Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen (2019): Dexter Palmer


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.

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