A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When we decided to mark Vulpes Libris’s birthday in the most apt way possible, by combining foxes and fairy-tales, I knew this was the perfect opportunity for me to read a book that intrigued me, David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox. It is the first work of his that I’ve read, although I know enough to place him in the literary landscape – fairly firmly in Bloomsbury. His mother was Constance Garnett, translator of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov, among others. He married first the artist Ray Marshall, whose woodcuts illustrate this book, then Angelica, the daughter of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. He was a prolific writer, so now I suppose I have to decide whether to read more of his work, or let this unique and strange work be enough for me.
There are no fairies, but this is a tale of the supernatural – a modern metamorphosis. When does a short story become a novella? Answers in the comments please. I became completely absorbed in the world of this book, and was surprised when I’d finished it to find out that it is only 72 pages long. About a couple of hours’ reading, yet I was carrying it round all week.
The story is of Mr and Mrs Tebrick, married in 1879, and living in rural Oxfordshire. Richard Tebrick is an upstanding, decent, hearty country gentleman; Silvia, the former Miss Fox,
… was small, with remarkably small hands and feet. It is perhaps worth noting that there was nothing at all foxy or vixenish about her appearance. On the contrary, she was a more than ordinarily beautiful and agreeable woman. […] In her manner, she was reserved almost to shyness, but perfectly self-possessed, and perfectly well-bred.
They are a loving couple, leading the perfect country life (except that Mrs Tebrick has to be persuaded to go out with the hunt). Then one day, on a country walk, Silvia is turned from one second to the next into a small, very red fox.
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 out at him through the animal’s eyes.
Despite her complete transformation, her husband still recognises and responds to his wife in her, which leads to an extraordinary scene of mutual love and grief. He gathers her up and takes her home. He hides himself and her away, putting it about that she has been called away by bad news and he will shut the house up and follow her. The story then goes on to describe their life together – initially he works hard to keep her as human as possible, adapting her clothes, and feeding her human food. But gradually, her foxy nature becomes stronger and stronger, until she escapes into the wild, living the life of a fox among foxes, to her husband’s despair, jealousy and confusion.
In so many ways this is an enchanting book, from outlandish beginning to ambiguous end. The writing is exquisite – the cool, ironic voice of the narrator is as compelling as a storyteller by the fireside, using his voice to bind you in the spell of the story. What is it about? It’s about a jolly decent chap, living a thoroughly respectable and rational life, faced with a completely unaccountable event. He responds with love and kindness, and selfishness and lack of imagination – but he is in many ways so touching in his strenuous efforts to hold on to what was dearest in his life, his Silvia. At first, they manage to live in a strangely believable way as man and wife, sharing a bed, sharing meals and human pastimes, but it cannot last. Physically her transformation was instant, psychically, she changes from lady into fox over a period of time, which her husband tries desperately to prolong, causing himself terrible pain and bewilderment. I know this all sounds utterly weird, but this is a tale from the realms of myth, suffused with a pagan spirit of nature, about the collision between human society and the natural world.
The point of view is mostly Richard Tebrick’s (though it sometimes switches to Silvia-as-fox) and as a character I found him very touching. He is the butt of satire, in his guise of unimaginative master of his own little universe, but it is his goodness, love and loyalty that shines through. But I found the human character of Silvia disappointingly shadowy. It is a tour de force of description, the gradual overwhelming of her humanity by her vulpine nature – wonderful, magical story-telling. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that she is not a rounded character so much as a device. And I was faintly repelled by the fairly repetitive description of Richard Tebrick’s treatment or adoration of, or mourning for ‘his wife’, ‘his fox’ or ‘his vixen’.
However, what I really loved was the exploration of the ambivalence of the fox – beautiful, enchanting creature; cruel predator; essence of wildness and freedom; hunted and detested. The transformation of a beautiful woman into a beautiful fox is an enlightenment to the hero, who turns against the fox-hunt that used to be an integral part of his world, and does all he can to rescue foxes from it, in case he saves his beloved Silvia. It also enlightens the reader – this is a beautifully-wrought, thought-provoking modern legend. I am a little sad that a whiff of misogyny prevents it from being just perfect in my eyes.
David Garnett: Lady Into Fox. First published 1922.
I recommend the edition I bought, which is is a gorgeous little book with a beautiful cover, and Ray (Marshall) Garnett’s illustrations to the first edition:
Hesperus Press (Hesperus Modern Voices), 2008. 75pp.
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