Mrs Fox and Lady into Fox

I listened to Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall on Radio 4 (part of the BBC’s short story competition), and then read David Garnett’s Lady into Fox (one of those stories much anthologised in compilations of weird fiction; I read it years ago in, I think, the noted Borgesophile Alberto Manguel-curated Black Water).

Sarah Hall has the following to say about Mrs Fox on the Booktrust website:

Mrs Fox’ is very loosely based on a 1922 novella called Lady Into Fox by David Garnett. Though it’s now on my shelf, I haven’t yet read the book. My version is an homage to what sounds like a very brave and odd piece of fiction indeed, if indeed lack of intimacy with the original can constitute an homage! I am fascinated by situations in which human beings are challenged and placed outside the usual codes of conduct. How do we act then? Do we become better versions, worse versions, or just different versions, of ourselves? The husband in Mrs Fox must contend with a lot, and ultimately redefine his concept of happiness. As for Mrs Fox herself – was she happier as a human, or is she in her element now?

I quote it in its entirety, since there seem to me to be several interesting points in it.

For a start, she claims that her story is “very loosely based on” Lady into Fox and that she has never read it. I find it difficult to believe that she hasn’t read it, or at least a very good precis of its contents (or perhaps she hasn’t “read it” as such, just as I haven’t, as such, read her story Mrs Fox – I’ve only listened to it on the radio). I find it difficult to believe because, having read the two, rather than is “very loosely based on”, I would prefer “takes its every plot-point from”.

Let us enumerate them:

  1. A married couple
  2. Are walking through the wood one day when
  3. the wife suddenly turns into a fox
  4. which comes as a shock and
  5. the husband takes his wife home
  6. and locks her up there
  7. but losing her humanness and becoming more like a fox
  8. (he tests her by buying a small animal and seeing if she will kill and eat it, which she does)
  9. she longs to escape
  10. which upsets him because he still loves her
  11. but eventually she does escape
  12. and starts living in the wild as a fox
  13. and one day, he sees her and she beckons him to follow her,
  14. and she proudly shows him the litter of cubs she has given birth to

OK, so that’s the similarities, let’s have a look at the differences.

  1. In MF, the husband and wife have a largely sexual relationship on which the man seems more dependent, whereas in LiF they are portrayed as happily married (in a wife submissive to husband type 1920s way)
  2. In MF, she is called Sophia; in Lif, Silvia (and she is Miss Fox, but changes name when married)
  3. In MF, there are precursory scenes to the change, but in LiF it just suddenly happens
  4. MF mentions a small purple ball
  5. The “change” in MF is brought about by his wife’s pregnancy; in LiF no reason whatever is given for it
  6. In MF, it’s all about an allegorical change in their conjugal relationship; in LiF, no reason whatever is given for anything
  7. In MF, the fox’s children are his; in LiF, there are the product of her relations with another fox
  8. In MF, the husband is ultimately made useless now the wife/vixen has her new family; in LiF he is allowed to join in with the fox family and form bonds with the young foxes
  9. MF ends with the man’s rejection; in LiF, well, in the English countryside? people on horseback? dogs? – you know how it’s going to turn out

It’s fair to say that there’s also a lot in the Garnett – one might even say, all the good bits – which don’t appear in the Hall version at all (although, again being fair, the Radio 4 version was an abridgement of the story, so this could also not be the case – either way, one of them’s decided to leave out the good bits). Actually, the early parts of Garnett’s story I found quite uninterestingly written and indeed silly (when he dresses the fox up in his wife’s clothes and they play cribbage etc, though this latter does lead then on to… ), but then really picks when his wife, turned into the fox, starts losing her humanness and displays more foxlike behaviour – something which causes the husband a despair which gradually tips over into madness. (This constitutes most of Garnett’s story – at least half, if not more; barely appears in Hall’s, who concentrates on her “foxiness” rather than her “foxness”). One really feels for the husband in the Garnett story, whereas in the Hall story the husband is a pathetic, useless creature (like, one suspects, all men) who has to, as Hall puts it above, “contend with a lot, and ultimately redefine his concept of happiness” – which, translated into the actual narrative, becomes “accept that he is entirely superfluous in his wife’s life now that she is pregnant, is a failure as a man (qua man), and – ” well, I’m not sure how he redefines his concept of happiness (can only live any longer through his memories, perhaps?) – “how could life mean anything without his unbelonging wife?” as it ends; – one suspects, from the narrative arc and his general portrayal, that he becomes depressed and kills himself now that he’s performed his only function.

So, can men take any positives from this story? – Perhaps. – I think what Hall is trying to say is that men shouldn’t care for women in the slightest, just screw them and fuck  the consequences, let the women look after themselves, which, curiously enough, is a policy men have long in fact pursued – and which the more enlightened of our youth continue to pursue (a radical modus vivendi which troubles the more conservative among us) to this very day, almost without thought or care. (Perhaps it’s even a call for a return to a more bestial existence, who knows?). – Which is all to say, fine: the allegory of change brought on by pregnancy (though, not to get all Stephen Mitchelmore about it, I prefer the non-allegorial Garnett version in which nothing is explained), but it all just doesn’t hold together.

