Thursday, October 13, 2011

"The Fox in the Cupboard" - Jane Shilling

I own a small, modern imitation of an antique clock which in I bought in my early teens because I loved the illustration it features: a rider in a red jacket, jumping a fence and three running hounds in the foreground all set in a bucolic landscape. Later, when I realized there was such a thing as fox-hunting and that this was unmistakably a representation of it (despite there being no fox in the picture) I was quite embarrassed by it. After reading “The Fox in the Cupboard” I went and got the broken, little plastic thing back from where it was hiding – fact is I quite still like that image for all it suggests to me: a welcoming, unthreatening countryside, horses and dogs and, why not? red jackets. As with Jane Shilling’s book it features no cruelty or violence and evokes a world that, as an adult, I still dream of being granted entrance to.

Jane Shilling’s “The Fox in the Cupboard” is certainly a book that left a deep impression, a memoir that enveloped me in an almost dream-like stupor while I wandered its pages and followed the author into the world of horses and hounds. There is an almost poetic rhythm to this book, the chapters on the first horse-riding lessons as an adult, interspersed with childhood memories, adult musings and first-hand accounts of hunts, horse-riding excursions and an episode on buying fox-hunting apparel which is straight out of a fairy tale, if in fairy tales girls ever chose clothes based on function as well as beauty.

There are some mildly frustrating passages mostly courtesy of Shilling’s (female) riding instructor who is not shall we say a very tactful or comforting person (and which coupled with the even worse description of female instructor’s in Lynn Reardon’s “Beyond the Homestretch” has me scared stiff of women riding teachers). I sometimes wondered how much more abuse Shilling was going to take from the woman (quite a bit). There is also a rambling chapter on the history of the hunt – who did what for the first time and whatnot, that has its interesting bits but felt a bit too long.

On more than one occasion Shilling states that she will never belong in the fox-hunting or even horse-riding crowd: to her everything feels artificial and must be thought out and carried out with enormous effort, while everyone else who has learned how to ride at an early age is at ease with the body language of horses, the labyrinth of tack and the lay of the land where fox hunting takes place. However there is something to be said of being an outsider (at least I hope there is) and certainly this sensitive account could never have come from someone brought up among the horses and hounds. Here we see everything through the eyes of the newly anointed – we feel with the author the challenge of being admitted into a closed off, highly ritualized endeavor: it is daunting, nerve-wrecking and sometimes downright embarrassing being the new adult in the gang, but on the other hand it keeps you from taking it all too seriously and allows you to recognize some pretty funny stuff going on while everyone is busy being proper (or properly drunk if you are witnessing a Hunt Ball).

My mother once asked me why on earth I would want to learn how to ride since I couldn’t possibly keep a horse (it was a good question and I still haven’t learned how to ride). Once you are learning it seems inevitable that you must do something with that knowledge – a horse after all, is not a bicycle, it needs to be exercised, challenged even humored – jumping and whatever that other thing when people dress up is called, or fox hunting seem perfectly adequate ways to keep a horse happy.

However, writing about “The Fox in the Cupboard” is a lot more difficult than enjoying it as a reader which is comparatively easy: try as I might to avoid it (and I did) I keep stumbling on the ethics of the whole thing. It must be said that there are no scenes of the actual killing of the fox by the hounds in the book and if I remember correctly the author describes seeing a fox once. Most of the memoir is concerned with the process of learning how to ride as an adult and the social aspects and rituals of fox-hunting. I never felt that Shilling was using her memoir as some sort of apologia of hunting but she did convince me that as far as animal cruelty goes there are far worse things going on in the world. To make matters more complicated for non-British readers there is also the fact that vocal pro and con opinions on fox hunting are deeply immersed in economic and social history and are sometimes as little concerned with the fate of that single fox as she is invisible to the majority of riders from start to finish.

To go down that endless road though, would really detract from the enjoyment of this singular memoir. To the reticent reader I would compare “The Fox in the Cupboard” with a painting featuring a hunting scene that would capture your imagination: it won’t convince you to go out shooting hares with bow and arrow (I hope) but the appreciation of it will enrich your mind.

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