Last Updated September 6, 2023.
In Berkshire, England during World War I, two single women in their late twenties buy and manage an estate—Bailey Farm—together. Nellie March spends most of her time doing the “manly” labor about the grounds, and Jill Banford does the more domestic chores inside the house. They are content in their own small world and do not strive for relationships with men. They oppose conformity by being independent and not letting work control their lives; they follow their whims.
For several years, a fox plagues the farm and makes off with their hens. Banford and March try to shoot it, but it cannot be stopped. The fox’s cunning and ability to avoid capture becomes an obsession for March. She internally acknowledges: “She did not so much think of him: she was possessed by him... She felt him invisibly master her spirit.”
Three years into their life at the farm, Henry Grenfel shows up; he is the grandson of the previous owner and a soldier in the army. In Henry, March immediately recognizes the fox, but she doesn’t know from where the connection stems.
With his grandfather dead and the people of the village sick with the flu—based on the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919—Henry has no place to stay. Banford quickly becomes comfortable around the young man and takes pity on him with an offer for him to stay with them during his furlough. Time spent with Henry is confusing for March. At first, she feels as if she wants to become invisible when he is around. March’s strange feelings are soon accompanied by dreams in which the fox torments her; she wakes up feeling the effects of these dreams but quickly forgets their content.
A few days into his stay at the farm, Henry decides he wants to claim ownership of the property and figures the best way to go about this is to marry March. He prepares for his proposal to be a slow, careful process; he is the hunter, and March is his frightened quarry. As time goes on, March’s dreams of the fox bleed into all her waking moments.
The first time Henry asks March to marry him, she dismisses him by saying, “‘Don't try any of your tomfoolery on me.’” But after a searing kiss on the lips, March agrees. With great concern for her female friend, Banford regrets her decision to allow Henry to stay at Bailey Farm.
One night, after overhearing March and Banford talking of him and their hopes for him to leave and never return, Henry goes outside and shoots the fox, an act that captivates March and strengthens her connection with Henry.
As the days pass, Banford and Henry develop a known hatred for each other, all the while Henry feels “irresistibly drawn” to March. Part of the attraction is sexual, but this is not something anyone admits aloud. March is constantly torn between feeling fear of and longing for Henry.
Once Henry leaves for his soldiers’ camp, March sends him a letter revoking her previous promise of marriage. Henry blames Banford for this rejection and gets a leave of absence so he can go back to Bailey Farm in order to remove Banford from this situation; he believes she is the one thing preventing him from winning what he wants.
At the time of his arrival, Banford’s parents are visiting the two girls on their farm; it is December. March, Banford, and Banford’s father are gathered around a tree that March had been slowly cutting down. Henry offers to finish it off. With an idea that the tree, once given its...
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final blow, may strike Banford, he gives her an insincere warning which she does not heed. A large branch falls on her neck and she dies instantly.
Henry takes advantage of March’s succeeding state of grief, marries her, and whisks her away to his own village of Cornwall. Without Banford’s firm reassurance, March does not want to leave Henry because he is the only form of security she has. With that, Henry has finally “won” March, but it does not result in the happiness he expected. Henry “wanted to make her submit, yield, blindly pass away out of all her strenuous consciousness” and become “his woman.” This will never happen, for March lost her will to love and find happiness when Banford died.