The year is 1922. In February, two unhappy ladies slosh through the dripping streets of London in their galoshes and dream of sunny days. On the table in her club’s smoking room one of them, Lotty Wilkins, happens to see this advertisement.
“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.”
She sighs and as she’s retrieving her macintosh and umbrella to fight her way onto a crowded omnibus, Lotty sees Rose Arbuthnot, whom she knows only by sight, staring at the same advertisement. After much wishy-washy back and forth about whether they deserve such a lavish expenditure, they decide that they do. They both have rainy day funds. Further, they will economize by searching for two others to share the expenses.
Lotty and Rose find Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs. Fisher. Young and single Lady Caroline possesses a head-turning face that infects otherwise intelligent men with imbecility. She longs to get away from anyone she has ever known and she’s sure Lotty and Rose know no one she knows. Old Mrs. Fisher assures them she wants to sit quietly in the sun and remember all the great men of letters she knew in her youth.
“Did you know Keats?” eagerly interrupted Mrs. Wilkins. Mrs. Fisher, after a pause, said with sub-acid reserve that she had been unacquainted with both Keats and Shakespeare.”
Four unhappy women head to San Salvatore each hoping to replenish their souls with April gardens and sunshine. Lotty, the innocent of the group, is the most optimistic. She “sees” the good in everyone well before others do. She’s married to Mellersh, a family solicitor who has wondered on occasion if it might have been a mistake to wed Lotty.
Rose, who spends her time caring for the poor, has grown distant from her husband Frederick. He supports them by writing wildly successful biographies of royal mistresses, of which there are enough to feed a long career. Rose is anguished that she is supported by past imperial sins. She prays a lot for Frederick.
Upon arrival the four are still in a London state of mind. Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline reach the castle ahead of Lotty and Rose to claim the best rooms. They direct the servants to move excess furniture to the smaller accommodations awaiting the other two. Mrs. Fisher plays hostess at the head of the dining table, infuriating Rose who tries unsuccessfully to unseat her.
The next morning Lotty is so taken by the beauty of the place that she is moved to invite Mellersh.
“The delicate and delicious fragrance of freesias came through the door and floated around Mrs. Wilkins’ enraptured nostrils. Freesias in London were quite beyond her. Occasionally she went into a shop and asked what they cost, so as just to have an excuse for lifting up a bunch and smelling them well knowing that it was something awful like a shilling for about three flowers. Here they were everywhere—bursting out of every corner and carpeting the rose beds. Imagine it—having freesias to pick in armsful if you wanted to, and with glorious sunshine flooding the room, and in your summer frock, and its being only the first of April!”
What? Lotty is with Lady Caroline Dester? Mellersh thinks his wife has finally used her brain to further his career. He sets off immediately for San Salvatore.
When Mellersh arrives he must refresh himself in the recently installed bath which is both the pride and terror of the servants. The wood fire must be coaxed. The tap, if turned on too fast runs cold, if turned on too little, the heater blows up and floods. The servants do not speak English but they wish to assist Mellersh in his bath. Mellersh does not speak Italian but he wishes to bathe alone. Of course he turns the spigot off too soon and the water heater erupts.
Mellersh quickly leaps from his bath into the hall wearing only a towel, encountering Lady Caroline. Water dripping on the floor, his legs and shoulders exposed, he takes her hand and says how do you do. Lady Caroline suppresses her laughter. They converse as though he is fully clothed. Mrs. Fisher hears the commotion and enters the hallway. Lady Caroline makes the introductions and Mellersh continues his polite discourse.
That evening at dinner, both Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline are favorably inclined toward Mellersh. Perhaps it is because they have seen his legs. Mrs. Fisher wonders why he married Lotty.
Lotty’s obvious delight at sharing San Salvatore with Mellersh infects Rose. She finally invites Frederick. Being off on a mission of his own, he never receives her letter. He arrives at San Salvatore hot on the trail of Lady Caroline. A string of near misses and misunderstood circumstances follow, with no one the wiser. Lady Caroline is a good sport. The passion in Rose and Frederick’s marriage is suddenly rekindled presumably by gardens and sunshine.
“That last week the syringa came out at San Salvatore, and all the acacias flowered…. When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.”
Von Arnim is wise and gentle with her characters. Using an omniscient point of view, she humorously dissects the motives of each, pardoning excesses, foolishness and selfishness.
Who knows if Mellersh will continue to value Lotty, if Rose will cease to bore Frederick, if Lady Caroline will find meaning in her privileged life or if Mrs. Fisher will forsake the past for the present. All we know is a garden in Italy has replenished the souls of four women.