Did Mary Toft Give Birth to Rabbits?
Dexter Palmer on Elizabeth Holmes and other hoaxers
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Rabbits are having a moment. Last year in Oscar-winning movie The Favourite, Queen Anne was depicted as having a room in her home dedicated to the 17 pet rabbits, each of which represented one of her dead children. Now, in Dexter Palmer’s historical novel Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen, Mary Toft is giving birth to 17 dead ones.
Although in reality, Queen Anne did not have pet rabbits, Mary Toft did—sort of, but not really—give birth to rabbits in an elaborate hoax that bamboozled some of London’s top surgeons in 1726. Author Dexter Palmer reexamines this scheme, which has been a joke for centuries, through the eyes of the surgeon’s apprentice that sees Toft’s first “birth” in Godalming, England. The 14-year-old boy and his very rational mentor John Howard don’t know what to make of this event, especially as Mary continues to produce dead rabbits. Everything they thought they knew is thrown in question.
Before the rabbits, John Howard posed a question to his young apprentice after the two attend the sideshow Exhibition of Medical Curiosities. The audience is shown what is said to be a two-headed woman behind a curtain. They can’t really see her in any kind of detail to tell whether she actually has two heads or not. “If all of us believed in her, would not her existence be a matter of fact, and not a fraud?” he asks. Palmer weaves this question throughout his novel.
Palmer is no stranger to tackling multi-faceted subjects and big questions. He published his debut novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which is a sci-fi steampunk novel, in 2011, and followed it up with Version Control, a sci-fi novel that examines the relationship between technology and relationships, in 2016. He deftly combines history, horror and comedy into his jump in historical fiction.
Alicia Kort: Where did you first learn about Mary Toft and why did you become interested in her story?
Dexter Palmer: At graduate school—my Ph.D. was in English Literature at Princeton—and there was one class in 1996 and its title was “Representation of the Improbable.” It covered certain works of 18th-century literature. One week, one of the general topics of the class was fraud, and this Mary Toft story came up. I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t ever think that I would do anything with it back then. Except every once in a while when I came across some piece of literature related to the Mary Toft case, I would photocopy it or make a note of it and file it away. Eventually, I had enough material to think that I actually had a novel here.
AK: Let’s talk more about the characters, Zachary, a surgeon’s apprentice, is the main character of the book. I was wondering why you decided to make him your main character instead of Mary Toft?
DP: The first reason is when my editor and I were talking about how to structure the book, one of the things we decided on was having a protagonist who knows little about the world but is learning about it as a way to convey information to the reader without being too obvious about it. The second is that weirdly other than the fact that Mary Toft hoaxes people into thinking she’s giving birth to rabbits, she’s not that narratively interesting. If you can imagine like a story that’s entirely about her, then Chapter X [is] “I gave birth to another rabbit” and so on—plain and simple. The third is that the book is a book about women’s identities, but it’s also a book about how men view women. There are ways that I can get that at that subject—and I think that subject is important to discuss—but involve me focusing on these men looking at a woman who they don’t understand or are deceiving themselves into thinking that they’re seeing something other than they are and what the consequences of that are.
AK: In the beginning, both Zachary and John are both very affected by having to deliver these rabbits. How did you decide how the rabbits were going to be delivered?
DP: In the past, I feel like I’ve turned in work with chapters that were scary, but clearly this is actually horrifying. But at the same time, a woman giving birth to rabbits is also… I hate to say it, really funny. As I found as I was writing, horror and comedy have a lot of the same formal techniques in common. It turns on a surprise for the audience that’s either unsettling or makes them laugh. I was trying to get over the fact that it’s terrifying. The novel is also in some ways kind of a farce.
With respect to the actual research, I did look at some of the publications from the doctors who worked with Mary Toft. I forget how many doctors offhand, but I want to say I condensed them into basically three. They were fairly specific given the conventions of the time with describing things. They described the parts and stuff like that. I’ve used a couple of narrative devices to draw a veil over some things I didn’t want to explicitly describe because the thing about horror is if you leave something undescribed, people fill things in.
AK: Well, the thing I found comical about it personally, the first birth John and Zachary both go run outside to vomit. I’m sure that’s a very natural reaction to seeing that but at the same time, this woman just gave birth to a dead rabbit, and she seems to be processing it slightly differently, better than the doctors who are helping her. Could you talk about her relationship with the surgeons?
