Saturday, January 4, 2014

WINIFRED DUKE, The Dancing of the Fox (1956)

A few days ago, I wrote about finding this book at Russell Books in Victoria during our post-Christmas excursion. I'm always a little torn when I come across a book like this by an author I don't know, which looks interesting but really could go either way. But I was intrigued by the jacket description of this one, and when I read the opening paragraph, my seduction was complete:

The four sisters sat at breakfast on this October morning of the year 1930. They were all elderly, and as was frequently the case with women of their era and environment, looked as though they had never been young. The house they occupied was a quiet, old-fashioned residence, set in a London suburb originally regarded as fashionable, but now decaying and obsolete. All of them had been born in the same house, lived their whole lives in it, and alike seemed destined to die there when the time came. Papa had brought Mamma to it after they married. The family had never known any other home. Everybody called them the Ross girls, later the Ross sisters, and now, Louise, the second one, wryly supposed, they were known as the Ross old ladies, or even as the Ross old maids.

I'm so pleased that I did find this book irresistible, because I read it obsessively in our hotel room and on our flight home (to Andy's slight annoyance), and while it's not necessarily one of my all-time favorites, it proved to be very compelling, rather unusual, and quite striking in its exploration of some of the themes I'm most interested in.

It turns out that Duke was a crime writer of sorts, but not a traditional mystery writer.  Rather, she seems to have been more focused on the effects of crime, and on characters' varying perceptions and feelings about guilt and punishment.  Judging from a few reviews I found of earlier novels, she seems to have been particularly concerned with the Scottish legal system's possible verdict of "Not Proven."  This verdict was apparently similar, originally, to the U.S. and England's "Not Guilty" verdict, but gradually evolved into something like a middle ground, in which a jury has the option of acquitting the accused for lack of proof but nevertheless asserting that it remains unconvinced of his or her innocence.  I found this fascinating, and if you do too you can read the Wikipedia entry about it here.

Duke hasn't been added to my Overwhelming List yet, though she will be in a future update.  And I have to thank a relatively new friend of this blog for the information that she was born in Liverpool but spent most of her life in Edinburgh, which explains the vivid portrayal of Scotland and Scottish characters in many of her novels, including this one.  She was the daughter of a clergyman and apparently also wrote historical works and biographical fiction.  Thank you, John, for providing this information.  

(By the way, John has also provided me with a wonderful revelation about a certain mysterious author discussed here previously, which I'll be posting about soon…)

The Dancing of the Fox is admittedly a bit on the bleak side, but I found it fascinating.  As is apparently true of some of Duke's other novels, it's not so much a who-done-it as a what-happened-after.  Although Duke was apparently praised for the surprise endings in some of her works, there is no surprise here, plot-wise. We learn early on of the murder, the perpetrator and his victim, and even—because the novel begins in 1930 and flashes back to 1889—the fates of many of the other principal characters. This might make the novel a bit less satisfying for some readers, but also perhaps more interesting for those interested in character studies. Here, the study concerns the lingering effects on the Reeds, a conservative Victorian family (one very much after Ivy Compton-Burnett's heart, actually—dictatorial patriarch and all) of the murder of its youngest son, Edward, while on vacation in Scotland.

The structure of the novel is somewhat unusual, I think.  It begins, as quoted above, in 1930 with the four surviving Reed sisters, before flashing back to Edward's departure for and failure to return from his holiday on an unnamed Scottish island and eldest brother James's departure to search for him.  The news of Edward's death reaches to the family, and then we flash back to James's actual trip and the search for and discovery of Edward's body at the base of a cliff. Then we flash back yet again to witness Edward's trip and to enter the perspective of his killer—though, interestingly, the murder itself is never presented, so we are intriguingly left uncertain of some of the details.  Several family members, including two of the sisters, are required to travel to Scotland for the trial, after which the reader is presented with the effects of the entire experience on various family members.

It's a somewhat peculiar way of telling the story, but I found it surprisingly effective.  It even seemed to me to build up a kind of suspense, in spite of the fact that I already knew most of the salient details of the plot. Perhaps Duke used this unusual structure to highlight some of the other themes that are important in the novel.

I've written several times before of what I call "maleficent malingerers"—those figures which seem to have become a sort of stock character in middlebrow women's novels and which most often seem to be mothers who manipulate their children using their poor emotional or physical health as a weapon.  Here, however, the malingerer is the Compton-Burnett-esque Victorian father, a widower who is so selfish, whiny, snide, manipulative, and gleefully martyred at every turn that in the end many readers may feel as I did—that the real tragedy of the novel is that the wrong member of the family was murdered.

Unlike in a Compton-Burnett novel, however, wherein other characters (most entertainingly even the younger offspring of her domineering patriarchs) are often armed with intellect and subversive wit with which to defend themselves, Duke portrays Mr. Reed's offspring as intelligent and thoughtful, but also as fully cowed and beaten-down.  She seems particularly interested in the four spinster daughters whose lives are blighted by either (depending on your perspective) Edward's murder or their father's domination.  The novel both begins and ends with them in later years—alone together, eccentric, isolated, left behind by the world and culture around them.

