Birthing Bunnies: An 18th-Century Woman’s Bizarre Medical Hoax

Or, The Rabbit Queen
By Dexter Palmer

In 1726, in Godalming, England, Mary Toft “gave birth” to bits of a rabbit. Those scare quotes embrace the heart of Dexter Palmer’s novel, ostensibly about a medical hoax but actually about the nature of belief, about reason and faith, science and superstition — in short, what people know in their gut can’t be, yet seems to be and lots of people believe to be, and so in some sense is. Though “Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen” offers much that speaks to our own slippery times, it’s neither philosophy posing as a story nor a patronizing sneer at those gullible folk of yesteryear. Rather, taking literary license with the title character’s documented history, Palmer spins a cracking tale that, despite its disconcerting subject, is piquantly cheerful and compassionate.

British readers will smile at the mere mention of Godalming, a Surrey commuter town whose neat gentility smacks more of “Brief Encounter” than the traveling Exhibition of Medical Curiosities that sweeps us, in the novel’s first chapter, into the untidy and ungentle world of customs and values we now claim to abhor. Godalming! It’s a gift Palmer doesn’t squander. Using the journey his characters eventually make from Godalming to London, he presents another juxtaposition, country and city, slyly reminding commuters that those who seek to escape urban filth and chaos act as the city’s unwitting “agents of expansion” and thus never escape at all. At least in 1726, when John Howard, a “man-midwife” and Godalming’s “finest (and only) surgeon,” was called to deliver Mary Toft’s child and instead yanked out a “blood-matted hunk of fur and meat” — the first of 17 rabbit deliveries — Surrey’s “forests of ash and beech” still flourished intact.

It would have been easy to turn John Howard into an ass. Indeed, we’re with his wife, Alice, when she tells him, “You are a fool, John.” But Palmer gives us a man whose gullibility in the face of reason is fueled by humanity, not ignorance, and whose confusions and emotions, tumbled and shredded, are all too understandable. After two rabbit deliveries, Howard turns to books and the church. After a fifth, succumbing to horrified pride as “the world’s foremost expert in human-leporine midwifing,” he writes to “certain persons of distinction,” attracts the attention of prominent London surgeons and even the king, and loses control of events. When his wife (whose mischievous irony is a constant delight) calls him a fool, it’s with the exasperated love a good husband and decent man merits.

Howard is only one of the many characters woven into “Mary Toft,” and Palmer never resorts to pantomime — except, perhaps, for Nathanael St. André, the first surgeon to hotfoot it to Godalming. With his artful conversation, voluminous wig, silken high heels and mini-me apprentice, he’s straight out of a Hogarth cartoon. Otherwise, with empathy and imagination, Palmer explores the master/apprentice relationship, first love and first rivalry, spite and kindness: conjuring a world to raise a wry smile, some brow furrowing and the occasional loud — very loud — gasp.

But what of Mary Toft herself? She is Palmer’s bravest interpretation. We hear her voice most plainly in a cleareyed soliloquy in which Palmer has her both embracing and rejecting victimhood. Here is a woman who, even as her husband abuses her, can stroke his hair and tell the reader, with some defiance, “It is good to be loved, and to love in return.” Some readers may balk at this, but to me Palmer is paying Mary the compliment of complexity, raising her above her usual role as a vehicle for ridiculing the 18th-century medical profession. She is a woman whose story, both happily and unhappily, is rather more than the sum of its rabbit parts.

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