Mary Toft; or The Rabbit Queen
a book review
Why would the man who steampunked Shakespeare’s Tempest, who used a time machine to make me believe in fatherhood, use a woman birthing rabbits to ask, What is true?
Mary Toft; or The Rabbit Queen (2019) seemed a great departure from Dexter Palmer’s previous books. Version Control (2016) was a staggering science fiction masterpiece that remains one of my favorite novels of this still young century, and The Dream of Perpetual Motion was a wild romping steampunk satire of industrialists, so I was confused by this turn towards historical fiction. This simply wasn’t what I expected or wanted. Then, on top of that, he chose one of the strangest cases of medical fraud in history as his subject. But here we are in 2022 and I’m still thinking about all of this.
While this never reaches the ecstatic emotional heights of Version Control or the raucousness of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is a radically bold step in a career that continues to surprise.
“The truth of the matter. Is it a thing that exists outside of our minds, waiting for us to perceive it and know it as true? Or is truth a thing that collectively resides within the minds of all men, a matter of consensus, subject to debate, subject to alteration? The world outside our minds neither true nor false, but merely there?”
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen explores fraud and forgery and our need to believe when confronted by the unquantifiable, the unspeakable. John Howard, the male-midwife to Mary Toft, and his apprentice Zachary Walsh are the principle viewpoints of this story. Through them, we meet the owner of a traveling carnival of curiosities (think PT Barnum’s museum of “freaks”) and his daughter, Mary Toft’s husband, and a sequence of esteemed doctors from London who descend upon Mary Toft to investigate the baffling event of a woman repeatedly giving birth to rabbits. Conspicuously, the novel only briefly acknowledges that women existed in England in 1726.
We’re concerned, here, with intellectuals. Men of science, of medicine, the early generation of male-midwives who credentialed the field and capitalized upon these self-given accreditations. All esteemed members of their communities, some with direct connections to King George. John Howard keeps up with the latest scientific developments, devotes himself to the scientific method, reads John Locke (though he struggles to comprehend any of it—turning Locke’s book into a signifier of a certain type of person more than as philosophy to engage with). Encountering something unexplainable, so outside the possible science available, instead of retreating to the obvious—so lovingly stated by his wife: she cuts them up and sticks them up her—he leans towards the possibility of something transcendent, something scientifically novel. And as he pulls more and more of these butchered rabbits out of Mary Toft, he grows to believe it more rather than less.
This is what leads to the rest of the actions in the novel. The surgeons arrive from London, all of them respected and draped with kingly authority for their medical expertise. Each one, in turn, experiences the grotesquerie of Mary Toft’s births. Confronted by the foul, inscrutable event, each one falls into the absurd. Rather than acknowledge the limits of their credentials, the limits of their knowledge of female bodies, they believe what they must: a vast new vista of moral science (only a wretched woman could give birth to an animal, yes?) opens before them, and they will forever have their names linked to this discovery. This goes on, the belief becoming more entrenched, despite John Howard’s wife mocking them to their faces, insinuating the obvious conclusion. Eventually, they make their way to London where Mary Toft becomes both legend and signifier—of what depends on the person finding the significance—even as she stops giving birth to rabbits.
It’s in these moments that Palmer finds situational comedy to rival Seinfeld. There’s something just so goddamn funny about these respected doctors half-running down the street to be the first through the door of Mary Toft’s house, and thereby staking their claim of authority as first among equals. Then, of course, there are the tortured explanations cloaked in moral language they invent to make sense of why this woman is giving birth not simply to rabbits, but to rabbits that seem to have been cut into pieces and even skinned.
Palmer’s prose does a lot of work here. In the past he’s leaned into bombastic maximalism or quiet but assured prose to tell a story. Here, he leans into a bit of forgery, a bit of fraud, a bit of subtle fun. The prose feels both 200 years old and thoroughly modern; a tightrope designed to fall from (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), for example, collapsed a bit under this). He recalls the distant past, leaning into the verbose affectations of 18th century English writers, while remaining clear and precise enough that no modern readers will feel lost or put off by the style. While this works as a metabolized meta-metaphor, it does, at times, cause the novel to loosen a bit. Too, Palmer creates an atmosphere of terror and discomfort when the doctors encounter the gruesome sight of watching a human woman give birth to a chopped-up rabbit that would fit well alongside David Lynch or David Cronenberg at their body-horrorest. The absolute anvil of dread weighing John and Zachary down as they return again and again to Mary Toft’s bedside to take rabbit parts out of her is both disquieting and ironic.
Later, Zachary watches a desperately poor man attempt to eat a live cat for a cash payout while an aristocrat expounds on the differing natures of men: the degradation of the poor makes him feel more human because they become less. Zachary, instead, sees how this form of entertainment could only be done out of spite and pure hatred for those who find amusement in it.
