Tag Archives: Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

To begin with I thought Mr Skeffington was about ageing. It was recommended as an addition to the older women in fiction series. Then I thought it was about how pre-war society calculated a woman’s value by her looks and how losing her beauty meant losing her status. Then this book turned very dark, with a denouement suitable for the time of publication – 1940. It is about all these things, moving from one theme to another, sometimes in a rather schematic way.

Mr Skeffington

At the start of the novel Fanny Skeffington is rich, approaching 50 and recovering from a bout of Diphtheria. She was rich because of the generous settlement of her husband at their divorce following his infidelities. As she recovers, she finds herself thinking of him a great deal, even imagining him in her house, behind the fish-dish.

Fanny, who had married Mr Skeffington, and long ago, for reasons she considered compelling, divorced him, after not having given him a thought for years, began, to her surprise to think of him a great deal. If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes, she could see him behind almost anything. (1)

Up until this point she has been beautiful and men have loved her for it and she basked in their admiration. Fanny enjoyed her independence, which meant being rich and therefore not obliged to remarry.

She seeks the advice of her former admirers in order to set her life right again, which means no longer seeing Mr Skeffington in her house and regaining the admiration of admirers. Here is the formulaic aspect of the novel. She meets her admirers in turn and each one thinks how her beauty is ruined and they no longer wish to put themselves out for her. They recognize no qualities in her, only that she is no longer a beauty. 

Fanny comes to realise that she has lost her looks, and that her beauty was an empty commodity.

Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh. Nearly everything else left something. Husbands, for instance, left, or ought to leave children, and then one could be busy with them, and with their children. It was, she felt, one of her most just grievances against Job [her former husband] that she was childless. (57)

She finds it hard to know what she can do with her life, her beauty gone, no children or grandchildren to be interested in and her cousins wanting to provide her with a quiet party to celebrate her half century. 

The novel follows Fanny as she is gradually disabused of her value to society, of her beauty and she begins to take account of her advancing years as she meets strangers and former acquaintances and admirers. These meetings are the occasion for a great deal of gentle and comic writing. For example the sister of Miles, an especially eloquent admirer who has become an inspirational preacher in Bethnal Green, is led to believe she is a fallen woman – a prostitute, which in some senses she has been. Then there is the leerily disgusting colonial, a man used to getting his way at all times, who has come back to reclaim and marry the Fanny he remembers, only to fail to recognise her. As they disabuse her of her former powers, she comes to more fully appreciate her strengths. 

Job Skeffington is Jewish. In the early part of the novel we learn that he found it easy to attract money, and her marriage to him helped Fanny to secure her own family’s financial stability. There are also many references to the European Situation, which we learn is bad and getting worse. Finally Fanny learns from George that Mr Skeffington had been in Vienna

Vienna wasn’t exactly a healthy place for a Jew, and he was soon in serious trouble – for a moment George didn’t seem able to go on, seemed to be staring, with horror in his eyes, at something he could hardly credit, – such serious trouble that he was lucky to get away with his bare life, if bare life, said George, his eyes full of that incredulous horror, could be called lucky, and was now in London, and on the rocks. (221) 

By the time her friend and cousin George brings Mr Skeffington to her in person she finds herself able to understand how her life might have more meaning in the future than she had feared. She wants a future being of use to him.

The Older Women in Fiction series features women over 60, so Fanny does not qualify being about to turn 50. But this novel is about ageing and how women brought up to trade on their looks have little currency if that is all they have. Fanny turns out to be made of more.

Elizabeth von Arnim

This was Elizabeth von Arnim’s final novel. She died in 1941 at the age of 74, having escaped the European war for America. She seems to celebrate independent woman, and then to criticise those who value beauty in a woman above all else. But the novel ends on a note warning against valuing appearances. It is somewhat uneven in its tone, with plenty of gentle humour and also a very sombre tone to end as Mr Skeffington returns.

