my favourite scenes from the movie version of A Room With a View, when Miss Lavish and cousin Charlotte are arranging their ‘mackintosh squares’ on the ground before gossiping.

    I hope by the time the you’re reading this, things are on the up. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really hope you enjoy The Enchanted April – it is reminiscent of that scene in A Room with a View so I think you will – I look forward to reading your thoughts on it 🙂

      Thanks so much – I’m hoping to leave Beckett behind and that things will become more Busby Berkeley-like by the day!

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  3. Now I’m sure the Arnim is somewhere in the TBR pile……..those are magic quotes, I should go search.

    I did the Coast to Coast, some years ago, and walking along that reservoir felt very oppressive – I had read Haweswater

    I wish you nodding daffydowndillies and a whole troop of high kicking BBs to entertain you. Perhaps, too, give that April is traditionally showery, you could have Gene, Singing In The Rain

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely dig out the Arnim, I think you’ll enjoy it 🙂

      I keep meaning to do the Coast to Coast. It’s interesting to hear Haweswater has that atmosphere, it’s such an eerie thought that there’s a submerged village underneath all that water.

      Gene would be just the ticket – you’ve encouraged me to seek out the DVD 🙂

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  4. Haweswater has been sitting on one of my wishlists for absolutely ages, so I really must get hold of it at some point. Waters writes so well about the natural world – there is something very beautiful and ‘earthy’ about her prose. I really enjoyed her ‘Beautiful Indifference’ collection of stories when I read it a few years ago.

    So glad to hear you enjoyed The Enchanted April as I have a copy to read. I’m going to try to save it for a time when I need some sunshine in my life – those quotes are wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right – beautiful and earthy is her writing exactly. The only other work I’ve read by her is The Electric Michelangelo, I’ll have to look out for Beautiful Indifference.

      The Enchanted April will definitely bring sunshine – I guarantee it 🙂

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  5. Confession: I was also expecting Willy Wonka when I saw the post title. Not only that, Gene Wilder’s disturbing ditty has now settled into a looping earworm and doesn’t show signs of moving on anytime soon. Never mind that though, I am actually also currently reading ‘The Enchanted April’. I started last night and it is soothing my soul. The characters, the dry wit, the descriptions – it is pure heaven! Those quotes stood out for me too – utterly marvelous!

    I was in Haverfordwest library today and they had a display on novels set in Italy – without this book and in April, too! I know the library had a copy of it, so I rooted it out and stuck it right at the front so hopefully I’ll have helped brighten up someone’s week. On that note, I do hope your train soon leaves the wasteland and heads instead to bright meadows and pop-up 90s discos. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! You are not alone in the earworm, it’s stuck in my head too…

      It really is marvelous, isn’t it – I look forward to your review! You have definitely done your bit for the greater good by sticking The Enchanted April in plain sight, I hope the library-goers of Haverfordwest appreciate your charitable deed 🙂

      A pop up 90s disco could be just the thing – I’ll start practising my Verve walk in anticipation!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a book pusher, I’ll admit it. I justify my own addiction by coercing others to join me 🙂

      I haven’t read The Wolf Border but I remember when it came out reading an interview with Sarah Hall where she said she thought it was the best thing she’d ever written, so I think that is next on my list. I hope you enjoy Haweswater, I thought it was especially impressive as a first novel.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think spring is the perfect time for a re-read of the von Armin! I’ve not heard of the Francis Brett Young novel but I’ll look into it, it would be interesting to read something written close to the time of the events.

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  6. Pingback: #AW80Books: What do you get if you let Merchant Ivory loose on ‘The Golden Girls’? Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Enchanted April’. | Hard Book Habit

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