D. H. Lawrence wrote the first version of “The Fox” in December 1918. This version of the story was a straightforward tale about two women, whose lesbian partnership is implicit. Jill Banford is diffident and timid, whereas the more physical Ellen March is capable of strenuous farming chores. Struggling for comfort and an effective agricultural existence in an unfamiliar rural residence, the city women are troubled by a fox who deftly robs them of domestic fowl. A young man, Henry Grenfel, enters the women’s lives. After killing the fox, he wins March, and Banford, despite her vociferous complaints, loses her lover. To retain any companionship with March, she must assist her with the wedding, galling as this is. March has taken the easier option, choosing heterosexuality over lesbianism. As homosexuality was not made legal in Britain until 1967, such a move is understandable. The relationship between Banford and March has been courageous and unconventional, but a heteronormative status quo is established by the story’s end. There is a triumph for normative sex, but the story is a tragedy because a flourishing, nonnormative relationship has been thwarted.
In 1921, Lawrence revised “The Fox,” crafting a longer and more brutal, violent, and successful story. In the new version, Henry deliberately kills Banford by allowing a tree to fall on top of her. This dramatic climax is patently symbolic in its phallocentric imagery. The axe shaft and the tree trunk, both profoundly phallic, are wielded by the masculine Henry. The homosexual female, Banford, has lost her lover, March, to the heterosexual male, Henry. Henry not only has won March through loaded discourse but also has contrived a callous murder. It is not relevant to speculate about whether March suspects the truth behind her former lover’s death. What is important is that even before the killing, March meekly accepts Henry’s advances instead of valuing and privileging her existing relationship. Banford becomes less sympathetic as the narrative progresses. She whines and nags March about her indulgence toward Henry but fails to articulate any convincing argument about the efficacy of her same-sex partnership with March. Banford’s loquacious impotence—Linda Ruth Williams describes the character as a “fretful, manipulative caricature of passive-aggressive femininity” (63)—contrasts the physicality of the confident Henry. Only one warrior is equipped to inspire the loyalty and sexuality of the easily swayed March: The male wins easily.
When he first arrives, Henry is less confident. A lowranking soldier in World War I, he previously fled to Canada. He grew up in the farmhouse with a nowdeceased relative, so he soon claims mastery of the home and its surroundings. He kills the fox, replacing it as the aggressive male threat to the female couple’s way of life. Significantly, March had a clear opportunity to shoot the fox but hesitated, gripped by its striking appearance and stealthy character. She is intrigued by the male fox, as she is later intrigued by Henry, who eventually conquers her. Henry wins March, gaining her hand, but he does not necessarily win her heart. Lawrence’s major achievement in “The Fox” is to legitimize the homosexual love that Banford feels for March. Henry’s triumph is a victory for heterosexual-dominated society, but it is clearly not a triumph for March, who shows little indication of genuine affective desire for her new, male partner. Before Henry wins March, his sexual lust for Banford is expressed through Lawrence’s use of free indirect speech; the sexuality that exists between Banford and March is, inevitably, noted more coyly.
A 1967 film version of “The Fox,” directed by Mark Rydell, sensationalizes the sexuality essential to the dangerous love triangle and, arguably, dilutes the impact of Lawrence’s discreet, moral insistence on the merits of all forms of love.
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Kincead-Weekes, Mark. D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912–22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Lawrence, D. H. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D. H. Lawrence: “The Fox,” “The Captain’s Doll,” “The Ladybird.” Edited by Dieter Mehl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Nelson, Jane A. “The Familial Isotopy in ‘The Fox.’ ” In The Challenge of D. H. Lawrence, edited by Michael Squires and Keith Cushman, 129–142. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Tate, Trudi. “Lawrence’s Tales.” In The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence, edited by Anne Fernihough, 103– 118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Williams, Linda Ruth, D. H. Lawrence. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1997.