Blurb: A stunning, powerfully evocative new novel based on a true story – in 1726 in the small town of Godalming, England, a young woman confounds the medical community by giving birth to dead rabbits.
Surgeon John Howard is a rational man. His apprentice Zachary knows John is reluctant to believe anything that purports to exist outside the realm of logic. But even John cannot explain how or why Mary Toft, the wife of a local farmer, manages to give birth to a dead rabbit. When this singular event becomes a regular occurrence, John realizes that nothing in his experience as a village physician has prepared him to deal with a situation as disturbing as this. He writes to several preeminent surgeons in London, three of whom quickly arrive in the small town of Godalming ready to observe and opine.
When Mary’s plight reaches the attention of King George, Mary and her doctors are summoned to London, where Zachary experiences for the first time a world apart from his small-town existence, and is exposed to some of the darkest corners of the human soul. All the while, Mary lies in bed, waiting for another birth, as doubts begin to blossom among the surgeons and a growing group of onlookers grow impatient for another miracle . . .
Mary Toft: or, The Rabbit Queen has a fascinating premise, rooted in actual historical events. Farmwife, Mary, begins giving birth to rabbit pieces every few days to the consternation of her doctor and vicar alike. Could this be a miracle? Or a monstrosity? How can it even be possible for the human body to produce such aberrant (or abhorrent) offspring?
The story displays the depth of research that the author has performed, as the reader is plunged into both country village and then bustling capital city of England in the 1700s and can practically smell the religion, superstition, and poor sanitation arrangements.
There does need to be a HUGE trigger warning for animal cruelty. Aside from the grisly rabbit babies, which are dead on arrival, and therefore not too traumatic (for the reader… they certainly traumatise the characters!), there is a scene of elite entertainment partway through the novel that is so vile that I felt physically sick on reading it and had to step away for a few minutes before returning to the pit of depravity. That said, it is only a short scene, and the main character – apprentice doctor, Zachary – is as repulsed and appalled as his readers.
Other than these brief grisly interludes, the main focus of the novel is on the human appetite for witnessing the grotesque: diseases, injuries, deformities and the idle perversions of the bored and wealthy; Dexter Palmer plumbs the depths of this desire for dark entertainments, contrasting it with the religious, scientific, spiritual and philosophical beliefs of his educated and (mostly) moral main characters – Zachary, his clergyman father, and his doctor mentor.
Unfortunately, the moralising and philosophising causes the story to drag a little slowly, especially as the doctor’s wife, Mary, offers a midway soliloquy that alerts the reader to the most likely explanation of events, thus removing any element of suspense for anyone unfamiliar with the real-life story this was based on. The second half of the novel especially – the events set in London – meanders along sedately with little-to-no action or excitement. We sit waiting around Mary’s bed along with the characters, and ponder what on earth we are all doing there.
Anyone looking for a detailed historical account of the prevalent beliefs and medical practices of the period will find plenty of interest in this fictionalised account, but if you’re looking for a plot or character-driven story about a woman who gives birth to bunnies, then you might find this one a little slow-going.
“For the meager price price of sixpence, gaze upon the horrific consequences that occur when the Lord God stretches out his mighty finger and lays a curse on Man. Educational for the mind; edifying for the soul.” The windows of the coaches had their thick black curtains pulled, proof against stray glimpses of their passengers. Education and edification would not come for free.
Zachary Walsh, at age fourteen the proud apprentice of Mr. John Howard, Godalming’s finest (and only) surgeon, stood before the window of his loft in the Howards’ home and watched the procession roll by on the street beneath him, imagining what grotesque secrets and horrors might stuff the carriages. Was it not his duty as an initiate into the surgeons craft to be medically curious? It was.
– Dexter Palmer, Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is available on Amazon right now.