Though the ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth Arnim was only ranked on the bestsellers list for one year, 1923, it has had a substantial impact on people throughout the years. THE ENCHANTED APRIL relates the story of four women who undergo a transition to love and happiness after spending a month in a beautiful castle in Italy. THE ENCHANTED APRIL serves as a key in helping people and the publishing world understand what a successful book entails, in that it can be typecast into several categories common to many bestsellers. THE ENCHANTED APRIL is not simply a formula novel, however, written in a type in order to ensure success. It breaks the mold in several aspects, proving that there are always exceptions to every rule or category, especially those concerning potential success.
The success of THE ENCHANTED APRIL helps demonstrate the power publishing houses have in creating bestsellers. Large publishing firms have the money and the influence to widely promote novels and authors, and Page & Doubleday's tactic for marketing THE ENCHANTED APRIL was no different. The book was greatly advertised in various publications, including weekly advertisements in the NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW and PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY. This helped inspire people who might not have any prior experience with Arnim's writing to read the novel. THE ENCHANTED APRIL was also chosen as a Book-of-the-month Club choice, which always helps to sell a mass quantity of books quickly, as is shown by the extreme contemporary example of Oprah's Book Club (Galenet). Page & Doubleday's efforts may have been what propelled the book to a bestseller status as the novel was an oddity on the list. lightweight fiction and romances had ceased to dominate in 1921, leading to a resurgence of realism, and an American creative renaissance (Hackett,
111). THE ENCHANTED APRIL was able to remain popular and publishable throughout the years by its periodic adaptations as a stage play in 1925 and then movies in 1935 and 1992. The 1992 movie particularly promoted the novel as it was well timed amid the trend of adapting old British novels for movie format. The early 90s served as a market for such movies as was shown by the success of THE ENCHANTED APRIL, HOWARDS END, PORTRAIT OF A LADY, and ROOM WITH A VIEW.
The most obvious formula used by the author and her publisher, Page and Doubleday, is to advertise the novel in reference to the author's earlier successes. An earlier novel by the author, ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN, was a huge success, garnering credit from both readers and critics, and this popularity was used to ensure the popularity of THE ENCHANTED APRIL. When published, the novel was credited to "the author of ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN". This guaranteed that fans of ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN would notice and purchase the novel as had already been used and proved helpful for the sales of Arnim's earlier novels, including CHRISTOPHER AND COLUMBUS, which was on the bestsellers' list in 1919. Critics helped promote the connection of the two novels by comparing them, sometimes in THE ENCHANTED APRIL's favor. In his 1941 critique, Arlo Williams claimed that the novel is "rivaled by none of her others, except perhaps (ital. added) ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN" (TCLC, vol. 42, p. 124). While most current bestseller credit the true author, publishers still practice the trick of including bylines that tell the reader of the novelists' previous successes. Toni Morrison novels' are bylined with "by the author of BELOVED" and Robert James Waller's novel SLOW WALTZ IN CEDAR BEND is bylined "Best-selling author of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY". Authors find success much easier after writing one successful novel, as is shown through the quick selling of Waller's second novel. (Case in point: my roommate purchased SLOW WALTZ IN CEDAR BEND because Waller had also written THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY). Capitalizing on previous bestsellers aids in creating a new bestseller as many readers find it easier to simply buy a book from an author they have heard of and enjoyed in the past, rather than trying a new author. This is again shown by the rampant success of all the books released by authors like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Mary Higgins Clark. It is too hard to go looking for a book by an unknown author as the reader is unsure whether the book will be suitable or enjoyable. As David Gerne said: "If you walk into a superstore, that's where being a brand makes so much more of a difference. There is so much more choice it's overwhelming. The brand name author is a safe haven" (Gladwell, 49). Though this book refers more to this era of the super-bookstore, it still holds true for all bestsellers. People like to read "sure things", things they know they will enjoy and that other people have reviewed and enjoyed.
Novels often employ formulaic techniques to ensure future bestsellers. A reader can always count on Grisham's novels to be law thrillers in which the little hero overcomes the bad or amoral conglomerate, just as Clancy's fans know all his novels will be spy thrillers. Like these prolific writers, Arnim employs a certain stylistic formula so as not to disappoint her following. She frequently wrote about "charming people and peaceful setting" while using wit and irony to expose the underlying tensions in relationships, especially male-female relationships (Galenet). Her books generally center on female characters (in order to garner the female audience) dealing with the problem of loneliness, drabness, and unhappiness, and suggest that interpersonal connections and beauty can grant fulfillment. The main characters are also often middle or working class, thereby increasing the number of people who would feel a connection to the characters and enjoy reading the novel. Arnim does partially break from her mold, however, in that THE ENCHANTED APRIL is the most lighthearted of her books, "turning to happier things like wisteria and sunshine" (Cooper), where problems that would be "intractable in other novels are resolved under the Italian sunshine" (Galenet).
