This short, strange, fascinating book by David Garnett has been on my TBR list for a long time, ever since I saw Simon from Stuck In a Book recommend it lo these many years ago. (It’s number 13 on his list of Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.) As a matter of fact, I’d never heard of it before (and indeed I have never heard of it since), but now I can’t quite imagine my reading landscape without it.
Lady Into Fox is the story of Silvia and Richard Tebrick. One day, with no warning — instantly, with no slow metamorphosis — Mrs. Tebrick turns into a vixen. The rest of the story is about how Mr. Tebrick handles this event and its consequences. At first, Silvia appears to retain some memory of her human nature: she will accept being dressed in bed-jackets or dresses cut down to size, she will sit to table for her food, and she will even play piquet with Mr. Tebrick. But the longer she remains a fox, the more her nature becomes entirely fox-like, and eventually Mr. Tebrick cannot retain her inside the house, or even inside garden walls. He must let her go, and if he wants to see her — because he loves her still, loves her as a vixen and no more as a woman — he must become somewhat beastly, himself.
Lady Into Fox was published in 1922, but the prose retains a formal, almost ritual tone, a little like old fairy-tales. Here is the scene where Mrs. Tebrick is transformed:
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.”
Despite this strong fabulist tendency, in the plot as well as the prose, the events are presented as real: David Garnett even comes into the story itself, insisting that he has verified what he is telling us, and that he knows it to be true. I can’t help but think that this is like a precursor of magic realism: fantastic events in the mundane countryside, something that simply came to pass at Tangley Hall, as such things do sometimes come to pass, and Mr. Tebrick just had to adapt.
Another part of magic realism as a genre, of course, is its tendency to use these fantastic phenomena as a tool for social and political commentary. In Lady Into Fox, this commentary is on female sexuality. At first, Silvia Tebrick (the vixen!) is content to be at home, to be fed from Mr. Tebrick’s hand, to be dressed and scented. But her nature will come out. More and more, she wants only to be free. She will be naked, she will kill rabbits, she will dig until her paws bleed to get out of the garden, and eventually she will snarl and bite at her husband, if she must. When she escapes, she does what vixens do: she finds a handsome dog-fox and has a litter of cubs. If she’s allowed to be free, she’ll come back to see Mr. Tebrick, but she won’t be governed by him. It’s her nature.
There are tiny hints dropped through the book that Silvia Tebrick may not actually have been transformed into a fox at all. Rumor is rife in the village that she “had run away with Major Solmes, and that [Mr. Tebrick] was gone mad with grief, that he had shot his dogs and horses and shut himself up alone in his house and would speak with no one.” Later, when Mr. Tebrick tries to explain to one of Silvia’s relatives that she has turned into a fox, the relative goes away thinking him quite mad. And for a moment, we doubt, too. By the end of the book, it’s still left an open question.
This is an odd, enigmatic book about fidelity and infidelity. What about marriage and sexuality makes us animal and human? Who is Silvia, what is she? I’m so glad I finally read this, a marvelous edition with tiny woodcut illustrations, and I recommend you do the same.