DP: There was a way in which I detected the surgeons as seeing her as both… it depends which character you’re talking about. They either see her as someone who is afflicted by a problem, someone who is perhaps a means to their own personal gain or someone who’s just thinking “We should watch this person and see what happens—just out of our own curiosity.” But they do tend to see her as a body. Some of that is just the way surgeons, as I’m depicting them, actually are. “This person is a machine that needs to be fixed. If we get too emotionally attached, we might not get the optimal result.” There’s another chapter later on that involves another pregnant woman. There’s an implicit discussion there about what it is like to view a female patient as a human being with her own thoughts, identity and soul versus what it is like to view her as an object that needs repair, so to speak, and how to split the difference between one or the other or whether or not one should do that.
AK: You have several passages in the book where people seek out things that are out of the ordinary, disturbing or even violent. The wealthy in particular seem to go out of their way to do this in your book. Why did you decide to include these in addition to Mary Toft’s story and what do you think those passages say about human nature?
DP: The passages in which people pay money to see out of the ordinary or violent things—often, violence against animals—are almost entirely based on historical fact. Adding those events was primarily a matter of portraying the period accurately, insofar as a novelist worries about accuracy. In a couple of instances, I’ve actually toned things down from what I found in my research.
There was some discussion during the writing process about how faithful to be to that aspect of the setting—a weird thing about contemporary readers is that in general they’ll sit for the portrayal of all sorts of violence against humans, but are more likely to be bothered by the portrayal of violence involving animals, especially those that can be domesticated. The film John Wick arguably satirizes this tendency. But in the end, I decided that the reader needs that context about how callously many people of the period viewed animals in order for some of the story involving Mary to make complete sense.
AK: People have always been fascinated by things they can’t explain or they’d rather not know the details of, which is shown when Zachary and John visit the Exhibition of Medical Curiosities. I think that’s still true. We’re very interested in hoaxes—Elizabeth Holmes, Caroline Calloway, Anna Delvy. They’re still a part of our culture. Was this something you were thinking about while you were writing?
DP: Yeah, as I was writing it, the thing I found myself thinking about is the philosophical reason to write the book: What’s going on in people’s heads to convince them to believe something that is just obviously materially false?
And with Elizabeth Holmes, I listened to the audiobook of Bad Blood, which was about the whole Theranos thing. It was super fascinating because Holmes presents people with basically this sci-fictional idea—she just basically describes a Star Trek tricorder—somehow gets lots and lots of money to build this thing with no real demonstration of the credentials to be able to do this. Other than to say it’s fascinating that this sort of thing happened, at the time I wasn’t completely certain why someone would do this.
I think the answer I’ve sort of landed on is that the ability to deceive oneself is much more powerful than we would like to believe that it is. Because there’s so much information in the world and so little we can actually see, we’re necessarily working on a limited amount. Given that we work with these limited amounts of information, we are likely to believe what we feel would be best to be true. Those things might either be materially false or silly or something like that. I’m thinking about this because Mark Zuckerberg gave this interview about whether or not politicians should be able to post ads on Facebook that make false claims. His claim is “Well this is just something we’ll have to deal with.” That just seems really reckless and careless and bad to me. It seems like a basic misunderstanding of human nature.
AK: Is there anything surprising or unexpected you found when you were researching Mary Toft or your book?
DP: There was one thing I found surprising that I couldn’t include, because it turns out that there just wasn’t room for it, which is that Voltaire would have lived in London at the time that this was happening. Handel the composer would have also been in London as this was happening. I thought “I wish there was a way I could include these characters just sort of walking through.” I actually made a pass at it, but the problem with writing Voltaire is that you have to be as good as Voltaire. You know when you read a novel or see a film and William Shakespeare is a character and even in the best versions, it’s not going to seem quite right? That’s just what was happening there. In my dream version of this book, if I had infinite space and an infinite amount of talent, I would have had a scene with Voltaire meeting Handel or something like that.
AK: Your book is in the trend of going back into women’s or other marginalized people’s lives and rewriting or reframing it, whether it’s fictional or nonfictional. Is there any other person in history that you would like to rewrite or reframe their story or give them their proper due?
DP: I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t have an answer yet, because after I finished my last book I was like “I need a long break from writing this kind of fiction.” And now I have Mary Toft out the door, I’ve been thinking “I need a break from writing this sort of historical fiction.” I didn’t think it would not be terribly difficult to do, but it turned out to be excruciatingly challenging just to get it out the door. Eventually, I could see myself going back to historical fiction for sure, but I haven’t settled on anything yet.
Before you go: Electric Literature is campaigning to reach 1,000 members by 2020, and you can help us meet that goal. Having 1,000 members would allow Electric Literature to always pay writers on time (without worrying about overdrafting our bank accounts), improve benefits for staff members, pay off credit card debt, and stop relying on Amazon affiliate links. Members also get store discounts and year-round submissions. If we are going to survive long-term, we need to think long-term. Please support the future of Electric Literature by joining as a member today!