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1940 and reissued by Virago in 1993. 233pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (on Bookword in August 2017)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Mr Skeffington and remembered the 1944 film starring Bette Davies and Claude Rains.

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After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

My choice for the 1930s club is After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys. Published in 1930, it was her second novel, and is set in sad rooms in Paris and Bloomsbury in London. Julia is a young woman who has no independent means of support. 

The 1930s Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. You read a book from the year and post your thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to pick a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but reread books and read published books, especially from the 20th century. 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

Janet finds herself in a sad room in a down at heel hotel in Paris after she has split up from Mr Mackenzie. It is clear that she has been financially dependent upon the men she slept with, but Mr Mackenzie’s solicitor has cut off her weekly allowance.

What is she to do? Increasingly desperate she finds Mr Mackenzie in a restaurant and challenges him. Later she is pursued by Mr Horsfield who takes pity on her but cannot manage her. She returns to London, where her sister Norah is behaving properly but is no more successful than her. Their mother dies and Janet gets nothing. She returns to Paris and continues to sink. In the last scene she once again receives money from Mr Mackenzie.

It’s a novel about managing life, or rather about the mistaken idea that life can be controlled. Propped up by convention the men believe they do control it, but it is clear that Julia challenges this notion.

Is this autobiography?

The young Jean Rhys

‘How this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery,’ said her editor, Diana Athill.

And indeed it might appear that this novel is autobiographical. Other sources suggest that while Jean Rhys drew from her experiences, there is a crucial difference: 

‘A novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any.’ 

This quotation from the author can be found in Diana Athill’s introduction to Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979).

Much of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie concerns people trying to control their lives. Janet is poor at it, and moves from one gentleman to another, borrowing money and asking favours. She appears to be managing very badly. The men in her life, and her sister, are not doing much better. The men draw on conventions to try to appear in control. But Mr Mackenzie is at a loss when Julia appears in the restaurant in which he is dining. She complains that his lawyer has said there will be no more cheques. 

Mr Mackenzie thought, ‘Never again – never, never again – will I get mixed up with this sort of woman.’

His collar felt too tight for him. He thrust his chin out in an instinctive effort to relieve the constriction. The movement was exactly like that of a horse shying. (25) 

Mr Mackenzie vacillates between horror of what she might do and attempts to humiliate her. After a moment, this happens.

A cunning expression came into Julia’s face. She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink.

‘I despise you,’ she said.

‘Quite,’ said Mr Mackenzie. He sat very straight, staring at her.

Her eyes did not drop, but a mournful and beaten expression came into them.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘all right. Have it your own way.’

Then, to Mr Mackenzie’s unutterable relief, she gathered up her gloves and walked out of the restaurant. (26)

Jean Rhys, while she suffered from men’s behaviour towards her, did not resent them. Indeed she claimed in a radio interview that writing about such incidents, while autobiographical, was also therapeutic. It purged her unhappiness. Once something had been written out, she said, it was done with. (Quoted by Diana Athill in Smile Please).

Jean Rhys was innovative in this novel, for example she uses multiple points of view to show her protagonist’s situation. We are taken into the heads of the people she meets, or reports on, and by this means we are shown how Janet is a challenge to people. She has not left Mr Mackenzie at the start of the novel, although she does leave him at the end. He is still as self-satisfied as at the start, and while he may not want to be ensnared by another woman like Julia, we know that he will go on exploiting women.

Julia, in short, is like that person on the street whose eye you do not want to catch. She makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet you pity her for not managing her life. But in truth all lives are, to some degree, unmanageable. We are all just a small step away from chaos or disaster or poverty. 

No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was her second] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was. [Diana Athill in Stet.] 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys, was first published in 1930. I used the  Penguin Modern Classic edition (2000) with an introduction by Lorna Sage. 138pp

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys was reviewed on Bookword in July 2013.

The Romantic Life of the writer Jean Rhys was published in September 2016, in which I suggested that it is amazing that Jean Rhys wrote so well in the light of her considerable difficulties.

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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