Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen: A Novel

Written by Dexter Palmer
Review by Bethany Latham

Popular 18th-century medical theory espouses the idea that a woman’s mind – what she sees and what her thoughts dwell upon – can have deleterious effects on the development of her unborn child. When John Howard, surgeon and man-midwife of the village of Godalming, is called to the bedside of Mary Toft, he can barely suppress his horror as he delivers not a baby, but a mutilated rabbit. When this phenomenon keeps occurring and Howard, a man of science, cannot find a rational explanation, he writes to renowned London surgeons for assistance. Soon Mary Toft’s condition is famous enough to attract even the notice of King George, and she is moved to London at his behest. With Toft now under the care of four esteemed surgeons and crowds searching for miracles gathering outside the bagnio where she is housed, things grow even stranger for Howard and his young apprentice, Zachary.

Based on an actual historical event, this gripping, well-written novel is a wonder of characterization. It is also a disturbing glimpse into man’s search for meaning and some of the darker aspects of human nature, the ways in which human beings rationalize the things they do and the things that are done to them. Faith and science, uneducated villagers and London’s aristocratic elite, this novel plumbs the spectrum to offer an immersion in the world of the burgeoning Enlightenment. A fascinating, propulsive read from beginning to end, this is a stimulating novel of ideas and imagination.