That keyword “homage” reminds us of Atxaga’s instructions of how to plagiarise something and get away with it, for which what we have here, I think, ticks all the boxes – I swear Atxaga actually used the word “homage” (as in, if asked any detailed questions regarding similarities, claim it’s a homage), though filed easily enough under the “metafictional” heading.

I’m not against the use (even the extensive use) of other works – but I think you should at least strive for improvement. One wonders after the purpose of writing this story; and comes to suspect that the original is read, and then the idea strikes that this would be better as allegory, and we could drop all those bits that were actually quite good about a man having positive feelings, and if we use language to accentuate the woman’s sensuality and the man’s utter contemptibility – yes, then it would be a much better story, and it would probably win a prize or something.

Besides, we’ve all read our Chinese folklore and know that fox spirits are evil.

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10 thoughts on “Mrs Fox and Lady into Fox

  1. Thanks for that last line – One of Pu Songling’s 18th century tales provides the essential plot of Lady in to Fox (whether Garnett was aware of it or not). What a strange phenomenon you’ve stumbled onto here; I don’t think “homage” means what Ms. Hall thinks it means, if she hasn’t read Garnett.

  2. I was originally going to write part of the post about Pu Songling, but decided in the end that it was actually pretty irrelevant – it would just be me moaning that it was all a travesty of the fox-spirit stories in Pu Songling, which I rather like.

    Curiously, Pu Songling doesn’t – from my reading of it, and unlike the rest of Chinese folklore – believe that fox spirits are evil, but that they are essentially good. Indeed, I somewhat suspect Pu Songling’s ideal relationship would be with a fox spirit. (And I’m not so sure that he’s wrong).

    I had the idea Garnett had taken his story from Pu Songling, but now I go back to my book of Chinese stories, it is claimed it comes from a story called The Fox Fairy by Shen Chi Chi (c.800AD) – it has the fox being torn apart by dogs ending at least, though otherwise is largely identical in its treatment to Pu Songling’s stories.

    Whatever the truth, it’s clear Garnett differs far more from the Chinese versions than Hall does from Garnett. e.g. the essential problem in Garnett is that his wife is now a fox; in the Chinese versions, the fox spirits can change form at will, so it’s not an issue (the only problem arises in concealing their nature from others).

  3. Thanks for that clarification regarding Shen Chi Chi. I read Lady Into Fox some years prior to reading Pu Songling, and have wondered if Garnett had indeed been familiar with these old Chinese tales.

  4. I read Jackie Kay’s story ‘My Daughter the Fox’ some time ago and I have to say Sarah Hall’s story does remind me of Jackie’s. Maybe it’s just coincidence or maybe my memory has faded a bit.

  5. Hi Melanie

    I hadn’t heard of this, so I read it. (You can find it here [pdf]).

    Actually, it reminded me a lot more of Garnett – the whole section I mentioned above, which Hall leaves out of her story, about how the narrator learns to live with the fox (whether wife or daughter), becomes isolated from the rest of society because of it, and desires to protect the fox from the outside world. This last does appear in Hall’s story, but is a very short element, whilst it is most of the other two stories.

    The strong connection between the Kay and Hall stories though is the idea of pregnancy, and the isolating love of mother and children, as a sort of allegorical cause of the transformation.

    I wonder if Hall has read that story too – and stuck the two together.

  6. Thank you Obooki. It’s interesting that Kay’s story reminds you of Garnett’s Lady into Fox. I’ve just read Kay’s work again, but I haven’t yet read Garnett’s. So I had no idea that they were similar, until you pointed this out.

    I agree with you re the connection between the Kay story (written 2003)and the Hall story. No idea whether Hall has stuck Kay’s and Garnett’s together… As you say, Hall has said her story is “very loosely based” on Garnett’s novella, which is on her shelf, though she’s never read it. I can’t comment on that, but it’s interesting that she decided to reveal her source.

  7. I’m sure she revealed her source in order to pre-empt anyone else from suggesting it. She said again on Front Row receiving the prize that she still hadn’t read it, and that she was put off because she’d heard the ending was sad. I don’t know to be honest: I found the failure of communication between people/foxes in her story to be a lot more depressing than the devotional selflessness of Garnett’s.

    In fact, maybe that’s the more fundamental different between the attitude in the two stories: the Garnett story has people who act out of a sense of generosity and love, whereas Hall paints people as entirely self-interested.

  8. I am wondering if the story title is a play on D.H. Lawrence’s “The Fox” and if the story of Hall is not in part a commentary on Lawtence’s sexual theories .

  9. It’s an idea. I’d have to revisit it. It’s a long time since I read Lawrence’s “The Fox”; all I remember about it is that Lawrence states around 100 times that the main character is “ruddy like a fox”, as if he worries his readers aren’t picking up on the symbolism.

  10. Maybe Hall is making fun of the heavy hand of Lawrence. For sure he beats up his readers in this story.

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