Where I live in the Great White North, we are finally—finally—beginning to see the signs of spring. Not actual spring of course—we got a whole new layer of fresh snow today—but the barest hints that the season might be on its way; flickerings that we might not, in fact, have entered a new ice age, but might yet emerge from this icy wasteland to feel the sun warm on our faces once again. Someday!
Until spring actually arrives, and the dirty, yellow snow currently lining the streets finally gives way to grass and flowers, I am consoling myself with books guaranteed to make any reader feel as if sunshine and gardens are only just around the corner. These classic novels are ones I associate with spring, both because significant portions of them take place in springtime and because they are, unfailingly, happy-making. That’s not to say that they don’t have serious things to say about society and gender and storytelling, because they do, but, for me at least, the predominant feeling of these books is simply joy.
You may notice that this list is dominated by novels about British women who seek sun and transformation abroad. In fact, with one exception, an alternate title for this post could be “Books About Ladies Who Leave Stuffy Old England And Get Their Groove On In Italy.” This is a literary tradition that carries on into the present (see, for example, Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun), but, for me, these modern iterations can’t hold a candle to the classics—evoking the intense pleasures of warmth and sea, they are ageless.
Finally, a bonus: all of these books are available online for free. I’ve included links to the full texts. Enjoy!
1. Enchanted April , Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Enchanted April is my ultimate springtime book. Written by Australian-born British novelist Elizabeth von Arnim in 1922, Enchanted April is the story of four women who don’t know each other and have little in common, except for the fact that they are desperately unhappy with their lives in England. Depressed and restrained, they come together to rent a medieval villa on the Italian coast for the month of April. They are each transformed by the sea and sun and flowers, awakening again to happiness and love.
All I can really say about this book is that it is so happy, and so beautiful. If, like me, you’re still surrounded by frosty weather and slushy snow, take a few moments to read von Arnim’s lush descriptions of Italy. You’ll instantly feel the sun on your face and hear the rustling of flowers. It’s magic.
The novel was adapted into an excellent film in 1992, which is worth watching, if only for its spectacular images of the flower-filled Italian countryside.
2. A Room with a View , E.M. Forster (1908)
A Room with a View is the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a young Englishwoman traveling in Italy with her stuffy aunt. Her time in Italy awakens her to the world beyond her own limited social circle, and she eventually has to choose between passion and propriety, real love and social expectation. As with Enchanted April, there is something magical and transformative about Italy in this novel—it is the locus of liberation and pleasure.
3. Miss Cayley’s Adventures , Grant Allen (1899)
How can one resist a novel that begins with the heroine declaring, “Between ourselves, I am a bit of a rebel”? I have made it my mission to get people to read Miss Cayley’s Adventures , a delightful but not-particularly-famous novel by Grant Allen. The book tells the story of Lois Cayley, an independent, sassy young English woman who heads to Europe to seek adventures and make her fortune. Her escapades take her all over the world, working variously as an amateur detective, a typist, a journalist, and a bicycle salesman. Throughout the novel, Lois is intelligent and sparkling, taking crap from no one and routinely eviscerating the villain with her hilarious barbs about his pathetic mustache. Things do get dicey in terms of race in the second half of the book (basically, it’s rather progressive in its racial stance...for 1899. Not so much for 2015.), but the novel is worth reading all the same, if only for Lois’s declaration, “I am an adventuress […] and I am in quest of adventures.” We could all use a bit of her advice:
Adventures are for the adventurous. They abound on every side; but only the chosen few have the courage to embrace them. And they will not come to you: you must go out to seek them. Then they meet you half-way, and rush into your arms, for they know their true lovers.
4. Flush , Virginia Woolf (1933)
Virginia Woolf is celebrated for her experimentation with perspective and time, particularly in works like Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931). In Flush , Woolf continues playing with point of view, to completely delightful effect: the book is a biography of Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from the perspective of Flush, her cocker spaniel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a real poet (a wonderful poet), whose life story is the stuff of romances: For much of her adult life, she was hemmed in by chronic illness and a controlling father. An invalid, she spent most of her time indoors, rarely meeting new people. Robert Browning (also a wonderful poet) was a fan of her poetry and wrote to her with praise for her work. He managed to meet her, they fell in love, and married against her father’s wishes. Browning whisked her off to Italy, where her health dramatically improved and her life was completely changed. How amazing is it that that actually happened?
Flush recounts this story from the perspective of Barrett Browning’s dog, so we get to see Barrett-Browning's growing love and changing life from his canine perspective, as well as his own transformation as he evolves from a spoiled lap dog to an Italian dog-about-town. The resulting text is funny, strange, and charming.
5. Anne of Green Gables , Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
Many of us know Anne of Green Gables from the 1985 mini-series starring Megan Follows, but Lucy Maud Montgomery’s series of novels following the foibles of carrot-haired Anne Shirley are perfect springtime reads. The first novel tells the story of how Anne, a dreamy, talkative orphan, charms her way into the hearts of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, the straight-laced siblings who adopt her. It should be cheesy, but somehow it manages not to be—perhaps because Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island are so breathtakingly beautiful. At one point, Anne looks out to the landscape before her and says,
Dear old world, […] you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.
What better sentiment to carry us all into spring?
Images: Miramax Pictures (2); Project Gutenberg; Beverley Goodwin/Flickr; Giphy