page contents

ESSAY / Effy Stonem: A Retelling? / Rosie MacLeod

Image copyright Company Pictures

Image copyright Company Pictures

It’s been some years since the hit Channel 4 series Skinsintroduced us to Effy Stonem. The detached, fearless rule breaker behind that equally wistful and insolent smile was every sixth form girl’s rebellious ambition and every mother’s nightmare. Far from being able to shock, the Bristolian bombshell resonates a character and namesake from nineteenth-century German literature. Niche I know, but stay with me here.  

Effi Briest is the protagonist of Theodor Fontane’s novel of the same name. As soon as she reaches marriageable age, her parents find her a husband to keep their own social status afloat and allow Mother Briest to make peace with her past. He appears in the form of Baron Geert von Innstetten, twenty-one years Effi’s senior and Mother Briest’s former suitor. Having since improved his social standing, he is allowed to enter the Briest family and a union that atones his past, unrequited love and keeps the Briests well connected. Effi Briest is no more than a pawn serving the interests of her parents. Perhaps inevitably, she becomes an adulteress.

The two Effies share far more than a name and tendency to attract trouble. In fact, if Stonem isn’t modelled on Briest (hereon ‘Effy and ‘Effi’ respectively when surname omitted), it’s a huge coincidence. The alarming similarities between the two Effies make Skins–or at least its Effy episodes- appear something akin to Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock: a plot updated to befit a contemporary audience and punctuated with objects from the text, also suitably modernised.

The circumstantial and more superficial similarities between the two Effies are numerous. When we first meet them, the two are close in age and neither has a voice. Sixteen-year-old Stonem is a mute and Briest, only a year older, has no say in her imminent marriage to Innstetten, which quickly turns sour. Both Effies live at an intersection between two countries defined by greenery and water. Stonem’s hometown is Bristol, a city in close proximity to the Prince of Wales and Severn Bridges connecting England and Wales. Her precursor’s marital home is in Kessin, a fictional port situated in the Pomeranian region that spans Germany and Poland. They both wear circular accessories: a sailor’s collar and a belt (Briest) and ostentatious necklaces, bracelets and headbands (Stonem). The name ‘Stonem’ even carries undertones of the German near-equivalent ‘Stein’.   

The Effies are naturally free-spirited, as suggested by the sibilance and softness of their common name. Unsurprisingly, they are both enchanted by tales of outsiders: Briest by an ‘Immigrant Story’ and –as if deliberately updated- Stonem by Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film, E.T.  True to their carefree character and desire for adventure, the Effies are drawn to the waters within their hometown and frequently wear blue. Briest’s allegedly haunted home is described as a horseshoe shape made circular by a pond, a symbol for the fluidity that completes her persona. Stonem similarly feels more satisfied when she finally discovers a pond in a park she has walked through countless times.  

Both Effies have their innate vivacity greatly mitigated when their home becomes the seat of a loveless, decaying marriage in and amongst which they must live: the marriage Briest is party to and the equally unhappy ‘union’ of Stonem’s parents. Effi longs to travel. Yet her husband unapologetically leaves her confined to their marital home for long periods at a time. Having watched her parents’ marriage disintegrate for years, Effy no longer speaks, although this goes largely unnoticed and unchallenged. We see flashes of her natural fizziness in her mother’s risqué jokes, which her husband looks upon with grave disapproval. Both marriages are devoid of warmth and fun. The unfulfilling unions they are subjected to provoke an extreme response from both Effies. Effi is so bored and lonely she hopes the house is haunted and Effy aspires never to love, likely the only emotion she permits herself. Stonem artificially suppresses all of her unexhausted feeling, lest she find a companion and follow in the footsteps of her mother and namesake. Briest also betrays her true emotions and demeanour because of an empty marriage. She holds back homesick tears in case she appears weak and disappoints her husband. Just as a broken home causes Stonem to say and feel nothing, Briest’s stoic nonresponse is one of the few ways she reacts to her arranged marriage. Perhaps she identifies with a ghost because she feels invisible. 

So clinical and polite is their union, Innstetten gives Effi an electric bell to call for his ‘attention’ on the rare occasion he is home. Effy’s mobile 'phone likewise ‘connects’ her to ‘the people [she] should love, but hates’, or has at least trained herself to emotionally repel. Keen to avoid an unfulfilling relationship, Stonem resists human interaction. She bonds with the few people she does over drugs, just as the pharmacist is one of two people Briest befriends in her marital hometown.   

Like Briest, who voices no opposition to her arranged nuptials, Stonem’s selective mutism (which ends soon after we meet her) is brought on by a disintegrating marriage and patriarchal home where the man is its judge and priest. Yet the Effies’ failure to respond to their alarmingly similar circumstances does not worry their parents. If anything, their silence is advantageous to the primary concern of both the Briests and the Stonems: painting a picture of the perfect bourgeois family. It is a façade. The Effies’ obedience is one of the threads holding it, and a fraying marriage, together. The daughters simply fade into its background. The very name of Effi’s husband, ‘Innstetten’, derives from the German word for ‘instead [of]’, a reference to Effi replacing her mother, convenience replacing love and forced wifedom replacing neo-childhood. Similarly, Effy grows uncharacteristically close to a Naomi. The name chimes with ‘know me’, something even Effy’s mother knows she cannot claim to do. Because both are grossly ignored within the family unit, the startling intelligence of both Effies goes unnoticed by those it should make proudest. 

