The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

A little while ago I got a very nice email from someone called Vicki, saying how much she enjoyed reading Stuck-in-a-Book, and asking if she could send me one of the books she loved as a sort of thank you. Well, I was very touched, and – not one to turn down a book recommendation or, indeed, a book – said yespleasethankyouverymuch. And shortly afterwards Betsy Byars’ The Midnight Fox (1968) arrived.

I hadn’t heard of it, but I think The Midnight Fox is well known in some circles. Yet again, having only read Enid Blyton for years on end means that I don’t know that much about other children’s classics. But now I have read, and very much enjoyed, this sweet and touching tale of a holiday on a farm.

The premise has a surprising number of similarities with Philippa Pearce’s much-loved children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden, published ten years earlier. In both, a boy named Tom must reluctantly go and stay with his aunt and uncle, and greatly misses a boy called Peter. In both, a certain midnight aberration becomes an obsession, and changes the stay into a much happier event; Peter is written to from a distance, and becomes an accomplice in the discovery. I doubt that Byars plagiarised the book, but the similarities amused me.

The story is simple – Tom is beguiled by the beauty of this unusual fox, who is entirely black. He starts to look out for her, and becomes increasingly keen to observe her playing with her small fox cub; he is almost bewitched by this elegant, elemental life lived near to him – and must find a way to stop his hunting uncle from trapping the fox.

What makes it such a special little book? The style, I think. It’s not told with the gung-ho naivety of some children’s books, but treats Tom’s anxieties and concerns seriously – not least because we read it in the first person. Here is the opening…

Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green. green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.

Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was – the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear bark of the midnight fox.
Thanks again, Vicki, for sending me this book; it was so generous and kind of you. I really enjoyed reading it – and I especially think this would be good to read aloud to a child, if any parents are on the look-out for something!

A Cab at the Door – V.S. Pritchett

photo source

More Slightly Foxed!  Yay!  Well, this one was actually a little bonus – earlier in the year, when they sent me the fabulous Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith, they inadvertently sent me A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett first.  And then very kindly said I could have both.  Having recently adored Blue Remembered Hills, I realised I couldn’t go long without another fix of Slightly Foxed, and so grabbed A Cab at the Door (1968).

I have to confess, I’ve spent much of my adult life confusing V.S. Pritchett and V.S. Naipaul (he of the I’m-better-than-all-women rant).  As crimes go, it’s not the worst, and I hadn’t actually read anything by either of them – but now I’m sure that Pritchett is going to be my favourite V.S.  Sorry, Italian astronomer V.S. Casulli.  Tough break.

Like all the Slightly Foxed Editions (of which this is no.3), A Cab at the Door is a memoir – stretching further than some, in that it takes us beyond childhood, up until the time Pritchett breaks away from his parents and leaves home for France.  Like most memoirists, Pritchett seems to have been blessed with more amusing, regional relatives than the average person (c’mon, my relatives, be more comical) but although we have entertaining visits to these, the dominant character in this memoir is Pritchett’s father.  And I choose the word dominant deliberately.  Whatever other merits the book has, I think its greatest achievement is a rich and complex portrait of the sort of man who would simply appear as an ogre in fiction.

Father (if his name is mentioned, I have forgotten it – as I invariably forget names) is selfish, arrogant, and angry.  His cruelty is that peculiar brand which stems from monumental self-delusion – he drives his family deeply into debt, but appears to believe it is none of his doing.  He has constant ambition to better himself and his standing in society (and even achieves it to a degree, eventually, becoming a Managing Director) but doesn’t care how his failures along the way ruin and sadden his wife and children.  His wife – a lively and somewhat crude woman – is all but forbidden from entertaining, and is constantly carted from pillar to post, as they move to escape his debts.  The eponymous cab at the door is Pritchett’s familiar childhood sight, waiting to take them to their next home.

But because this is non-fiction, Father is not the caricatured evil man, nor his wife the stereotypical woman whose character is squashed out of her.  Instead, despite his unkindness to his younger son, and his unpredictable behaviour towards Victor himself, there is still love in him.  His wife still has moments of shrieking with laughter; Victor can still bond with his father over literature, occasionally, even if his own early attempts at writing are loudly derided.  And what novelist would have the masterstroke of making Father become a fierce proponent of Christian Science?  It is a truly exceptional portrait of a complicated man – and a portrait which is never finished to the artist’s satisfaction, simply because he could not be comprehended.  Pritchett writes this brilliant paragraph towards the end:

Right up to the day of his death in his eighties, none of us children could settle our view of him.  It was simple to call him the late Victorian dominant male without whose orders no one could think or move.  It was only partly true that he was a romantic procrastinator, egotist and dreamer, for he was a very calculating man.  Sometimes we saw him as the unchanged country boy, given to local shrewdness and gossip.  (He loved the malicious gossip of his church and his trade.)  Sometimes we saw him as a pocket Napoleon, but he never even tried to obtain the wealth or power he often talked about.  His mind was more critical than creative and he was appalled by criticism of himself.  He would go pale, hold up his hand and say, “You must not criticise me.”  He sincerely meant he was beyond criticism and felt in himself a sort of sacredness.
A Cab at the Door doesn’t have the warmth and delight of other Slightly Foxed books – it doesn’t intend to – and so, while Pritchett cannot compete with Dodie Smith and Rosemary Sutcliff for my affections, his task is different and executed incredibly well.

There are, of course, other angles and facets to this memoir, but I thought it worth identifying and discussing the one which set it apart from others that I have read.  Perhaps not one to curl up with in front of the festive log fire (for that, get Look Back With Love or Blue Remembered Hills, I cannot encourage you enough) but certainly an impressive portrait of a frustrating man, exactly the right ratio of objective and personal, an exemplary achievement.