I spent a day this week in the Reading University Special Collections reading room, going through Chatto & Windus review clippings books, looking at dozens of early reviews of David Garnett’s Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo. This was incredibly interesting – looking at the initial response to these books, which was pretty positive, and seeing how their consensus over Lady Into Fox as a future classic have rather died a death. David Garnett has become rather a footnote in the history of the Bloomsbury Group (most famous, perhaps, for marrying Virginia Woolf’s niece Angelica – having previously been the lover of Angelica’s father Duncan Grant. Messy.) But if anyone has heard of his literary output, it is for the 90-page novella Lady into Fox, where a lady turns into a fox (surprise surprise), which I wrote about briefly here. It was a big bestseller in 1922, and lots of newspapers were eager to see what his follow up would be…
Hop forwards to 1924 and A Man in the Zoo, often found in tandem with Lady into Fox, since they only make up 190 pages between them. Garnett has dropped the Defoe-esque (apparently) style of Lady into Fox, but he’s still in person-as-animal territory – although this time there is nothing fantastic at play.
John Cromartie and Josephine Lackett are visiting the zoo, and are in the middle of an argument. John has proposed, but Josephine doesn’t want to leave her ailing father – and John believes that she simply doesn’t love him enough. They’re having quite the contretemps, when Josephine says:
“I might as well have a baboon or a bear. You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo. The collection here is incomplete without you. You are a survival – atavism at its worst. Don’t ask me why I fell in love with you – I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I’m not romantic enough. I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying. You do think mankind is your enemy. I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo – I’ve told you once and now I tell you again – with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot.”
She is venting, but… he takes her at her word. John offers himself as an exhibit for the zoo – and, mostly to annoy a troublesome member of the committee (‘it was not, however,until Mr. Wollop threatened to resign that the thing was done’) they agree.
So he moves in. He is housed between an orangutan and a chimpanzee, and draws quite the crowd – to the envy of his animal neighbours, and to Josephine’s horror. He is given a private bedroom and a library, and simply sits reading, ignoring the visiting public. (It’s starting to sound a little blissful, isn’t it? All that time just to read!)
For the rest of this short novel, Garnett shows Josephine and John’s reactions to the situation, and (most adorably) gives John a pet caracal. I hadn’t looked one up before – but they’re rather beautiful, aren’t they?
As some of the early noted, Garnett doesn’t entirely take full advantage of his scenario. It could be used in all manner of different directions, but he doesn’t explore very much – and the addition of another man (a black man, rather crudely drawn) feels a bit like Garnett is clutching at straws in an already extremely brief novel. Lady into Fox was so brilliantly done, so logically worked out from the metamorphosis onwards, that A Man in the Zoo feels rather scattergun in comparison. And the comparison certainly comes up time and again in those early reviews – as might be expected.
Taken on its own, without any reference to Lady into Fox, it’s an enjoyable little book. Garnett’s style is pretty plain on first sight, but writing about passionate people without sounding ridiculous or hackneyed is difficult, so he deserves credit for that. I suppose, with an extraordinary conceit at the centre of a narrative, the style shouldn’t be over the top – so his gentle, straight-forward writing makes the tale seem almost rational.
I’d definitely recommend seeking out a copy which has both of these short novels together – not least because they are likely to have all the woodcuts by Garnett’s then-wife Rachel Garnett, which have wonderful character to them. Those for Lady into Fox are remarkable in the way she captures the fox’s movements, as well as the human soul disguised in the metamorphosis. The woodcuts help the fable-like quality of these two novels. I don’t know what message he might have been trying to give – they aren’t simply Aesopian tales with morals – but an intriguing 1920s take on the strange and unusual, given a matter-of-fact treatment.