Lady into Fox by David Garnett
originally published 1922
WW Norton & Company Inc, 1st printing, 1966
Genre: fantasy, wonder tale
Synopsis & Review: One day shortly after their marriage, Mrs Tebrick turns into a vixen. Literally into a female fox. Though mystified and distressed by this change, Mr Tebrick does all he can to protect her and care for her. He dismisses their servants and shuts up the house, and embarks upon a routine of caring for her. Inside, she is still Silvia, his Puss, and he still loves her passionately, so he does his best to satisfy her modesty by dressing her in a bedjacket. He also feeds her at the table, and the two of them play piquet and cribbage. In the mornings, he brushes and scents her fur so that she’s less foxy smelling. Together, they live on as much like before the change as they can, but it cannot last.
Unfortunately, though Mr Tebrick tries to keep their life as it was, Silvia begins succumbing to the nature of her form, slowly becoming more feral, more foxlike. She wants to eat raw meat and chase ducks, and Mr Tebrick struggles with his love for her as a woman when she is now an animal. Mr Tebrick works hard at protecting her and taming her, even allowing her former nurse to attempt to impose order, but nothing works for long. Silvia continues to change, gradually becoming almost entirely a vixen, and Mr Tebrick must decide what is best for her despite his own desires.
You know how sometimes you read something and you think, “Oh my goodness, that was just delightful!” but you can’t quite put your finger on what it was that delighted you, because some of it was awful and sad, or otherwise very difficult for you to read, but overall, you just can’t believe how highly you think of it? Well, that’s pretty much how I feel about Lady into Fox. I came across it by accident, when looking at the recent(ish) reprint of some Harry Stephen Keeler books by McSweeney’s. Recommended by Amazon was this adorably covered book called Lady into Fox. I looked at the summary, and it enticed me into adding it to my Amazon list. And on a whim last week, I remembered it and ordered it from the library. (Oh, library, I am so glad that I have rediscovered you. And though I do not yet feel that I can come over and hang out, I am glad our relationship is on the mend.)
This book, it is darling. It is charming, but also poignant. (Does that make it piquant?) I struggled over what adjective to use exactly, considering “sad,” “tragic,” or somehow inserting “pathos” in, but they didn’t quite work. The problems faced largely by Mr Tebrick, but also in part by Silvia, are so disturbing, and their distress conveyed so movingly, that one cannot help but sympathize with both of the Tebricks. Mr Tebrick sacrifices everything to keep Silvia in his life, but he cannot make her be what she is not. Eventually, Mr Tebrick comes to terms with Silvia and her new nature, and is able to live with a semblance of happiness.
I really think of Lady into Fox as a wonder tale or metaphor describing the struggles of married life. It touches on fidelity, but is most concerned with change. When we marry, we sometimes believe we can change people into what we wish, yet conversely, we expect them to remain just as they were when we fell in love with them, no matter what. Everything changes; nothing stays the same. Garnett addresses both issues, illustrating the impossibility of expecting people to go against their nature, and how painful it is to be what you are not. All in ninety pages, plus illustrations. The illustrations, by the way, woodcuts by Ray, Garnett’s wife, are darling, and add to the piquancy of the story.
Adorable and sad and moving, and highly recommended. I’ll probably give a copy to everyone I know who is getting married. (It is available–with illustrations!–on Project Gutenberg.)
Read also: I wasn’t sure of anything else like this, besides perhaps The Metamorphosis. It did bring to mind a book I read in elementary school called Old One-Toe, but I think that’s just because it was about a fox. Perhaps Lives of the Monster Dogs by Bakis, and The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams. Definitely the works of HC Andersen–which were not intended for children.
Cover: Mine was a generic library rebinding, so I picked the current copy from Hesperus, which I love, prim little vixen, wallpaper, and all. But there are some other lovely covers. Dodo’s features the frontispiece of Mr and Mrs Tebrick before anything goes awry (the dog in the foreground is particularly touching), while another older onefeatures Silvia’s change; I like the way it has Mr Tebrick crying, showing his great distress. I couldn’t find a better picture of the last, but I loved that Mr Tebrick was cradling Silvia in his arms, simultaneously cherishing and imprisoning her.The last features one of the illustrations of a frolicking Silvia.
So that with his gazing on her and knowing her well, even in such a
shape, yet asking himself at every moment: “Can it be she? Am I not
dreaming?” and her beseeching and lastly fawning on him and seeming to
tell him that it was she indeed, they came at last together and he took
her in his arms. She lay very close to him, nestling under his coat and
fell to licking his face, but never taking her eyes from his. The
husband all this while kept turning the thing in his head and gazing on
her, but he could make no sense of what had happened, but only comforted
himself with the hope that this was but a momentary change, and that
presently she would turn back again into the wife that was one flesh
One fancy that came to him, because he was so much more like a lover
than a husband, was that it was his fault, and this because if anything
dreadful happened he could never blame her but himself for it.
So they passed a good while, till at last the tears welled up in the
poor fox’s eyes and she began weeping (but quite in silence), and she
trembled too as if she were in a fever. At this he could not contain his
own tears, but sat down on the ground and sobbed for a great while, but
between his sobs kissing her quite as if she had been a woman, and not
caring in his grief that he was kissing a fox on the muzzle.
They sat thus till it was getting near dusk, when he recollected
himself, and the next thing was that he must somehow hide her, and then
bring her home.