I have an ongoing fascination—for whatever peculiar, deep-seated reason—with literary portrayals of spinsters (I doubt if that comes as a shock to any regular readers of this blog). So I was particularly intrigued by Duke's characterization of the sisters and their tragic limitations.  For example, when Mary, the oldest daughter—calmly efficient and capable in managing her father's household—is forced to travel to Scotland to attend the trial, her utter lack of any real world experience is made poignantly explicit:

The hotel, situated in a quiet street, was not large, but the rooms were lofty as compared with London standards, and the entrance-hall sufficiently opulent to awe the strangers. How could Edward have gone so gaily and confidently to that dreadful hydropathic, actually enjoying, as evidenced by his letters home, the crowds, the new faces, the unfamiliar routine? Mary fought back a sob. James was coming towards them after a parley with the manager, asking whether they would like a meal, or prefer to go straight upstairs.

Similarly, left at home with their father, we see how helpless Mary's sisters Lilian and Alice are as they anxiously await word of the verdict but are unable to even obtain a newspaper:

"Can't we get a paper?"

Lilian offered the suggestion in a dubious tone. At Wisteria Lodge evening papers were considered to be slightly ungenteel, an unnecessary pandering to an unsuitable craving for news, and wholly unfitted for their sex.

"I wish James or Frederick were here. They'd know, or one of them would get a paper himself and say nothing about it to Papa."

There are even indications of hysteria in the two sisters who are fully developed as characters, Mary and Alice (the others are barely seen or heard, apart from Louise's musing in the opening paragraph). This is appropriate for a tale set in 1889, when Freud was just beginning his studies of neurotic symptoms and, rather radically, concluding that the root cause was his upper class female patients' stultifying lives as overprotected hothouse flowers. Undoubtedly the sisters would have made fascinating case studies. Later, too, when Mary becomes engaged to a friend of Edward's, whom she meets during the trial, and is trying to convince herself that her father can be made to approve, the reader can imagine her blushing to herself at the merest approach to a thought of the acts required to produce offspring:

It ought to mean a fresh interest for him, the wedding, Mary's new prospects, and perhaps in time the desired grand-children. This last thought hardly formed itself in Mary's mind. It savoured of immodesty to imagine such a possibility.

We know from the beginning that her attempt to find happiness is doomed to fail, but Duke handles the tragedy elegantly, and Mary's position is summed up succinctly:

What was she to do? The prospect of defying Papa was unthinkable. Even with Mr. Goodwin's support she knew that she would never have the courage. Her whole life had ill prepared her for this crisis.

Although Duke seems to have a particular interest in the sisters, however, I should note that they are not always the central focus. Edward and his brothers are also well-developed characters, and there are some particularly strong passages set in Scotland—before Edward's murder and during James's search for him, as well as during the trial. Mrs. Wallace, James's landlady during the search, is a lively and entertaining character, as is her "strong silent type" of a husband, "Wullie."

Duke does make liberal use of Scottish dialect throughout these scenes, something which normally irritates me no end, but which didn't trouble me here and was even somewhat entertaining. This is obviously highly subjective though, so fair warning. And she offers rather vivid descriptions of Edinburgh, including this one from just after the murderer's trial has ended on a Saturday night and the siblings are unable to head home until Monday because their father has forbidden travel on the Sabbath:

In the cold November morning the city, sunk in haar, resembled the drawings illustrating that region in an old book which had enlivened her childhood. There was the same grey atmosphere, the same smoke, the same ugliness. The Scottish capital in 1889 was indeed a dour, joyless place. Bells rang out, jangling, discordant, contradicting one another, and crowds hurried to the various churches with a flat purpose which seemed to denote that they went from duty, and no other motive. The four Rosses went too, it never occurring to them to do anything else. Frederick sat rigid during the sermon in case some reference might be made to the trial, in which event James was thoroughly capable of rising and stalking out of the building. Mercifully there was none, and the murderer's victim's family emerged at the conclusion uncomforted and at a loose end for the rest of the day.

Among a fair number of new vocabulary terms I got from this novel was "haar," meaning fog I believe, and the Scots' apparent tendency to refer to hot water bottles as "pigs"?  You see, it's an educational reading experience as well as an entertaining one!

I never did quite determine the meaning of the novel's title in relation to its plot.  The full quote from Yeats, used as the epigraph, is: "When men are very bitter, death and ruin draw them on as a rabbit is / Supposed to be drawn on by the dancing of the fox." A lovely quote, and I assume it's meant to refer to the murder victim, but it could conceivably refer to the ways in which Duke's characters allow their lives to ruined—by the murder, by the domineering father, or by their own weaknesses.  You know how I love a double meaning!

I know I have a frightful tendency to write about books that are practically unobtainable. (Oddly, this one isn't even listed on Amazon US, as far as I can see, but Bookfinder does bring up some fairly reasonably priced results.) But I will make amends in the next week or two—next up are a Persephone title, readily available in a beautiful little grey edition, and an old Virago title still readily available (though unforgivably out of print).  Stay tuned!


  1. I am SO glad you bought this book simply for the reason that it's absolutely horrible to have regret...especially so far from home! And I have to nod in approval of your fascination with spinsters, they make some of the best reading.

    1. I'm glad too, Darlene. Sometimes I feel like there's a weird kind of kismet involved, when you see a book and it just speaks to you and you know it's going to be interesting. I'm sure there are times when I've been disappointed, but it usually seems to work out, as it did in this case.


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