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Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

February 24, 2020

IMG_3667I thought Dexter Palmer’s last novel, Version Control, was so good I bought copies for several of my friends, hoping they would like the time travel story. I was not as impressed by his most recent novel, entitled Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen. It’s about belief, a somewhat thorny topic in this day and age.

The case of Mary Toft is real; a woman did claim to give birth to rabbits in 1726 in Godalming, England. Palmer has embroidered the story, taking liberties with it and changing some of the characters and locations to suit his own purposes. What are those purposes? He must be trying to get at something about the power of credulity from authority and in groups of people. He seems to be interested in how tales that explain why something might have happened can take such hold in peoples’ minds.

Palmer introduces the story of the rabbit births from the perspective of Zachary Walsh, the son of the village cleric who is apprenticed to the village doctor, John Howard. John’s wife Alice denounces the story as nonsense from the start, but the men seem to want to believe it.

Early in the novel, the three men—Zachary, his father Crispin, and John Howard–see a traveling exhibition of “Monstrous Calamities” which is introduced by asking any woman in the audience who might be “with child” to leave. The reason for this is soon apparent, as a person with a birthmark is introduced as one whose mother “had an unusual love of wine, and of strawberries,” and a boy who seems to have parts of a bear in a mat of fur on his back is said to have had a mother who “had an insatiable love of the practice of bear-baiting.” The announcer, a man named Fox,
“accompanied the reveal of each of his subjects with a tale of a mother’s obsession, sin, or failure: the woman who never missed a chance to join the cheering crowds on Tyburn’s hanging days as the necks of thieves and murders were stretched at the gallows, whose son had half of his brainpan sheared off as neatly as if it had been done with a surgeon’s saw; a woman who had an insuperable aversion to the taste of meat not matter the care taken in its preparation, whose daughter was born without a single bone in her body….A shirtless man who propelled himself forward on crutches, the bones of his vertebrae visible through his brittle, mottled skin, his legs withered and bent backward like a dog’s, was the supposed son of a woman who…had an ‘unnatural affection’ for a spaniel; a bearded giantess who towered over Fox, broad-shouldered and flat-bosomed in her frilly dress, hunched and growling with a simmering anger, was the product of a mother who ‘spent an undue time in the sole company of men, carousing in pubs as if she were one of them, heedlessly accepting their embraces once made sufficiently dizzy by the demon drink.’”

In the build-up to his last exhibit, a woman with two heads, Fox is even more critical of how women spend their time:
“Consider…the woman with child who reads. Who seeks to occupy her mind with matters of art and science at a time when she is intended to embrace the role assigned to her by God, that of a wife, and of a mother. Who spends her days in the company of imaginary folk such as Moll Flanders and Roxana the Fortunate Mistress, while her belly swells and her needle goes neglected. Who fails to meditate on her responsibility to the new life that grows inside her. Such a woman’s though is torn in two directions—is it no surprise that if she were to give birth to a child in such an afflicted state of mind, that it would assume the most hideous of manifestations?”

We do get a few short chapters from Mary’s point of view. Although she doesn’t reveal exactly what she is doing, we find out why she is doing it; she says it’s for love of her husband, who asked her to do it.

Stories circulate about the rabbit births, the two most common being that Mary ran off with a “blackamoor” and then returned, giving birth to one or two animals each morning since and that “one of the rabbits she had birthed hosted the spirit of her miscarried son.” By the time the stories reached as far as London, “the Toft case acted as a kind of vortex that drew facts and falsehoods into it and stirred them together, so that all things were true and none were true. And if considering the case might give one the feeling that the ground was unsteady beneath one’s feet, that the world was filled with fog, then it also challenged one’s long-held preconceptions of the world’s true nature, and opened one’s mind up to myriad possibilities previous left unconsidered.”

In London, people gather under Mary’s window, eager to be witnesses to the rabbit births and greeting Mary’s presence in the city as some kind of miracle. Two of them are a long-married couple who have fallen out of love. He thinks that her “eyes were fading; her face was falling; the beginnings of a knob of her spine were protruding from the back of her neck; new strands of dingy gray wove themselves into her raven-colored hair each night. Her hands were cold when he touched them, dry and papery; her voice had the beginnings of a quaver, or perhaps her once forthright demeanor was giving way to a tremulous timidity in the face of her own speedy aging. That was the problem. He wasn’t aging; she was. She was aging and becoming uninteresting, her tales, when she told them, a monotonous, meticulous recounting of the past day’s events, of her endless cleaning, and her cooking, and her eating, and her breathing.”

She, on the other hand, sees that “his eyes, once shining, were becoming blurred and milky; his back had developed a stoop, and she feared that in twenty years he would make his way through the streets by staring at his feet. If he ate meat at supper he held his hand to his mouth for hours afterward, a sure sign that he would be better off with some of his teeth removed, but he took so much pride in them that he seemed to prefer the pain that came with them—thinking that he might be happier with food that was not so challenging to chew, she’d begun serving him vegetables at supper.”

Believing in the miracle of Mary’s rabbit births brings the couple together for a while, but when they find out that it’s all a fraud, they go back to their former perspectives about each other and the world.

Towards the end of the novel, Zachary finds out about other entertainments by the owner of the traveling show that began the novel, one the spectacle of a bull being destroyed by fireworks and another the sight of a man who will, for money, try to eat a cat alive. People will do anything for excitement, it seems.

In the end, John Howard warns Mary Toft that the doctors intend to perform surgery on her to find the cause of the rabbit births and she must dispel all the stories that have arisen in order to save her own life: “because history is an act of continuous collective imagining, and the perception of truth is a constant, unending negotiation, with others, and with oneself when one is alone.”

As part of his warning, John tells Mary a story about what happened between one pregnant woman and her doctor, a story about how one life could have been saved but it ended differently, with both lives lost, because a priest was there. John concludes “I will tell you this about God—that despite his presumed omnipresence he often arrives in the company of men; that men fear to interpret the world on their own authority when they are aware of his presence, because his senses are complete and perfect and his experiences are limited; that the standards for proof are much higher when God is involved, especially proof of life, or of what goes on inside a woman’s body; that weighed against God’s displeasure, or against a man’s feeling that God is displeased by his actions, the life of one woman is no great thing.”

The entire novel, it seems, consists of people adding themselves to the number interested in what started out as just between Mary Toft and her physician, until no matter what she does, they can define it as a crime. What a way to make a pro-choice argument.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2020 11:23 am

    I was thinking, well this sounds like a pro-choice argument if I ever heard one and then I got to you last sentence. The book has been getting lots of buzz and I have been tempted, but now I think I can safely move on and not worry about trying to read it. Enjoyed your review!

    • February 24, 2020 12:07 pm

      Maybe the novel would be more revelatory for someone who didn’t already agree?

  2. February 24, 2020 11:48 am

    Love the comic. Can’t decide whether to laugh or roll my eyes. The book sounds pretty trippy; I like to think I’m a badass woman who’d totally stick around for the “Monstrous Calamities,” but I think the sliced brain pan might be a bit much for me 😨

    • February 24, 2020 12:07 pm

      You saw the comic? I had it on a draft of this post but then deleted it, thinking it was too divisive and suggested that the novel is focused on this issue, when it’s focused more on how people get so divided and issues get complicated when other people insert themselves into private matters.

      • February 24, 2020 5:57 pm

        Ah! WordPress does that to me, too, in the app version of my posts. Any time I’ve deleted an image, it shows up at the top of the post. Maybe we need to delete the image completely, from storage.

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