In THE ENCHANTED APRIL, readers find a lighthearted book filled with beauty and an ultimate happy ending; and as the American success of MY FAIR LADY and failure of PYGMALIAN show, American need and love a happy ending. Readers, particularly female readers, tend to enjoy "escapist", romantic literature above other types of literature. Most people read to get away from the ugliness and melancholy of their lives. They want to read something upbeat, flowing, and happy, so that when they finish the novel they will feel reinvigorated and ready to reface the world. One reader from Salt Lake City claimed THE ENCHANTED APRIL was better and "cheaper than therapy" (Amazon.com). Page and Doubleday really marketed the "happiness" of THE ENCHANTED APRIL, never failing to call it a book of "wisteria and sunshine". Many novels succeed due to this escapist trend, including SCARLET-the sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND, and the Judith Krantz novels. It is far easier to read about the resolution of someone else's problems than to deal with one's own problems. The idiom "misery loves company" certainly holds true for bestseller; people enjoy reading about characters facing horrific problems because then they can derive hope from the ultimate resolutions of the characters' problems. One reason this escapist tendency particularly aided sales was the timing of the publication. These novels particularly do well in the summer vacation months as they are good beach reading, and the publishers capitalized on this trend by timing the American release for January so that it would be at its "word-of-mouth" or recommendation zenith by summer. Also, the novel was released in America in 1923, not long after the end of World War I, and its "idyllic close reflects a longing for healing of the psychological scars left by the War" (Galenet). The beauty in the novel contrasts with the ugliness and marred landscape left by the war, and allows people to imagine a place untouched by any disfigurement. Like POLLYANNA, another novel from the war-era, people enjoyed THE ENCHANTED APRIL precisely because it had no political agenda, and unlike the real world, happiness always wins.
On another plane, THE ENCHANTED APRIL helps demonstrate the successful formula of transition novels, meaning the characters' transitions from a status of active unhappiness, almost misery, to a state of perpetual bliss. This novel opens with the four women, and their applicable spouses, living a dull, unhappy existence. The women come together after finding a rental castle, San Salvatore, in Italy and each finds serenity, inner beauty, and happiness from the external beauty of the surroundings. The change is staggered as each character takes different amounts of time to "metamorphosize" or to be enchanted into happiness. This technique of staggering is employed to keep the reader interested in the characters and the plot line until the total happy denouement has been reached. If all the characters were to change at once then the novel would lose any and all believability and the reader would lose interest. While most people enjoy happy endings, most do not enjoy reading entire books about characters who do nothing but be happy; it is boring. This transitional technique can be found in many novels, including GREEN DOLPHIN STREET and almost any novel by Danielle Steele or other romance novelist.
While THE ENCHANTED APRIL is a whimsical fairy tale-esque story, it is not merely a shallow piece of fluff. Unlike other lighthearted, happy-ending novels such as POLLYANNA, Judith Krantz's novels, and the James Bond novels among others, Arnim tries to convey a deeper meaning. She utilizes the characters and their contrasting personalities to go beyond the stock character, and to portray the eccentricities and hardships of male-female relationships. Arnim uses a sharp wit and a lot of irony to exemplify that THE ENCHANTED APRIL cannot be classified as a harmless romance; it has a biting social commentary too. Each character is a bit of a farce of a type found in society, and Arnim softly mocks their complaints (such as the beautiful woman who complains about getting complements) and makes the causes of their happiness seem ridiculous. The reader finishes the novel thinking that there are no insolvable problems; seeing the beauty in things can overcome any obstacle. Much of the novel's success is owed to its conveyance of the beautiful surrounding, however. Reading about foreign lands allows people to believe in stories that would otherwise be unbelievable. One can almost believe it possible for people to undergo drastic changes for the better when it occurs in a different place, especially if that place is portrayed as an Eden of sorts. The theme of finding love and happiness in a foreign land is not novel to THE ENCHANTED APRIL, but is rather an old, well-used standard for novelists. E.M. Forster repeatedly used this formula in books such as PASSAGE TO INDIA, and ROOM WITH A VIEW. A more contemporary example is the novel SCARLET; Scarlet only finds happiness after moving to Ireland and seeing the beauty there. As the years have passed, this category of the "foreign realistic romance" has been amended so that the novel need not be set in a foreign country so much as a setting "foreign" to most readers. The success of BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is partly due to the setting of the novel. Most contemporary readers of the novel lived in cities or suburbs; they are neither farmers nor familiar with farmland, so the setting seems more conducive to inspiring romance through its beauty.
THE ENCHANTED APRIL teaches the publishing and writing industry several key things about formulating a bestseller. Elizabeth Arnim and Doubleday & Page made sure to market the book in the most opportune way possible. They rode on the coattails of Arnim's earlier success by crediting the novel to "The Author of ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN", which was a big hit. They also highly advertised the novel as an escape from the bleakness of life into a world of "wisteria and sunshine". How could people not succumb to the hype in that post-war atmosphere? Unfortunately, though the novel did contain some depth beneath the shallow, pretty description, it could not last on the bestseller list. All the hard work could not overcome the new American interest in realism. The novel has survived throughout the ages, however, and continues to teach us about what it takes to be a bestseller.
Hacket, Alice. "Bestsellers in the Bookstore" from BOOKSELLING IN
AMERICA AND THE WORLD ch. 4.
Gladstone. "Science of the Sleeper" from NEW YORKER Oct. 4, 1999.
TCLC vol. 41