Some of the books I’ve read this year do seem to be rather odd – and David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox is the most peculiar of all. Basically, it tells the story of Mr Tebrick and his wife Silvia, who is transformed into a fox while they are out walking.
Hearing the hunt, Mr Tebrick quickened his pace so as to reach the edge of the copse, where they might get a good view of the hounds if they came that way. His wife hung back, and he, holding her hand, began almost to drag her. Before they gained the edge of the copse she suddenly snatched her hand away from his very violently and cried out, so that he instantly turned his head.
Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of a very bright red. It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes. You may well think if he were aghast: and so maybe was his lady at finding herself in that shape, so they did nothing for nearly half-an-hour but stare at each other, he bewildered, she asking him with her eyes as if indeed she spoke to him: “What am I now become? Have pity on me, husband, have pity on me for I am your wife.
Mr Tebrick is distraught, but he still loves his wife, despite the fact that she is now a vixen, so he takes her home, dismisses the servants, and shoots the dogs, so they cannot attack her. At this stage Silvia still has human feelings and sensibilities, and Mr Tebrick continues to treat her like a woman. She does not wish to be naked, so he dresses her in a little jacket; he sits her on cushions on an armchair and feeds her with bread and butter, toast and jam, and eggs and ham. Each morning he sponges and brushes her, using scent ‘very freely’ to mask her rank smell. She even plays cards and shows him how to do the housework.
But gradually the fox’s animal nature takes over, and when Old Nanny returns Mr Tebrick moves into her isolated cottage, where there is an enclosed garden and his vixen can run about in safety. However, the animal is desperate to escape, and eventually he lets he go because he cannot keep her against her will. Still, he puts food out every night, and roams the woods hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
Every one of her foxey ways was now so absolutely precious to him that I believe that if he had known for certain she was dead, and had thoughts of marrying a second time, he would never have been happy with a woman. No, indeed, he would have been more tempted to get himself a tame fox, and would have counted that as good a marriage as he could make.
When the fox finally returns, she has her cubs with her, and initially he is jealous. Nut he becomes resigned to her condition, and realises she must now be judged as a fox, not a woman. He finds happiness playing with the young animals, hunting with them, and finding food they might not otherwise have.
The ending is shocking but inevitable, for there can be no happy ever after between man and vixen. Garnett’s story is like a subverted fairy tale – one of those where a beautiful maiden restores an enchanted prince to his human shape with a kiss, but there is no restoration here. And there are echoes of the metamorphoses in ancient Greek and Roman myths, where men and women are transformed into other creatures (or even trees and plants), as a punishment, or to avoid some worse fate. Then, of course, it could be read as an allegory to show the difference between men and women, or knowing and accepting a person’s true nature, or to explore what it is that makes us human. I do wonder how I would view the story of it were written by a woman – Angela Carter perhaps, or Michele Roberts.
It’s difficult to tell what Garnett had in mind when he wrote this, and he offers no explanation, though there are hints of something unnatural in Sylvia’s family. Before her marriage she was a Miss Fox, has always been scared of hunting, and Old Nanny says she was always a little wild. Then there’s the story that one of her forebears kept a fox chained in the inner courtyard of their home…
|David Garnett painted by Dora Carrington in 1919
I don’t know that enjoy is really the right word to describe Lady into Fox, but I liked it the same way I like fairy tales, myths and legends, and I shall be more than happy to reread it. Like all good fairy tales, parts of it sent a shiver down my spine, and parts are quite dark (especially the scene where Mr Tebrick gets drunk and decides if his wife is a beast, he may as well behave like a beast too). His love for his wife/vixen is obsessive, and leads to some very strange behaviour – I can see why people think he is mad. But his feelings for the fox, and her cubs, are very tenderly described.
I downloaded my copy from Project Gutenburg, so I’ve illustrated this post with wood engravings by RA Garnett, who I assume is the artist Rachel (‘Ray’) Marshall, who was his first wife.