Mary Toft

Or, The Rabbit Queen

By Dexter Palmer

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Well, holy shit.

Books surprise me all the time, for good and for ill. However, it rarely takes me half a book’s length to notice how good it is – I’m usually (not always) quicker on the uptake than that.

In my defense, books don’t usually want to hide their own goodness from you. It’s risky, after all: most people are willing to put a bad book down and walk away. Most books want to grab you immediately with their quality and keep a throttle-hold on you until the end, even past the end: for the exact length of time it takes for you to buy copies of them for everyone you know for Christmas.

So discretion turns out to be a rare quality in a book. It does happen, though, that a book comes along that has the skill to hide itself from you, distracting you so completely with scenery or plot that you fail to notice that it is excellent until it’s too late.

***

Mary Toft was a real person, a Surrey woman who, in 1726, orchestrated a hoax in which she convinced several reputable surgeons that she was giving birth to rabbits. Dexter Palmer has written a novel about this true story, told mainly from the point of view of Zachary, the fourteen-year-old apprentice of John Howard, the local surgeon who first encounters Mary.

I think that part of the reason that it took me so long to figure out that ‘Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen‘ is magnificent is that it is, deliberately and aggressively, revolting. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll spare you the nasty shock I received, as an example: I bet you assumed, when I wrote that Mary Toft was “giving birth to rabbits”, that the rabbits where alive. I bet you assumed that they were intact.

I did, much to my regret. Mary’s rabbits are not alive: in order to effect the hoax, the rabbits had to be killed, cut into pieces, and inserted into Mary’s womb, whence they were extracted by credulous surgeons. It is absolutely disgusting, and the first time John Howard birthed a rabbit’s head and a string of intestine from Mary Toft, I was knocked flat on my ass: literary skill was the furthest thing from my mind.

I was intended to be, I bet. Dexter Palmer is clever, and he is making a point. ‘Mary Toft‘ is a novel about truth and belief, about the difference between them, about why we believe the things that we believe. About why we are so persuaded by the evidence of our eyes, and what it is, exactly, our eyes find persuasive.

There aren’t many novels written about medical anomalies, and for reasons which, I think, are sound: they are difficult to read about, if you live in an age in which they are scarce. But they have not always been scarce, they are part of our common humanity, and Dexter Palmer requires that we see them because, if we can’t see them, we will not understand the world in which Mary Toft lived, we won’t understand why she did what she did, or how she was able to get away with it.

The medical consensus in the society into which Mary is born is that birth defects are the fault of mothers: impurities in their thoughts, sins which lie on their consciences, act to turn the children in their wombs from the path of normal development. If a mother spends her pregnancy thinking unwomanly thoughts, she risks the health of her child.

Dexter Palmer is writing about a world in which the war between science and religion is much younger than it is in ours. Medical anomalies, illnesses which cause malformations in the human form, are the sites of the most pitched battles of these wars. Why would an omniscient God allow babies to be born twisted, sick, in pain?

The answer is, of course, sin: God visits illness on those who deserve it. If you are sick, if you are born with an illness, if you develop one over the course of your life, then you must have deserved it. Why would God allow illness to strike you unless you did something wrong? The wretched, those in pain, suffer because they should, and if you are lucky, healthy, rich, you must therefore be good.

It’s important to understand this mindset because, without understanding it, it will be difficult to understand the cruelty with which the inhabitants of this world treat each other:

“Lord M- winked. “Humanity, Zachary. At any time in the history the earth there is exactly enough humanity to go around for each human to have one full share of it, to entitle himself to say that 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,” Lord M- said, his hand on his heart, “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.” (p. 235)

***

I didn’t notice how good ‘Mary Toft‘ was until about half of the way through.

I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. People often talk about books getting a slow start, or taking a while to get going: this is emphatically not what happened with ‘Mary Toft‘.

What happened is, essentially, shock-and-awe. Dexter Palmer spends the first hundred pages of the novel knocking you around with grotesqueries, using the brutality of 18th century medicine to soften you up. By the time Palmer is ready to teach you something, you’ve forgotten that you’re reading the sort of the novel that might offer a moral lesson – you’re too busy trying NOT to imagine what it would be like to shove bits of a rabbit up your own vagina.

Which means that the moral lesson, which is lovely and brutal at the same time, has landed on you before you know it was launched.

Dexter Palmer

I suspect that this surprise-attack quality is exactly why a book would trouble to downplay its literary quality. Readers are like anyone else: they don’t like being preached at. When they see a lecture coming, they brace, ready their eyes for rolling. Those lectures are held at a critical distance

But when you are shattered and confused, transfixed by a woman pulling rabbit skulls out of her cooch, you are permeable; your critical faculties are shot all to hell.

Which is Palmer’s point: when your senses are overwhelmed, you are easier to trick. When you are struggling to understand something impossible, you are credulous, and vulnerable to someone with an agenda: to a sham religion, to a medical quack, or to a novelist who is trying to teach you about human kindness.

I lovedMary Toft‘. The writing is lovely, not in an ostentatious, “Look Ma I Got My MFA” prose-y kind of way – it is merely simple, effective, and graceful. It is surprising, and clever, and sad, and humane, and at times even funny. And, as an added bonus, it’s about the weirdest novelistic subject I’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to take a long time for some of the images contained in this book to shake out of my imagination. But I think it’s OK to have them there – I think they’re teaching me something.

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