Lady into Fox, by David Garnett

It’s hard to say too much about Lady into Fox – it’s a short novella, and very simple. Indeed, I didn’t really feel that I was reading the work of an author – more just hearing an articulate, literate man tell me a story. The prose isn’t always polished – and is speckled with little oddities from the common speech of the era – and the story is straightforward and unadorned. Put bluntly, it’s about an English gentleman whose wife one day turns into a fox, and the difficulties that are posed by this unexpected turn of events.,320_.jpg

That’s a potentially rich – incredibly rich – scenario for a story, and there were many ways the story could have gone. Garnett for the most part chose the most obvious and the least memorable path. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. I was expecting a story that perhaps leant more heavily into social satire, or brought out the comic absurdities more greatly – I suppose I was thinking of how this might go if the story were by Saki, or indeed by Cabell, whose almost exactly contemporaneous own novel, Jurgen, I’ve only just read.

And indeed, there is satire here, and there is absurdity, and wit. But for the most part, Garnett focuses on the pathos, and he does it through precise, transparent realism, avoiding excesses of style or content that might distract from the basic humanity at the core of his story. His style is casual, in the formal manner in which an English gentleman of the era might be casual, and despite the strikingly modern moment of surrealism at the story’s core (Lady into Fox was published only a few years after Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” was published, and long before the latter became famous), his approach is largely conservative. The fantasy, like most early but little later fantasy, is shrouded in a dislocating frame, in this case the conventional, by then perhaps even traditional, Victorian ghost story declaimer, an entire page spent stressing how the author has heard this from unimpeachable sources and is otherwise a skeptical man not prone to believing fanciful stories etc etc. This frame is made a little more personal by the fact that the author does not overtly divide himself from the narrator, happy even to identify himself by name at one point. There’s something of a newspaperman’s approach here, a plainspoken verity that has no time for artistic airs and pretences. I wonder whether even that title, the oddly curt ‘Lady into Fox’, may be intended to suggest the clipped headline of a newspaper report or magazine article.

Yet despite the pretence of unpretentiousness, Lady into Fox is a piece of art, and not only because of the implausible central conceit, that of a lady transformed into a fox – and not, Garnett take pains to stress, in a believable, piece-by-piece, drawn-out manner, but in a flash, as a fait accompli, the way that Gregor Samsa simply wakes up one morning to discover himself the victim of a metamorphosis. No, the true metamorphosis here is the way that what is presented as a story is really a political position paper.

Of course, all stories are symbolic, particularly those involving elements of fantasy. “The Metamorphosis” is symbolic. But Lady into Fox is symbolic in a much more all-encompassing, more honest, way. It is, quite plainly, a fable, and there is no doubt here that we are to consider what may be the Moral of the Tale. It is perhaps precisely because of the author’s political intent that he so eschews overt manipulations and authorial cadenzas: he is trying to show us the case as it is, matters as they are, to point us to a conclusion – for all that he is doing so through symbols and analogy. Anything that instead called attention to the work as a work of art, or worse as a work of craft, would detract from its objective. [For instance, I suspect this is a story that Oscar Wilde might have liked to write a version of – and I suspect Oscar’s version would have been more beautiful, more polished, more ostentatious as literature, and rather less successful….]

But it’s not quite so simple. On the surface, Lady into Fox is a direct analogy for the contemporary causes of feminism and the free love movement, as Our Hero struggles to come to terms with the inhumanity of his wife, her essential and natural (or supernatural) place outside the conventional norms of womankind. On this subject, the novella takes what has become an unfashionable approach – that of persuading through sympathy, rather than of hectoring and denigrating. Sylvia’s husband is controlling, conservative and jealous – but he is also profoundly sympathetic. Garnett lets him be wrong in some respects, while perhaps being right in others, and while giving him good reasons even when he is wrong. He is not writing this book to mock conservatives – he is writing it to lead conservatives step by step through an argument, an argument presented not in words but in events, challenging them to consider how they would themselves act if their own wives were transformed into foxes, and leaving them to wonder how much of that fable may remain applicable even when their wives do not literally have tails. To this end, it’s a powerful, sincere fable, that like all good fables can be enjoyed by – and can morally influence – even those who are not conscious of its allegory… though there are, I must admit, one or two lines that perhaps make the symbolism just a little too overt.

Except perhaps it may be symbolising something else entirely. Although the themes of control and so on are unavoidable, the one concrete autobiographical element in the tale (a certain name) suggests that Sylvia, the lady-into-fox, may be identified not with a feminist woman, but with Garnett’s male lover, the artist Duncan Grant. This puts a rather different complexion on events, with the wife of the wrong species standing for the lover of the wrong sex – certainly it’s hard not to read that interpretation into passages where the husband worries about being seen out in public with his fox. The fox’s wild life outside civilised society may then stand for the temptations of a homosexual bohemianism; the jealousy and the desire to control (and protect) the fox may well be personal. Grant had many other lovers in his life (most famously the besotted John Maynard Keynes); and although he appears to have been almost exclusively gay, he spent more than 40 years living with a woman, Vanessa Bell, whom Garnett himself had attempted unsuccessfully to seduce.

Or perhaps there’s a third interpretation. Garnett and his friends, the Bloomsbury Set, practiced what in various times would have been called ‘free love’, ‘open relationships’, or ‘polyamory’. Grant and Bell, for instance, lived together and had a daughter, even though Bell was married to another man entire, Clive Bell, who dropped in for frequent visits, and Bell was tolerant of Grant’s homosexual affairs. Meanwhile, Garnett’s Lady into Fox, which at the very least invokes, and perhaps is ‘about’, his homosexual affair with Grant, is graced by illustrations by Garnett’s wife. Perhaps the jealousies, the protectiveness, the difficulty coming to terms with a loved one’s true nature, are really about the stresses of free love: maybe Sylvia, the lady-into-fox, is Garnett himself.

