Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
Dexter Palmer has been one of my must-read authors since I read Version Control. It was my favorite book of 2016 and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next novel.
Here it is. It’s called Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen (2019) and it’s based on the real Mary Toft, an early 18th century English woman who claimed to keep giving birth to rabbits. Flummoxed, her small town’s doctor, John Howard, wrote to colleagues in London asking for insight. One London doctor, a gullible and self-aggrandizing man named Nathaniel St Andre, visited the woman and was similarly perplexed. He planned to use Mary’s case to promote himself.
Eventually, King George I asks for Mary Toft to be brought to London where her story inspires the imagination of the city’s residents. What does this miracle mean? Is it a sign from God, or is it a hoax?
Palmer seems to mostly stick to the facts of the case except for his introduction of two young apprentices who are shadowing John Howard and Nathaniel St Andre. Their medical knowledge, skills, and bedside manners are being formed by these bizarre events. This is especially true of Howard’s apprentice who has the opportunity to discuss the case and its meaning with his mentor and the doctor’s skeptical wife (my favorite character in the story).
Palmer also introduces a man and his young daughter who travel around the country with a circus of monstrous-looking humans who, so the man claims, are born of maternal impression, a discredited medical theory that was used to explain Mary Toft’s rabbits. The idea was that a pregnant woman’s child could be physically influenced by the mother’s thoughts (e.g., sexual fantasies), dreams, or bad behavior (e.g., carousing, or reading too much (yikes)).
In this odd, disturbing story, Palmer asks us to think about truth and faith. What is truth? How do we decide what to believe in? Is truth objective, or is it something we come to by consensus when we all believe it together? How is it that our minds can so easily be tricked into believing things that aren’t true?
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen isn’t anything like the mind-bending and humorous Version Control, but it’s a quality piece of historical fiction focusing on an event I knew almost nothing about. I learned a lot about Mary Toft’s story, and I appreciate how Palmer uses the tale to make us think about reason and truth but also to expose the sexism, racism, sometimes primitive medical theories and practices, seediness, and barbarous social activities of early 18th century London.
Recorded Books’ edition of Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is a great production narrated by Susan Lyons whose English accent fits the title perfectly. It’s 13 hours long. If you plan to read the novel, I recommend this version.