A couple of times I have had the pleasure of staying with bloggers, who have kindly put me up (and put up with me) when I’ve needed a bed to crash in while in London. One of those times I stayed chez Rachel/Book Snob, which was lovely – and even lovelier was that she sent me away with Mr. Skeffington (1940) by Elizabeth von Arnim as a present. (I did give her a book to say thank you for having me, I should perhaps add, if I ever want bloggers to let me stay with them again.)
Elizabeth von Arnim is one of the most varied writers I’ve read, and there is little to link (say) the fairytale niceness of The Enchanted April with the deliciously biting satire of The Caravaners. And then there is my current favourite, Christopher and Columbus, which has elements of both. Where would Mr. Skeffington fit into the von Arnim spectrum? Well, it turns out I’ve now read one of her more sombre, reflective novels… and, indeed, her last.
The novel is called Mr. Skeffington, but the central character is his ex-wife Lady Skeffington (Fanny to her friends) who divorced him over his affairs when she was still in her twenties, and is now approaching the grand old age of fifty. In order to get on board with the novel, we have to accept the premise that fifty is terrifyingly old (although, since von Arnim was in her mid-seventies when she wrote the novel, she ought to have known better.) But for Fanny it is a dreaded landmark, principally because – having been a renowned beauty all her life – a recent illness has taken her beauty from her, and quite a lot of her hair, and a tactless doctor tells her that she may soon be an eyesore.
An eyesore? Was he suggesting that she was an eyesore? She, Fanny Skeffington, for years almost the most beautiful person everywhere, and for about five glorious years quite the most beautiful person anywhere? She? When the faces of the very strangers she passed in the street lit up when they saw her coming? She, Noble, lovely little Fanny, as poor Jim Conderley used to say, gazing at her fondly – quoting, she supposed; and nobody quoted things like that to eyesores.
I’ve got to say, reading Mr. Skeffington made me quite grateful that I have never been handsome – it must be very difficult to lose something like that, but especially so for Fanny, who doesn’t have many other character traits to offer – or, at least, hasn’t had to rely on them.
But that isn’t all. The reason she consults the doctor in the first place is because she keeps having hallucinations of Job Skeffington, her estranged husband. She can’t think why, since she has barely thought of him for years and years… but he won’t stop appearing before her eyes.
And then the novel takes us back through the men who have courted her since her divorce. The novel is oh-so-chaste, so none of them have done more than fling themselves adoringly at her feet, and she has done little than laugh politely and ignore them – but she determines to go and find them, to make herself feel young and beautiful again, and reassure herself that she isn’t an eyesore.
So, in succession we see Fanny visit… New College, Oxford, to see an undergraduate who was recently (and somewhat inappropriately) besotted with her – only to see him busy with a much younger woman. Then off to an older man who once loved her deeply, and still cherishes the letter she writes to him, but is shocked by her appearance after a decade or two (while she, in turn, is shocked by his) – and he, after all, is married to a young woman by now. And then off to a vicar, living with his sister, who loved her when he was but a promising young curate, and now lives abstemiously on starvation rations. And possibly more.
It’s an interesting conceit for a novel, but it does end up making everything feel rather disjointed, somehow. Somehow the different meetings don’t hold together, so Mr. Skeffington is more like a series of similar short stories than a single narrative – and, although there are some interesting or delightful characters (I particularly enjoyed the vicar’s sister, who remained certain that Fanny was a prostitute, but steadfastly determined to look after her charitably, when Fanny is mega-rich) they aren’t given the opportunity to grow or impact the novel much.
And the end… well, I shan’t give it away, but it is so emphatically a tribute to a famous Victorian novel that, if it isn’t deliberate, it’s plagiarism.
This is Elizabeth von Arnim, so of course the novel is good – she is always an excellent writer – but I think it might be a novel I’d be better off reading in about fifty years’ time. Perhaps then it would feel like a paean to youth and a empathetic mixture of nostalgia and regret… but, though I enjoyed it, and appreciated von Arnim’s writing, I missed the raucous humour of her satires. I’ve now encountered another facet of von Arnim’s myriad writing talents… and I’m not sure I’m quite ready for it.