Lady into Fox by David Garnett
If I remember correctly, Lady into Fox came to me by way of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, as the entirety of my initial reading list did. Picking it up after forgetting about it for two years meant I was in for a surprise. I knew the main concept–it’s in the title–but I hadn’t realized that it had been written in 1922, set in 1880, or even that was a slim little novella at 91 pages. But I think surprises are good when consuming media–we’re all just so spoiled these days.
Lady into Fox follows the mysterious case of Mrs. Silvia Tebrick, who, when watching a fox hunt with her husband, turns into a fox herself. Mr. Tebrick and Mrs. Tebrick are both astounded and horrified, but at first attempt to carry on as best they can; Mrs. Tebrick still wears her jackets, plays cards, and likes music. But as time goes on, Mrs. Tebrick becomes wilder and wilder until, one day, the two part ways–until the day Mrs. Tebrick returns… with a litter of kits in tow.
I really appreciated Lady into Fox‘s darkness and the transmutation of Mr. Tebrick’s love for his wife into a darker form of possession. Once he brings Mrs. Tebrick home after her transformation, he kills their faithful dogs–because if Mrs. Tebrick gets out, they would kill her. As things get progressively worse, Mr. Tebrick contemplates suicide when the life of his wife is threatened and ponders the theological implications of being married to a fox–if she has kits with another fox, is she actually breaking her vows? In fact, the rapidly evolving power dynamic between the Tebricks is fascinating; as Mrs. Tebrick becomes more and more a fox, she operates more and more outside of Mr. Tebrick’s view of what she is, as, of course, he remembers her humanity. There’s a particular moment where Mrs. Tebrick fakes death during an attempt to escape Mr. Tebrick’s increasingly oppressive attempts to protect her, and Mr. Tebrick is utterly shocked, despite, as the narrator says, the reputation of foxes all over the world.
As I read Lady into Fox, I paid attention to how Mr. Tebrick saw Mrs. Tebrick, since their increasing distance motivates most of the quiet action here. Even as a human, the novel tells us, his pet name for her was “puss”, making her into a domesticated creature. It’s ironic, then, that she transforms into a wild creature. After her transformation, she’s often referred to as “his vixen”, which acknowledges her state but still makes him her possessor–it’s only towards the end, when Mrs. Tebrick quite clearly has made a happy life for herself as a fox, that she is referred to as Silvia. This made me want to read the novel as Silvia coming into her own identity, and it can be read as such–more overtly, however, it proves that if you love something, you ought to set it free. The following paragraph will contain spoilers, although some book bloggers have called the ending quite predictable.
As you read the novel, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t Mrs. Tebrick’s transformation into a fox, it’s Mr. Tebrick’s attempts to continue to see the transformed female as the woman he once knew. The ending makes this explicit, calling Mr. Tebrick’s decision to seek out Mrs. Tebrick during a fox hunt a mistake; had he not attempted to protect a wild creature that can certainly take care of herself, Mrs. Tebrick would still be alive. He’s horrified as Mrs. Tebrick takes to hunting cheerfully, trying to shame her like you would a naughty dog. But it’s not a simple oppression narrative–Mr. Tebrick truly loves her and, towards the end, he prefers spending time with his wife and his “godchildren”, as he puts it, to any human company at all. Charmingly, he names all of the kits and, knowing foxes’ love for grapes, constantly brings them grapes. It’s a moment you almost wish the Tebricks could have had, but it couldn’t last–Mr. Tebrick can’t let his wife go in favor of the fox she now is.
I was quite pleased with Lady into Fox, I have to say–it was a short, quick read that yielded plenty of depth to plumb. It never treats its subject matter as comic; Mr. Tebrick, as the narrator points out, is too serious to find anything in this tragic situation comedic. I do wish I’d had a change to read it with the original engravings, though. I glanced over them as I looked at the Project Gutenberg file writing this review, and they perfectly fit; natural and serious. The one of Mrs. Tebrick first giving into her predator nature is especially arresting–she’s so happy, just like a dog on a walk. Lady into Fox grows on you, and, since it’s available on Project Gutenberg, there’s no excuse not to read it.
Bottom line: A slim, tragic treat of a story–when Mrs. Tebrick is transformed into a fox, her husband goes to great lengths to maintain their marital bliss, but Mrs. Tebrick’s animal nature cannot be denied. Worth a read.