Saturday, 22 October 2011

Lady into Fox: A Sign of the Times

When I was a boy one of the most enchanting, curious, and queer stories that I heard on the BBC Radio 4 was Lady into Fox by David Garnett.

Published in 1922 it was his first novel under his own name. I was reminded of it last night during another Radio encounter; on this occasion the voice was Ruth Padell's in her exploration on BBC Radio 3 of the role of the fox in our social, cultural and political life.

Garnett's fairy-tale for adults begins by informing us that

Wonderful or supernatural events are not so uncommon, rather they are irregular in their incidence. Thus there may be not one marvel to speak of in a century, and then often enough comes a plentiful crop of them; monsters of all sorts swarm suddenly upon the earth, comets blaze in the sky, eclipses frighten nature, meteors fall in rain, while mermaids and sirens beguile, and sea-serpents engulf every passing ship, and terrible cataclysms beset humanity.

The narration is artful and pathetic and that's the key to its attraction: the perfection of a tone of voice that draws the reader into the bizarre situation:

Yet I would not dissuade any of my readers from attempting an explanation of this seeming miracle because up till now none has been found which is entirely satisfactory. What adds to the difficulty to my mind is that the metamorphosis occurred when Mrs. Tebrick was a full-grown woman, and that it happened suddenly in so short a space of time. The sprouting of a tail, the gradual extension of hair all over the body, the slow change of the whole anatomy by a process of growth, though it would have been monstrous, would not have been so difficult to reconcile to our ordinary conceptions, particularly had it happened in a young child. But here we have something very different. A grown lady is changed straightway into a fox. There is no explaining that away by any natural philosophy. The materialism of our age will not help us here.

The monstrous transformation provides an opportunity to examine the role of women, the institution of marriage and inevitably the politics of fox-hunting. In fox hunting, of course, far more is at stake than the appealing or detested creature that stalks the country and the town.

Mr. Tebrick and Fox With Stereoscope

Just how significant the fox is in British culture was demonstrated by the fact that the ban on 'hunting with dogs' required the British government to deploy the 1949 Parliament Act in order to proceed to enactment. And that Act has only been used four times in the last half century:
  1. War Crimes Act 1991, which extended jurisdiction of UK courts to acts committed on behalf of Nazi Germany during the Second World War (the only time that the Parliament Acts have been used by a Conservative government).
  2. European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which changed the system of elections to the European Parliament from first past the post to a form of proportional representation.
  3. Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which equalised the age of consent for male homosexual sexual activities with that for heterosexual and female homosexual sexual activities at 16.
  4. Hunting Act 2004, which prohibited hare coursing and (subject to some exceptions) all hunting of wild mammals (particularly foxes) with dogs after early 2005.
More than just a fox, then?

Fox Lying on Cushions

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