At my local library there is a fantastic thing that happens periodically. The highlight of a book lover’s day. That is the appearance of a box full of free books. This happens when, for whatever reason, the library either doesn’t have need of a certain book, they have too many copies of a book, or the book is simply in condition to poor to occupy their limited shelf space. Recently, among the free books, I saw a curious looking old hardback book. It was a midnight blue color, a little spotted with age and wear. It caught my attention and I turned it over in my hands. I found myself further intrigued by the title written in gold on its weathered spine. Life & Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton. I opened it up and scanned the first page. (This is the bad thing about these older books, it didn’t have a description at all.) It seemed to be perhaps about a haunted house or something, and I just like everything about old books: the look of weather and wear, the feel of the worn covers and rough pages, and the smell, the pretty lettering, and so it went home with me.
I later looked the book up online at home and found that I was very lucky to find it, indeed. It seems the book is out of print and not the easiest to get your hands on. I read the descriptions I could find and found out that the plot of the book was not at all what expected, but something much more unique and interesting.
Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall is a novel published in 1946. The book begins with a woman living in a fairly infamous house in England around the time of the first world war, plagued by mysterious happenings and an overwhelming sense of malignancy and foreboding. The current lady of the house begins to look into its nooks and crannies as part of a renovation and discovers a chest full of possessions belonging to the previous lady of the house, the source of the lingering unease. In the second part of the book, we are taken through the life of the wicked Lady Skelton, beginning to end. The story at this point centers around her life and explores completely her motivations, chronicling her descent into wickedness.
I honestly expected this book to be mild and tame, even having read descriptions, which I won’t go as deeply into here to avoid spoiling everything. I knew it wouldn’t be about a prim and proper lady. Still, trust me when I say that the main character in this novel lives up to her reputation. She is in fact wicked, even by my modern standards. Unbelievably self absorbed and flippant, she cares not at all for anyone’s feelings, needs, desires, or human life. She is self absorbed to an unsettling extreme, but it is never so obvious to anyone around her in her life. I am not a mental health professional, but I would say she would most likely qualify as a sociopath. You love to hate her, but sometimes you might even find yourself more disturbingly, beginning to sympathize with her reasoning.
I am quite certain there’s definitely something to be said about human nature in this book, and any women and gender studies class would have a field day trying to pick it apart. There is so much of the extreme of traditional masculinity in her character as well as an almost equal degree of archaic feminine frailty, or at least the illusion thereof. This, mainly becoming evident in her romantic relationships, or entanglements, as the terms may suit, respectively. Yes, there is romance in this book, if you choose to call it that. (Even a steamy love scene.) However each of these is just as twisted and warped as everything else in her life and in its own way, spurs her on to destruction, both of self and others. It’s dramatic, it’s a little violent, a little disturbing, a little scandalous, and very surprising. Ah, 1946, you’re much naughtier than I expected. I’m very curious to know whether the 1940’s film adaptation of the novel was watered down.
If you’re someone who takes a secret, or not so secret, pleasure in rooting for the villain now and then, this is the book for you. I am not that person, but still, I found myself a little too entertained by her unapologetic havoc. I was that person who says “Ooh… He’s gonna get it!” Then treats myself to another piece of candy while I revel in the excitement. Don’t act like you’ve never done it. I know how many people like Game of Thrones!
I recommend this book if you can lay hands on it. Precious few will be touching my copy.
Some quotes from the book:
“With patience and perseverance you can drive a snail to Jerusalem.”
A placid colourless life, one would say, and a placid colourless personality.
It fascinated her now, as it had fascinated her since childhood, to see how the water for ever changing was yet for ever constant, forming itself even as it flowed away into the same pattern of ripples, swirls and eddies, ceaseless movement thus creating perfect immutability.
“Tell one, tell all.”
“Read but take heed that you such actions shun, For honesty is best when all is done.”–The English Rogue, 1688
“Take heed of inning at the fairest signs, The swan hath black flesh under white feathers.”
For what end and to what purpose had her body flowered to its present perfection, her face achieved its present curious loveliness?
Barbara herself had felt very much better since she had committed this violence, mild as it was, against her sister-in-law. She felt that she would be able to bear Henrietta’s patronage in future with Christian patience and exemplary equanimity!
“For a beautiful woman, there are better ways of deluding the tedium of life than trotting the highways.”