Thoughts: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

I picked this one up because I read a review of a ballet production of it, and thought it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I’d wish I’d written. Is it? I’m not sure. It’s very of its time.

The premise of Lady Into Fox is that there’s a lady, and she turns into a fox in a freak miracle. It’s short, and written in a sort of reported speech fairytale style, but I wasn’t quite sure if it had any deeper meaning or moral, and if so, what it was. The writing style led me to think that there must be. And there was something, but it never quite came together for me. I always felt like there was something I was missing.

Once Sylvia Tebrick, née Fox, turns into a vixen, it’s the job of her husband to hide her condition and try to maintain their happy married life as far as that’s possible (not far at all). We only get Mr Tebrick’s perspective, and that at a distance, as the story is purported to be a true one, and the author’s meticulous research is what’s enabling us to read it in its complete form. Still, just after her transformation, Sylvia is still recognisably herself – tame, loving and well-mannered. Mr Tebrick’s immediate fear is dogs (all of whom in the story’s environs are trained to kill foxes on sight) and discovery by other people, so his first actions, once they’re home, are to shoot their two dogs and let all the house staff go.

For a couple of days, they manage (though Mr Tebrick is distraught at his wife’s transformation, and she does her very best to cheer him up). But the transformation continues. Sylvia becomes more and more a fox, refusing clothes, eating on the floor, displaying alarming behaviour around ducks and baring her teeth at her long-suffering husband. She also wants to be free, and starts trying to escape.

I couldn’t quite get a handle on it – is it about Sylvia’s need for freedom, is it about something private (the story was dedicated to Garnett’s ex-lover), or is it just the story of a woman who was turned into a fox one day? Threads kept showing underneath the story but I couldn’t make them into a full picture. There was still plenty to enjoy. The conflict between humanity and wildness, the increasing absurdity of the husband’s inability to let go of his fox-wife, even when she has a litter of fox cubs, the way that human manners start to look silly when you try to impose them on what is frankly a fox with no human thoughts and only a recognition of one human face to tie her to the world of humans.

It’s when he allows her to live wild and accepts that he has no hold on her that they fall into another companionable period, though infinitely stranger than before, but allowing her to be wild means accepting the cruelties of that world.

It’s a strange, spare little story, but I can see how it would make a fascinating, weird ballet, and maybe one day I’ll get the chance to see it.

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