While the novel is named after a woman, it is almost obsessive in the lengths it goes to exclude any women from the narrative. Leaving us only with the men, their thoughts and beliefs, their dreams and nightmares. There are, really, only three women in the novel.
Upon hearing John Howard’s first visit to Mary Toft, his wife Alice immediately has nothing but scorn and derision for her husband, the medical expert, the male-midwife, the intellectual scientist. She spots the fraud for what it is, despite never laying eyes on Mary Toft, describing vulgarly as possible, as if to shock her baffled husband into realizing the obvious: a woman cannot give birth to a butchered rabbit, no matter how immoral or deranged she may be.
Anne Fox, the daughter of Nicholas Fox, the proprietor of the carnival of curiosities, never meets Mary Toft except through rumors, though she’s immediately dismissive of the whole affair. Her livelihood depends on fraud and forgery, in the suspension of disbelief. She engages in a sort of forgery daily, though she rejects this description. For her, there is no fraud because to be a woman is to live in a masquerading world of manners and perceptions.
“Well, to begin with,” Anne said, “I myself am not real. I, Anne Fox, daughter of Nicholas, am an illusion—in your mind; in the mind of your master; even in the mind of my own father.”
Then there’s Mary Toft who serves primarily as a vessel for rabbit corpses throughout the novel. She says almost nothing and much of the novel seems to have nothing to do with her, despite, you know, the fact that she seems to be birthing rabbits, stumping the King’s physicians. Her body is discussed and described in front of her as if she were no more than furniture. The doctors never acknowledge her. They make wild theories as to what must be happening to her, as if she plays no part in any of this.
And so I am becoming, not myself, but a mixture of the dreams of others, of the many pleasing lies they tell themselves: my husband, and the surgeons, and those to whom the surgeons speak, and those who overhear their words.
And so those are the women. One engaging in fraud right before the eyes and hands of esteemed surgeons, another living through fraud and forgeries, and a third spotting them so plainly.
“And we thought that perhaps we might get a glimpse of the woman,” said Frances. “Speak to her even, if there’s a chance of it; find out how she feels. How does she feel?”
The question puzzled Zachary, even as he realized that perhaps it shouldn’t have.
All novels reflect the time they were written. Even historical fiction, for all its slavish devotion to historical accuracy, tells us more about us, now, than it does about us, then. This novel about fraud and forgery, about belief, about a woman in 1726, was published at a time when expertise is fetishized by a certain type of American or derided as quackery by another type of American, while questions of bodily autonomy rise again to national debate. Palmer, in his own way, wrote about the era of information by pulling us back into a world struggling to break free of old superstitions, of legends, of demons and monsters, of a time when the most confounding question posed to man was the female body. While Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen follows scientific men in an unscientific age, believing themselves to be arbiters of truth, slashing back at the myths and legends and superstitions around them, each one is duped by an uneducated woman who they barely even see or acknowledge, even when their hands are literally inside her.
And, really, it’s comically absurd and pathetic.
Palmer handles this subtly and I could imagine some readers not seeing the farce written boldly on every page. Palmer’s narration eschews explanation or moralizing. He inhabits the woldview of these surgeons and so it’s all taken quite seriously and dramatically. Of course, this is the joke, yeah? Because that’s the best kind, yeah? The novel itself working as a forgery for what it really is, leading the inattentive reader to be duped and inviting the careful reader in on the scheme.
The whole novel is absurd. Farcical. And yet it is played straight. The gruesome birthing scenes are effectively disgusting and horrifying. It’s enough to make you believe alongside John Howard. Even the comedy is very understated, and I can easily imagine the Seinfeldian nature of the humor to fly right past many readers. It’s a hilarious novel that may never make you laugh, which is a bit of magic. It takes the case so seriously that you almost feel indignant for these august medical professionals when Alice shatters the veneer of the illusion the male-midwives find themselves caught inside.
While this novel is maybe more impressive in what it does, in a technical way, than his previous novels, it lacks those dramatic and emotional heights that made Version Control unforgettable. Emotionally, the novel is more distant and restrained. Even conceptually, it’s a simpler novel. Too, its subtlety and willingness to lead the reader astray may cause many to completely misunderstand the novel, which isn’t exactly a weakness but may not be a strength. Though, it’s this subtlety that excites me every time I consider that he wrote a novel about women by writing about men.
We know Mary Toft only because the best and brightest of the time couldn’t see the body in front of them in 1726. Without ever stating the question, Palmer demands of us in 2019, in 2022, in whatever year you read this: Do you even see yourself?