A comparison of LADY INTO FOX with Franz Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS seems possible on the basis of their sharing a theme hardly encountered elsewhere in modern literature—the sudden and inexplicable transformation of a human being into a totally different form. It is hard to find any further likeness: Kafka’s grim and sardonic tale cries for symbolic interpretation, but David Garnett’s delightful literary prank is pure fun of no discernible allegoric significance.
Perhaps in reaction to the horrors of World War I, the English reading public in the 1920’s was particularly receptive to witty fantasy, and LADY INTO FOX shared the best-seller lists with works of Ronald Firbank, A. A. Milne, and Saki. Its continuing popularity, however, attests to Garnett’s comic skill.
The idea for the story came from the author’s wife during a playful conversation, but what particularly engaged him was the problem of how to induce credulity toward an intrinsically incredible situation. He chose Daniel Defoe as his guide, and the novella employs the same devices Defoe used to convince his readers of the factuality of his fictions. The unremittingly sober narrator constantly reiterates his skeptical insistence on total accuracy, solemnly decrying all gossip, rumor, and imaginative invention. Subtly archaic in diction and syntax, the style is eighteenth century, firm, balanced, and full of moral sententiousness. The narrator applauds Mrs. Tebrick’s early efforts to remain a lady even in fox form and deplores her descent into beastliness, he debates at length the moral and religious implications of Mr. Tebrick’s godfathering her cubs, and he approaches eloquence in the final catastrophe.
LADY INTO FOX is a story in which its author, like Coleridge in THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, attempts to make the unreal seem probable. Perhaps many a bridegroom, and as suddenly, has found himself married to a vixen. The book is fantasy, but fantasy written with scrupulous regard for realistic detail. So far as the book’s underlying meaning is concerned, the reader may make whatever interpretation he will. It is first of all an entertaining story. The total effect is both funny and oddly touching, one of the most successful exercises in English of the deadpan tall tale.