Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
Published by Pantheon Books
Released November 19th, 2019
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Note: I received a free finished copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion.
I feel like I’ve been having an incredible reading month. First, I finally read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that’s been on my radar for years, and that I ended up loving. Next, I read Reincarnation Blues, a novel unlike anything I’d ever read before. And now, we have Dexter Palmer’s superb novel, Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, which questions the nature of truth, reality, and belief.
It wasn’t until a week or so before the release of this novel that I came across a synopsis of it on Edelweiss and immediately reached out to Pantheon Books regarding a review copy. I love absurdity in literature, and when I read that this book was about a woman who baffles the medical community after giving birth to mangled rabbits, I knew right away that I wanted to read this.
Set in early-18th century England, the story begins innocently enough, with a doctor and his young apprentice taking care of the needs of their small country town of Godalming. A man named Joshua Toft asks them to accompany him to his home, where his wife is experiencing an imminent and unexpected birth.
The doctor, John Howard, is a bit suspicious at first, as he’s the only doctor in the area and wasn’t aware of Mary Toft being pregnant, but he and his apprentice grab their tools and head over to help.
That’s when things take a bizarre turn, however, as it’s not a human child that Mary Toft births, but the decapitated corpse of a rabbit. At that point, Dr. Howard and his apprentice, Zachary, are left to puzzle over how such a thing could happen, eventually writing to prominent physicians in London. These well-known doctors, who are so important as to have the ear of the King himself, along with Dr. Howard, try to uncover the truth of the apparent miracle that is happening in Mary Toft’s body.
Something I didn’t realize until I finished the book and discovered a bibliography in the back is that Palmer’s novel is based on a real event. I was fascinated by the subject’s Wikipedia page, although due to the novel following the real events closely, I would not advise you to do so until after reading Palmer’s book in order to avoid spoilers.
While the plot of Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is interesting enough to warrant reading it, the themes of the novel ended up being the quality that impressed me the most.
Palmer does a wonderful job of displaying so many innate qualities of humanity. One of the most obvious is how people react to the unknown, specifically in terms of science and religion. Obviously, birthing rabbits is unusual, and once word spreads of Mary Toft’s “ability,” nobility and common folk alike are eager to term it a miracle, a show of proof of God’s existence.
“I find myself asking, in my darker moments: what matter is the unproven nature of an assertion if enough people become convinced of its truth?”
On a darker note, the novel also portrays the depravity of many people. There’s a horrendous scene in the book involving members of London’s high society going to an underground “event” in order to watch acts of extreme animal cruelty and human humiliation. The author makes it clear that it’s easy for people to fall into their lust for darker forms of entertainment and to take pleasure in the misery of others. As an example, at one point Zachary has a conversation with a “gentleman” known to us only as Lord M—- regarding why he participates in such cruelty:
“Humanity, Zachary. At any time in the history of the earth there is exactly enough humanity to go around for each human on earth to have one full share of it, to entitle himself to say he is better than an animal because he walks on two legs, and sings, and invents money… But if I am very, very rich, and you are not so rich: well, then I can take some of yours. This is the last thing that money is good for, once you have as much as I do – to make myself more human, which regrettably but necessarily entails making you less human, by contrast.
What I want, Zachary, and what I have yet to see thus far, is to witness a human not merely humiliating himself but doing a thing that he knows only an animal would do, not a human. A final depth of debasement from which one could not return.”
Another aspect of the novel that sets the reader in the patriarchal society of the 1700s, yet still has relevance today, is how women’s bodies are portrayed as curiosities or tools rather than as distinctly human. For most of the ordeal that Mary Toft goes through, she’s not asked by the physicians how she feels or what her opinion in the matter is. The men make all of the decisions regarding her care. It’s not until the end of the novel that we learn more of her internal dialogue and thoughts.
This is a book that will both entertain you and make you ponder questions vital to the human condition. It’s a strange book, to be sure, and knowing that it’s based on a real event makes it stranger still. Dexter Palmer shows his gift of narrative in this novel that will make you proud to have read it.
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