The boredom and monotony of an unfulfilling marriage drive both Mrs. Stonem and Effi Briest to taking an illegitimate lover. Mrs. Stonem pursues an affair with her husband’s boss. At this time, Effy cannot get her mother’s attention and is starved of comfort when her own relationship breaks down. When Effi is visited by Major Crampas, whose rank Innstetten deems inferior to his own, a compulsive and carnal affair unfolds. Crampas documents his love for Effi in letters. Their discovery sometime later sparks a chain reaction that pushes Effi into very ill health. Only then do her parents fear for her wellbeing, hitherto overlooked in favour of Mother Briest’s alliance with Innstetten, just as Mrs. Stonem’s affair distracts her from heartbroken Effy. Put another way, each Effy suffers further with maternal deprivation when her relationship ends because her mother is absorbed in a liaison of her own.

Each Effy seeks to claim back some of the vitality that a loveless union and parental actions have eroded. Having forgotten how to feel, they each crave fear to reignite their ability to respond emotionally. We see Stonem all but throw herself in front of a lorry in a desperate attempt to be frightened, rescued from certain injury by a lover in the nick of time. Prior to her extramarital affair, Briest hallucinates a Chinese man. The thrill of the scare is a blessèd release from the drudgery of her legal union. Both Effies channel what little emotion remains into clandestine escapes. Their attempts to self-liberate go directly against societal expectations and deceive their closest relatives within the family home. Stonem sneaks out to illegal all-night raves on school nights. Her brother puts in measures to cover for her absence, thereby fooling the parents directly under their nose. Her marital home is also the seat of Effi’s affair with Crampas, something Innstetten does not suspect until the letters unexpectedly resurface. 

During his affair with Effi, Crampas remarks that Innstetten would deem a ghost the hallmark of an antiquated, established house and delight in his wife’s illusion. Yet Effi’s subsequent attempted sightings are motivated not by her husband’s envisaged desire but her own controlled fear. Like Briest’s ghost hunting, Stonem’s drug-fuelled clubbing is an escape that causes her to see what is absent while defying family expectations. Both Effi and Effy are deceived into seeing what is not there while the man of her house is conversely deceived by failure to see what is: a woman disobeying him.  

For each Effy, an inability to withstand boredom and the lure of freedom is her downfall. The means by which they each escape monotony and numbness -an extramarital affair and drug taking- lead them into very poor mental health. Innstetten’s discovery of the love letters causes him to divorce Effi. Without a soul in the world to turn to, Effi’s mental health enters a downward spiral complicated enough to perplex even the most understanding Millennial. Similarly, the accumulation of drugs from the raves begins to affect Stonem when sober. We see her taken around a park in a rickshaw by her boyfriend Freddie, a visual that emulates time and class of her predecessor. Stonem soon starts to complain of ‘creatures’ following her whom she has become too weak to fight. Even in her poor mental state devoid of much sense, we can deduce that she feels weakened by her failure to resist love. The mental breakdown of each Effy results not only from clandestine escapes but also a love affair that went beyond her control in some way, either its very existence (Stonem) or later discovery (Briest). 

Effi’s mental deterioration extends to severe bone problems requiring treatment at an infirmary. Cruelly, she is now only drawn to water for much needed pain relief. A very bad mental state similarly causes Stonem to slash her wrists, admitting her to hospital immediately and later to rehabilitative psychiatric therapy. Both Effies are treated at institutions far from home. Their clandestine escapes, or rather the accumulated legacy of these, are damaging and destructive in the extreme.    

The mental breakdown of each Effy is brought to a head by the discovery of secret papers. Shortly before Stonem slashes her wrists, Freddie catches her delirious in her absent mother’s bedroom, where she has pinned her- until then secret- stash of ‘death pictures’ to the wall. The collection is comprised of newspaper images of killings, tyranny and innocent life lost. She plays with a pile of unpinned cuttings like a child in autumnal leaves and speaks ominously of her ‘end’. The uncomfortable episode reads like a modern take on Innstetten unearthing Crampas’ love letters to Briest: the papers condensate from the consequences of clandestine escapes, reveal a hidden side of the woman and pave the way to urgent medical attention. 

Whilst receiving treatment, Stonem foregoes the bouffant of her rave ‘days’ and instead ties her hair in a Virginia Woolf-style bun, thus evoking the antiquated atmosphere of the Fontane novel. She dreams and asks her younger self for advice. ‘Cut open the swan’ is what comes back. Effy unfolds the origami bird by her bedside -complete with a glass of water- to reveal a declaration of love. The hallmarks of this episode resonate the time Briest writes home to reveal her pregnancy while storks nest atop the roof. The personal situation of each Effy is committed to writing ‘nestled’ beneath a bird. 

