Three weeks into the new year and I have given up trying to catalogue all my reads from last year. I simply lacked the energy to reflect upon books read months ago when I am reading and writing different material now. (If you’re curious, I’ve just put a list of the September-December 2010 reads at the bottom of this post, with some general indicators of my opinion). I am interested in dicussing the book I most recently finished, David Garnett’s “Lady Into Fox”.
While I am unfamiliar with their intimate history (beyond having read a V. Woolf or two and recognizing the names Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell), David Garnett was apparently part of the Bloombury Group. In addition to being a writer, he ran a bookshop and later co-founded Nonesuch Press. It is perhaps with the support and encouragement of his artistic group that he was able to publish this unusual little book in 1922. (FYI – SPOILERS, but the joy of the book is in the mood and writing, so I don’t think it will ruin the book for you if you read them).
Sylvia and Richard Tebrick are a young married couple very much in love. Richard maintains the life of an English country gentleman in the latter-half of the 1800s (large wooded estate with servants, hunting dogs, etc.). One day while walking in the woods, Sylvia simply turns into a fox. Both are shocked and grieved by this event, and Richard sneaks her back into the house to avoid the dogs. He dismisses the servants, gets rid of the dogs, and spreads the story that he and his wife have gone to London and proceeds to live with Sylvia in his house. At first, it is pleasant and besides being a fox and unable to communicate, she is virtually the same woman. She enjoys perfume, playing piquet, and eats daintily from the dinner table with Richard. Her old nurse returns and assists Mr. Tebrick, but he is fearful that she will gossip in the village and spread his secret. Of course, things can’t stay the same. Gradually, Sylvia’s foxy, wild nature starts to assert herself and she cunningly subverts their routines and begins to misbehave. After trying several unsuccessful adjustments of their situation, he eventually realizes he must free her. Because he keeps a lookout for her, he is reacquainted with her in the spring, only to find out that she has had a litter of cubs. He deals with feelings of jealousy and betrayal, but ultimately accepts that he can only be happy with her and comes to look upon the cubs as his own step-children. These scenes are really bittersweet, as Richard has put aside his own nature and desires in order to be around Sylvia, who is all-fox at this point. He is quietly happy just being with her and playing with the cubs. However, even this happiness must be taken from him, as the cubs begin to grow up and all the foxes become restless. The book’s ending is not suprising but is both graphic and moving.
If you are on the lookout for a copy of Lady Into Fox, be sure to look for one that includes the woodcut illustrations created by Garnett’s first wife, “R.A. Garnett,” (known as Ray), such as the Dodo Press edition. The woodcuts are charming and really add to the book. It is fascinating to think of a couple sitting at home engaged in a creative back and forth about how to craft images to enhance the story. Here are a few examples (courtesy of the Flickr photostream of the Crossett Library of Bennington College). In the first image to the right, we see Mr. Tebrick and his lady enjoying their hearth and home. This obviously very early on in the story, as she turns into a fox about 2-3 pages in. The details are fabulous – the mirror, the pattern on the carpet, the fireplace screen. The inclusion of the dog as the third point of the triangle is itself an inversion of the final tragic scene.
This other woodcut comes from the middle of the story, when Sylvia the vixen is near the point of no-return. She has ceased to act like his wife and now has a frantic desperation to escape the cottage in which Mr. Tebrick has engaged for them to live with her old nurse. Here, the nurse’s grand-daughter looks up into the tree as Sylvia looks for a way over the wall of the garden in which she is trapped. I think the desperation comes across in the woodcut – the tense ears and the crouching posture show us that the fox is ready to spring over the wall if it were only doable. At this point, Sylvia has already tried to dig her way under the wall and been stopped by Mr. Tebrick, who lives in fear at the thought of dogs pursuing his vixen. In the scene directly after this, Sylvia falls from the tree and plays dead, in a gambit to get free. She is insensitive to Mr. Tebrick’s despair as he clutches the fox’s body to his chest, weeping in grief. The reader sympathizes with Mr. Tebrick here and the betrayal is heartbreaking to read, but she is almost all fox at this point, so she can’t be judged in human terms.
Overall, this is a interesting little book. For being so thin, it does an excellent job at provoking some weighty questions. Can you force a relationship to continue as it did in the past? Do we need society’s acceptance of our lifestyle to be happy? If you resign yourself to being satisfied with the small hapinesses presented to you, is that enough?
Remainder of 2010 Reads – September through December
Toujours Provence – Peter Mayle (+)
Best of Saki (collection) – Saki (+)
A House in Flanders – Michael Jenkins (+)
The Wilder Shores of Love – Lesley Branch (abandoned)
Portuguese Irregular Verbs – Alexander McCall Smith (+)
The Rebel Angels – Robertson Davies (+)
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – Stephen Leacock (+)
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs – Alexander McCall Smith (+)
The Blotting Book – E.F. Benson (-)
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances – Alexander McCall Smith (+)
The Woman in Black – Susan Hill (-)
44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith (abandoned)
Loitering With Intent – Muriel Spark (+)
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane – Katherine Howe (+)
Lucia Triumphant – Tom Holt (+)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling (re-read b/c of movie)
The Young Visiters – Daisy Ashford (age 9)(+)
Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures – Douglas Jerrold (++)
Eva Moves the Furniture – Margot Livesey (eh )
Told After Supper – Jerome K. Jerome (++)
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (+)
Father Brown: The Essential Tales – G.K. Chesterton (some, not all)(+)
Nightingale Woods – Stella Gibbons (eh)