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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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