It began in a women’s club in London on a February afternoon,—an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon—when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:
To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval 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.
That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.
My fellow Betsy-Tacy fans will understand why the mere mention of The Agony Column caused me to anticipate a bit of magic even in a wholly unrelated fictional universe. And it wasn’t just The Agony Column that captured my interest but also the women’s club in which Mrs. Wilkins perused it. I had recently encountered a London men’s club of that era in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale but it hadn’t occurred to me that parallel women’s clubs existed. I wondered about this club and its denizens, in particular the listless Mrs. Wilkins. Who was she, what sort of life did she lead, and what change in that life might be wrought by a month on the Italian Riviera in the springtime?
It’s not giving too much away to tell you that Mrs. Wilkins does indeed embark on this adventure and that she does so in the company of three very different but equally intriguing women, one an acquaintance from church, the other two strangers to her: the pious Mrs. Arbuthnot full of good works and deeply buried resentments; the young, bored, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester who seeks to escape the frivolous demands of her social station; and the rigid Mrs. Fisher, an elderly widow who wishes to be left alone to reminisce about long-dead friends.
I’m inclined to describe the book as a gentle adventure, but I’m afraid that you’ll interpret gentle as boring. Far from it. It’s true that not much happens on the surface in the small castle at San Salvatore, at least not at first:
To the servants San Salvatore seemed asleep. No one came to tea, nor did the ladies go anywhere to tea. Other tenants in other springs had been far more active. There had been stir and enterprise; the boat had been used; excursions had been made; Beppo’s fly was ordered; people from Mezzago came over and spent the day; the house rang with voices; even sometimes champagne had been drunk. Life was varied, life was interesting. But this? What was this? The servants were not even scolded. They were left completely to themselves. They yawned.
But there is a great deal going in the minds and hearts of the women in residence there. Dramatic shifts are underway within each woman and ultimately these shifts manifest externally as well in their relationships to one another and to the family and friends that they left behind in England.
By the time I reached the end of the book, I felt as if a bit of San Salvatore’s transformational magic had been worked on me as well.