[It wouldn’t be the first time he put himself in a female disguise. Lady into Fox was only Garnett’s second novel; the first, Dope-Darling: A Story of Cocaine was published under a female pseudonym]

But really, all of this is missing the point, I think. Lady into Fox is not a coarse allegory, a thlunking sermonical parable. It’s a fable. Sylvia is not a metaphor, she’s a symbol. Yes, I suspect that all three veins of allegory – feminism, homosexuality, free love – were in Garnett’s mind, but I don’t think he intended readers to come around to agreeing with this or that proposition: I think he wanted readers to come around to seeing matters from a particular point of view, or perhaps rather to see matters through a particular manner of sight. I think the ideology here is not a narrow political position after all, but rather a general call to arms for liberalism, generosity of spirit, open-mindedness, and acceptance. And it also has the courage of its convictions to admit to doubt – the conservative fears are not wholly unfounded, and even if society makes the great leap of faith, we are still left with lingering questions that we cannot wholly answer. As, indeed, further inspection of the biographical parallels reiterates…


Adrenaline: 3/5. The story is told in a calm, collected manner; there is tension and fear throughout, but it rarely agitates the reader. I read the whole thing in one sitting, despite not intending to.

Emotion: 4/5. It is not as much of a tearjerker as a more exploitative author would have made it; nonetheless, there is considerable pathos.

Thought: 3/5. A call to feel more than a call to think, its allusive nature and genuinely unpredictable plot make for a thoughtful read, but not an intellectually intense one. The idea Garnett is trying to put across are simple, and are not analysed in any depth. That’s not really the point.

Beauty: 5/5. An odd score here, because I can’t say that the prose itself is gorgeous. It’s elegant enough, but not exceptional, and it even has some rough edges – as I say, it feels more like an articulate man with a good story than the work of a master literary artist. And yet… that allusiveness, the brevity, the pathos, the cool detachment yet soft humanity of the authorial voice, the humility, the feeling of inevitability, and the very inexplicability of it all, all make it for me a really beautiful little piece.

Craft: 4/5. As I say, there’s a country arts-and-crafts feel about it, a homespunness that makes it hard to say it’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship. That’s in the prose, it’s in the moment or two of too-obviousness, it’s in the slight unsureness when it comes to more difficult scenes (such as those of action) and it’s in the rather abrupt ending. But to some extent, it’s also misleading. I think the book creates pretty much the impression I think Garnett was aiming for, and his apparent objective – to put a form of life to the public convincingly and inoffensively through the form of a compelling story – is deceptively difficult. The careful fidelity to life is also not to be dismissed. I can’t say it’s a technical masterpiece, but many authors would have failed badly in attempting to write this, I think.

Endearingness: 5/5. It’s beautiful, it’s enjoyable – there are even a few moments of lightness along the way – and its heart is in such a good place. There’s a humility to it, a recognition of complexity, that I think would make it hard even for some gruff old conservative who thought it was naïve idealism, to really honestly disapprove of it. Myself, I do much more than fail to disapprove of it.

Originality: 4/5. The plot is, as I’ve said, genuine unpredictable. The conceit itself drops the reader into a place of potential and confusion: when you begin with a lady turning into a fox, where can you go from there? Nowhere and everywhere. And yet, in the end, I don’t think Garnett goes anywhere that other writers wouldn’t have thought of. And he does it in a comfortably familiar manner, in terms of structure and in terms of prose; and even his sentiments, while perhaps unfashionable in his day, feel very much representative of a type. So I can’t give it full marks here, but it’s still a refreshing short tale.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. My numbers would suggest it ought to be ‘brilliant’, but I think I’ll hold off on that. I feel I’ve marked generously rather than stingily… and perhaps just as importantly I think it’s worth saying that this is a very short novel. Or a novella. I’m not just saying that because you might not get your money’s worth in page count, but also because there’s only so much you can do in a novella, and conversely it’s easier to avoid mistakes. This isn’t a symphony, it’s a tone poem. As such, it never quite has time or space or variety enough to hit the highest peaks. It is, after all, a rather simple little fable, simply told. But it’s a good fable, and he tells it very well…

[P.S. for those readers motivated by literary acclaim: Lady into Fox won both the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, two of the country’s most respected literary awards.]

2 thoughts on “Lady into Fox, by David Garnett

  1. In terms of pure enjoyment, I would rate this higher than Jurgen. First impressions:

    This reminded me immediately of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. What struck me was the extent to which the whole relationship between husband and wife is rooted in social respectability. After the wife is coddled and accused of being an animal when she resists the coddling, why should it come as a surprise when does what she does? “Vixen” indeed.

    Another theme that caught my attention, whether the author intended it or not, is how closely the old spiritual conception of humanity is tied to social conformity. Letting human beings be free often requires us to treat them like animals in some respects rather than expecting that all souls will come around to our view of what constitutes reasonable conduct.

    The scientific conception of human beings as non-fundamentally-spiritual animals conflicts with our social intuition that fellow humans must never be “manipulated” for any reason. Kant insisted on an approach along broadly similar lines, but how can “manipulation” in the Kantian sense possibly be avoided if fellow humans are undomesticated beasts rather than souls or beings who share in some sort of universal rationality?

    The paradox is that treating other human beings as souls can in practice curtail their freedom to what appears to be an unreasonable degree, an yet being treated as an animal can not only be dehumanizing, but can lead to untold horrors if pursued consistently. By and large, humans are not kind to animals. For this and other reasons, I also identify somewhat with Mr. Tebrick’s confusion.

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