One of the most pleasurable and escapist reading experiences I’ve had in recent years is Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. It opens on a “miserable” February afternoon in an “uncomfortable” London club. Mrs Wilkins reads an advert in the newspaper: “a mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” is available to rent in April.
So starts the story, which is part drama, part comedy of manners, and part celebration of gardens and the natural world. As April approaches, with its promise of rain and unreliable temperatures, I would also like to escape to a beautiful castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. In fact, this April I intend to re-read the book.
I wonder whether there is a special joy to be had in reading with the seasons. Moreover, I suspect we all do that anyway, without noticing. When summer comes, the bookshelves feature front covers with swimming pools or beaches. In winter, the shelves feature Christmas books with snowy images on the front. I think Spring and Autumn are harder seasons to pin down, so book covers usually stick to sunshine or snow.
One of my favourite Georges Simenon books is Maigret’s Holiday. My main reason for liking it is personal: it is set in Les Sables d’Olonne, on the West coast of France, where I spent many childhood holidays. But apart from that I love the book’s evocation of sun, sand, and chilled white wine. In the story, Inspector Maigret is on holiday with his wife, who is taken ill. While she is recovering in hospital, Maigret is inevitably drawn into solving a crime.
But sunshine has another place. I believe that in the depths of winter we turn to sunny books for some form of literary vitamin D. I’ve always enjoyed the Montalbano books, and to read one is to spend an afternoon in the Sicilian sun. It doesn’t matter that the books are full of crime and drama and tension. It is still some form of escape, perhaps because we know that in a detective story, the detective will bring a sense of equilibrium by the end.
I wrote about my love of Christmas books in a previous post. As well as this love of stories filled with snow and frost in winter, there’s a pleasure in submerging ourselves in sun-soaked books in summer. Or perhaps just before summer, when we are most looking forward to the longer days and the hot temperatures.