Once heard, Mary Toft’s story can’t be forgotten. I first encountered it at university, in a class which focused not on the kings and politicians of our core courses, but the stories of ordinary people, gleaned from archives, pamphlets and early journalism. Later, I became aware of Emma Donoghue’s short story about the case (the eponymous story in The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits), but I haven’t got round to reading that yet. Dexter Palmer’s lush and troubling novel is my first fictional take on this bizarre morsel of history. The curtain rises in 1726 on the small town of Godalming in Surrey, where the local surgeon John Howard and his young assistant Zachary are called to assist at a birth. Nothing new in that, but the experience shakes Howard to the core, challenging him to rethink everything he thought he knew. With his very own eyes, and his own hands, he witnesses Mary Toft deliver not a child but the dismembered parts of a rabbit. A couple of days later, it happens again. And, as Mary Toft begins to produce rabbits on a regular basis, the bewildered Howard decides to call in support from his eminent medical colleagues in London. This is a story about trickery, but also about belief – our desire to witness the extraordinary – and our willingness to be complicit in our own delusions.
News of Mary Toft’s condition lures several (self-proclaimed) eminences down to Godalming. First comes the blustering Nathaniel St Andre, with his extravagant suits and ridiculous wig, accompanied by his mini-me of a servant. Then comes Cyriacus Ahlers, claiming he has been sent by the King; and finally Sir Richard Manningham: sober, thoughtful, and suspicious. Each of these great men experiences Mary’s deliveries at first hand, and each is wildly perplexed. Of course they know that a woman who develops a fascination with a particular animal during her pregnancy might well give birth to a child displaying features of that animal (hence hare-lips). But whoever heard of a woman giving birth to actual animals? And why are the rabbits born dismembered? Something preternatural is surely happening and, as excitement spreads, the surgeons are eager to assert their authority. Mary Toft will go down in the history books, for sure, and the London surgeons intend their names to be remembered alongside hers (John Howard just wants to find a way to cure her). But will they be remembered as visionaries… or fools?
Palmer is particularly interested in how we allow ourselves to be deluded. At several points in the novel, people are duped because they want so badly to believe: that goes for the crowds who attend Nicholas Fox’s travelling freak show; or the citizens in the fairy tale of the King and the Three Imposters; or the Londoners who gather in silent fascination beneath Mary Toft’s window in Covent Garden. These people see something quite different from what they’re told that they’re seeing – Fox’s ‘boneless girl’ is nothing more than a platterful of poultry decked out with a wig; the king in the fable is stark naked. But people set aside their critical faculties because, in the presence of a mystery, they can experience a brief flash of magic in the midst of mundane lives. They reason that these events are inexplicable only to the human mind: they are proof of something greater than themselves, a message from some higher power, which ordains the impossible to become possible.
For some of Palmer’s characters, that greater power is God, who punishes intemperate pregnant women by visiting their sins upon their children. These people interpret Mary Toft’s condition as a sign from God, its very incomprehensibility proof of God’s mysterious ways. Man is not meant to understand. Other characters choose to believe because, by agreeing without everyone else, they become part of a greater whole, like the patriotic tradesman in the story of the Three Imposters. For the people in Covent Garden, Mary Toft’s story suggests that life might not be as dull or as miserable as they’d imagined: it opens up worlds of possibilities. And, for the ambitious surgeons, Mary’s story offers the chance to be associated with a unique celebrity.
But when Mary Toft is taken to London, she comes under sharper scrutiny. She becomes a visitor attraction for the jaded nobility, like Lord M—, who regards her not as a sign of God’s mysterious power, but an amusement to spice up his life. The boredom of wealth requires ever more extreme diversions and, for the sinister Lord M—, the greatest form of entertainment is to look down from his elevated heights and watch the common people degrading themselves for his delectation. Hence the grotesque scenes at Nicholas Fox’s London show, which is a completely different beast from his provincial roadshow: a section that I positively disliked. It didn’t make it any better to learn, from Palmer’s endnote, that the Chelsea Cat Eater was real, although he ‘performed’ some years later, in 1790. So is this another explanation for people’s fascination with Mary: that, by giving birth to rabbits, she makes herself somehow more animal than human, allowing onlookers to feel their moral superiority? Does it all come down to the unpleasant impulse to boost our own egos by ‘othering’ someone else?
While the book is gorgeously written, it’s occasionally weighed down by philosophising. Tender-hearted readers should also consider themselves warned that there are gruesome elements. It grows considerably darker as it progresses and, for me, it was less successful once the focus shifted away from Mary to the exploitative world of Lord M— and Anne. But it does throw a vivid light on this little scrap of history, thanks to Palmer’s deep interest in the way that people tick. I thoroughly enjoyed his exploration of the mechanisms of belief and the alacrity with which people allow themselves to be deceived.
And of course, Mary Toft’s story still exerts a considerable grip on the imagination. If you fancy reading more, here are some other books about the case (I haven’t read any of them yet, so these aren’t recommendations as such). If you like primary sources, you might try George Steevens’s Complete Collection, of All the Tracts, Both Printed and Manuscript, Relating to Mary Tofts, the Celebrated Rabbit Woman of Godalming. Straightforward historical treatments include The Imposteress Rabbit-Breeder by Karen Harvey and The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Clifford Pickover. The case has even inspired artworks, in the form of an intriguing photo-story recreation by the photographer Rebeca Saray, and a rather graphic 2019 print by the artist Nicola Bealing. If you know of any further treatments of the story, please don’t hesitate to share them with us in the comments!
P.S. Palmer gets top marks for historical context by including a face-off between gangs of Bordoni and Cuzzoni fans on the Haymarket, outside the theatre where Handel’s Alessandro is playing.
Mary Toft’s story offered fertile ground for satirical printmakers. Here are three contemporary etchings detailing ‘The Surrey-Wonder’, along with a more formal portrait of Mary. Click on the images to enlarge them and read the often entertaining captions.