Mr. Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim – a review
From the original review in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April, 1940: Elizabeth’s Mr. Skeffington portrays a story of a woman’s pitiful effort to regain her allure. Moving, even absorbing, could be the story of a woman who can not accept the fact that middle age and protracted illness have robbed her forever of the beauty which was once hers. Still more absorbing should such a story be when it portrays this woman’s pathetic endeavors to conceal her loss of beauty — through the wearing of clothes that might have suited her well when she was 30 and not 50.
And there’s something which invokes pity in the spectacle of this woman, once the cynosure of all men, turning desperately to each of her former admirers for the love which none can now give her.
Yet this novel, the 19th to the credit of Elizabeth [Elizabeth von Arnim; for most of her writing career she used the first name — not actually hers, either], the pseudonym of a prolific woman author, does not make most effective use of its material.
Mr. Skeffington, set in London, has its moments, but when the book has been finished the feeling is inescapable that the novel is merely the clever creation of a facile pen, and nothing more.
Its moving moments come too infrequently because the “heroine,” Fanny Skeffington, is scarcely able to stimulate sympathy; pity alone can she invoke, because she is incapable of a serious, broad-visioned, really intelligent thought. Interested is she in herself alone, and her creator portrays Fanny’s vain and petty nature so convincingly that the reader simply can’t care too much whether Fanny ever does manage to readjust herself to a life now devoid forever of ego-gratifying glamour and adoration.
Of course Elizabeth achieved many effective passages. Decided interesting is Fanny’s futile endeavor to stir the embers of decades-dead romances, since these reveal Fanny to be a pitiful, empty-headed creature, happy only when she was able to conquer men, and to scintillate.
There’s a good deal of facile and discerning writing in the passages which tell of Fanny’s visit to the famous London physician, Sir Silton Byles, who tells Fanny there’s nothing really wrong with her, that she has simply grown old chronologically, and hasn’t achieved comparable development mentally.
Wisely but brutally Dr. Byles advises Fanny that, since she isn’t really bright and no longer has her beauty with which to cope with life’s problems, she would do well to take back her Jewish husband, Job Skeffington, from whom she had been divorced years ago and whose affection she had always found boring and even unpleasant; much more boring and much less desirable than the amours of the long list of men who had succeeded him.
Proud Fanny, however, refuses this sound advice. Instead she makes unsuccessful attempts to revive old romances. These passages have a real bite to them; they possess the cutting quality of cleverly conceived caricature. And there’s a lot of smart writing to discern in Elizabeth’s satirizing of the upper-class social set in which Fanny, daughter of a duke, moves all her life.
Elizabeth manipulates her literary blade skillfully in dealing with the snobbishness of this aristocratic set, which was shocked when Fanny married Job. A glib stylist, Elizabeth, but an incompletely satisfying book is Mr. Skeffington.
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- Watch the Americanized (and much altered) film version of Mr. Skeffington starring Bette Davis as Fanny Skeffington and Claude Rains as Job Skeffington.
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