Over on the Librarything Virago group, the author of the month for April is Elizabeth von Arnim, appropriately enough. Despite the temptation, I decided not to re-read The Enchanted April as I had three or four unread von Arnims on my shelf, two of them from my classics club list.
Mr Skeffington was Elizabeth von Arnim’s last published novel, written when in her 70s it certainly shows a certain preoccupation with ageing – (as did her 1925 novel Love). Elizabeth von Arnim’s adorable irony is present from the first page, her voice is instantly recognisable. I quickly settled into this occasionally poignant story of Fanny Skeffington’s self-evaluation, as she approaches her fiftieth birthday. (Spoiler, a certain book blogger not a million miles away will herself be approaching that birthday in thirteen months’ time – so, despite still having this year’s birthday to get out of the way first, I entirely sympathised). Although, I must say I do take great exception to the idea of fifty being as ancient as it is regarded by everyone in this novel.
Lady Frances Skeffington managed to rid herself of a husband with a roving eye, finding it hard to forgive dalliances with seven successive typists. Fanny seems to rather congratulate herself for this, there is little in the way of regret. Attempting to help her dear, adored brother; Trippington, Fanny married a wealthy Jewish businessman, and converted her religion in order to do so – she has never bothered to change it back. There are one or two slightly iffy remarks about Job Skeffington’s Jewishness – but nothing like as bad as I have read elsewhere – and it seem to highlight the attitudes of the times rather than the author’s – at least that’s how I saw it. The wealthy Mr Skeffington, made a very generous settlement upon Fanny when they divorced twenty-two years earlier, and Fanny has lived a very nice life ever since. A large London house, fully staffed, a country cottage, a fabulous social life, and many adoring lovers. Fanny was always a beauty, she knew she was beautiful, and enjoyed it.
Now she is rapidly approaching her fiftieth birthday, she has recently recovered from a long illness, which has ravaged her face, she has been obliged to visit a top beautician and wear some artificial curls pinned into her hair. Still, Fanny doesn’t consider she is too much changed, and believes she can still charm her much younger male admirers (although she is forced to admit they haven’t been around much lately).
One day in her Charles Street house, she becomes aware of Mr Skeffington’s presence, just as if he never left. Of course, she knows he isn’t really there – she hasn’t seen him at all for over twenty years – so it’s most alarming to see him looming at her as she eats her morning grapefruit.
“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.
What particularly disturbed her was that there was no fish. Only during Mr Skeffington’s not very long reign as a husband had there been any at breakfast, he having been a man tenacious of tradition, and liking to see what he had seen in his youth still continuing on his table. With his disappearance, the fish dish, of solid silver kept hot by electricity, disappeared too – not that he took it with him, for he was far too miserable to think of dishes, but because Fanny’s breakfast, from the date of his departure to the time she had got to now, was half a grapefruit.”
Worried that she may be going a bit funny – what with that birthday fast approaching, she decides to consult the renowned nerve man, Sir Stilton Byles. Here poor Fanny gets a rather dreadful shock, far from telling her she looks very young for fifty (as she had expected) he says he rather thought she was sixty – and that her love days are over, and she really should have kept Mr Skeffington – poor chap!
Fanny is furious, in a rage she stalks off to Oxford to track down her most recent (very, very young) lover, who she finds in the fond embrace of another girl. On the train to Oxford she runs into her cousin George, of whom she is hugely fond – but even he manages to irritate her by telling her she looks tired, and looking at her in a way she doesn’t like. Also in Oxford, she meets a rather marvellous old lady, who rather grumpily tells Fanny exactly what she thinks – and takes her for being an actress from a touring group because of her painted face.
“What could be sillier in other people’s eyes than a woman kicking up a fuss because she too, in her turn, had grown old, and her beauty was gone? Yet what could be more tragic for the woman, who, having been used all her life to being beautiful, found that without her looks she had nothing to fall back upon? ‘That’s what is wrong,’ she thought. ‘There ought to be something to fall back upon. Somebody ought to have told me about this in time.'”
Slowly Fanny is forced to acknowledge that her looks are not what they were – for a woman known to everyone for her charm and beauty it is a hard lesson. Over the next few weeks as her birthday approaches Fanny meets up with several of the men whose hearts she once broke as she tripped her way charmingly through life. There is Lord Conderley, now married to a nice sensible wife with young children, a rabble-rousing, fasting clergyman Miles in Bethnal Green, Sir Peregrine Lanks hard bitten and so successful, he once turned down the Home Secretaryship, and Sir Edward Montmorency, home after twenty years’ governance in the Pacific. Each of these men help Fanny face who she is now, and never far from her thoughts is Mr Skeffington.
They years have not treated these men any kinder than they have Fanny, they are all drastically changed too – whether it be married and aged, exiled, or embittered. The most poignant change is in that of Miles Hyslup, who Fanny meets again preaching on the streets of Bethnal Green. Miles lives with his worn-down sister Muriel, his heartbreak over Fanny having led him to live a life of austere, religious sacrifice.
I refuse to say anything much about the ending – just to say it was a tiny bit of a tear-jerker.
This is a joyous little read – Fanny is definitely a woman of her time and her class – let’s be clear she doesn’t present as much of a feminist. Von Arnim shows us a society who put a too great importance upon such things as beauty and youth, for women of that class beauty and charm were all that mattered. Each of the men in Fanny’s life had wanted her to be something to them she didn’t want to be – in a sense she was always just herself.
Apparently, this was made into a film starring Bette Davis – I haven’t seen it – so don’t know how true to the book it is – but I would be interested in seeing it.