The Effies are two-sided, as the phonetically chiastic structure of their name suggests. In so being, they embody a number of contradictions. This is reflected in the name ‘Effy Stonem’, which juxtaposes a light, fluid sound with one that is dark and dead. The Effies each have a side they show and one they conceal. Both are at once free and controlled, wild and repressed, girlish and wise beyond their years. They both uphold and betray the wishes of their family and wider society. Their clandestine escapes at once relieve and damage them. The unknown, the dangerous and even death make them feel alive and safely at home. The insoluble tension between numbness and residual vivacity is where their actions crystalize. 

The Fontane novel is heavy in symbols that the later television series appears to appropriate for the modern day. Stonem’s premature coming of age is ‘reflected’ in a mirror ball at one of her habitual raves. This reads as an apparent modernisation of the sundial encircled by blossoms in the grounds of Briest’s marital home, a symbol for Effi reaching maturity early. The downfall of each Effy is signalled by an image of thick-skinned, and therefore slippery, Plantae. In each case, the Plantae is appropriate the downfall it heralds, or an aspect integral to it. A basket of gooseberries, a symbol for pregnancy, lurks ominously in the room where Effi speaks with her mother and –for the last time- three friends, an omen for the daughter Effi will lose and never know. Stonem relocates to London and works as a trader at the building nicknamed ‘The Gherkin’. The phallic structure, suggestive of penetration, forecasts the pillow talk that will land Effy in jail. It stands forebodingly in the background while a friend gives her an illegal tipoff. This leads to Effy’s employer using her for sex to obtain illegal knowledge before he betrays and secures her arrest. All turns as sour as the word ‘gherkin’ seemingly tastes. We assume jail time follows. The penetration of Effy to raise company profits echoes the commodification of Effi’s body to ensure the worth and credit of her parents. Both Prussian patriarchy and a London boy’s club profit from the convenience of the female body.  

Both the novel and television series heavily emphasise the two-sidedness of the Effies through a variety of symbols. Briest and Stonem are each associated with double-sided entities such as books, suitcases and earrings, the sad irony being that much-needed therapy is the only place their knowledge, free spirit and femininity take them. Stonem consumes pills split by a central groove. Taking them draws her again to water. She characteristically underlines both eyes in heavy eyeliner and wears her hair in pigtails. Her fishnet tights symbolise the number of holes in her family life, which harks back to Briest’s embroidery, a symbol for her marriage tying up her mother’s unfinished business or so-called ‘loose ends’. Both Effies are acquainted with twins, damaged by parents and Stonem is one of two children. Briest’s marital home is described as two dwellings in one. Curtains feature heavily in Effi’s hallucination of the Chinese man, a symbol for her vivacity that moves with nature and the accompanying bourgeois façade that causes her to suppress this. Stonem is split the same way: the phlegmatic and sanguine coexist in each of them. 

The suppressed sanguinity within each Effy is symbolised by fire in both novel and television series. Before a secret escapade that results in her overdose, we see Stonem mesmerised as she burns bright objects with a cigarette lighter, a symbol for the internalised anger she is about to vent by self-destructive means. She also scorches a metal bar on the bus, impatient to free herself. Even the feature-length sequel that sees her relocated to London is named after this element (‘Skins Fire’). While fire symbolises the remaining vivacity that Effy Stonem longs to unleash, it conversely symbolises the deadening of her predecessor. The exhausted embers in the fireplace at Effi’s new marital home represent a legal union devoid of its spark from the outset. Their association with, and attraction to, both fire and water is another two-sided aspect of the Effies. Perhaps they are even one person split between two historic time zones.

The name ‘Effy’ connotes the chemical symbol for iron (‘Fe’). The name and symbol are phonetically identical in English and very close in German (‘Fe’ = ‘eff-ay’). The element is strong yet rusts easily. Like the Effies, it is independent and resilient yet also vulnerable. It is used for hinges that connect different materials and surfaces, just as the body of each Effy is a nexus for opposing forces. The Effies can therefore be read as symbolic of iron, just as the symbol for iron can be interpreted as resonating their name, a mutual dynamic that complements the women’s two-sided character.      

It’s as if the writers of Skins resuscitated Effi to give her the youth she never had, but her effervescent nature, appetite for adventure and refusal to accept boredom will always get the better of her. Whether she repeats her downfall because of an innate desire to escape or the still-prevalent bourgeois values that awaken this, we cannot know. Because, in spite of everything I have taught and you have learned, we ‘don’t know [her] at all. We never will.’ 

Rosie MacLeod has a strong background in European Studies. A speaker of German and French, she has written extensively on language politics and the EU and contributes regularly to the Journal of Austrian Studies. When not writing, she can be found translating and making radio programmes.