Review: Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen

TW: body horror/gore.

In late October 1726, a remarkable piece of news reached London: a peasant woman named Mary Toft from the market town of Godalming claimed to have given birth to a rabbit. The event proved a sensation, drawing the attention of two of King George I’s physicians and enthralling the entire country until it was eventually revealed as a hoax. In Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, Dexter Palmer spins this strange historical interlude into a fable about the power of popular delusion and the willingness of the human psyche to be deceived that feels peculiarly relevant to our current post-truth fake-news society.

The novel follows provincial surgeon John Howard, the first doctor to attend Mary Toft, as he attempts to make sense of what is happening to her and do the best he can for his patient in the midst of an increasingly sensationalised eighteenth-century media circus. The case takes him and his young apprentice Zachary to London, where they encounter the vanities and cruelties of the idle rich, their performative jostling for social status.

One of the key things Palmer is interested in here, then, is just how an entire posse of medical experts fell for such an obvious hoax. (Toft and her husband pull it off by the alarmingly simple method of sticking rabbit parts up her vagina.) And one of his answers (although not by any means the only one) is plain old misogyny. The voice of Mary Toft herself is notably – and deliberately – missing from the text, apart from a few pages near the end: we never learn why she does what she does and what she thinks about the frenzied attention she garners from some of the most important people in the country. Is she a willing participant in the plot, or the victim of an opportunistic husband looking to make his fortune? We don’t know.

In a lesser author’s hands this might look like a simple oversight. But the presence of John’s straight-talking wife Alice makes it clear that it’s not. Alice tells John right at the start that Mary is clearly faking it, and how, but John rejects the Occam’s Razor explanation and has to return to her at the end of the novel, cap in hand, admitting that she was right all along. We hear as little from Alice, almost, as we do from Mary (although what we do hear from her is wonderful) and the implication is clear: the men of this story simply do not trust women to be the experts on their own bodies. (This is an accusation that can be levelled at the medical profession even to this day.) We don’t get access to Mary’s thoughts on the whole drama because the physicians treating her aren’t interested in them, or really in the thoughts of any woman (as we see in John’s response to Alice’s scorn – although it has to be said that in most other respects John and Alice are a refreshingly healthy couple by the standards of historical fiction). Mary’s doctors don’t see her as a person; she’s a curiosity, a freak, a riddle to be solved. And so, for the most part, she is a cipher at the heart of the narrative; a mystery to the reader, too.

But it’s not just the doctors who are taken in by Mary’s actions. Once installed in a bagnio in London, she gains an almost cult-like following of ordinary people who keep vigil outside her window, awaiting…revelation? A break with the mundanity of everyday life? Or simply keeping the faith? There are other popular delusions depicted in the novel too: one of the first things John and Zachary do is attend a freak show at which John expounds to his apprentice on the topic of fraud and deception, amidst the voyeuristic fascination of their neighbours. Several characters discuss Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, published anonymously in 1722, speculating on whether it’s a true autobiography (it wasn’t, obviously), whether it was written by a man or a woman. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proves popular among the sidelined female characters while men denigrate it as morally corrupt.) Underlying all of this is a profound epistemological uncertainty about the nature of truth. Does an absolute truth, knowable to an objective omniscient observer (such as God) exist? Or is what we call the truth contingent, malleable, dependent on the biases and fallacies of men (a word I use advisedly given the gender politics at work in the novel)?

These questions feel apposite for the time period Mary Toft is set in: in the throes of the Enlightenment, with reason and evidence coming to replace holy writ as the basis of human knowledge, the foundations of felt reality fundamentally shifting. But they also ring uneasy bells today, too, in an era when political aims override scientific reality; when governments can proclaim a pandemic over, and lo, it is done, everyone goes back to work and play regardless of the actual risks reflected in the statistics.

Perhaps this is another reason why Mary Toft remains silent in the novel that bears her name; why we are kept from understanding the reasons behind what she does: perhaps there is precisely no reason, just a profound irrationality at the centre of the text. The silence at the heart of Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen is the gnawing void at the heart of Western democracy; the place where, through processes that have nothing to do with reason or logic, political deception becomes truth, rippling out to ensnare every Westerner in its grasp.

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