When I first read the premise of Dexter Palmer’s Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, which finds its basis from a real-life occurrence of a woman who seemingly gave birth to a litter of dead rabbits, I thought about the distance between truth and fiction. As I engaged with Palmer’s novel, though, I realized that truth and fiction aren’t entirely unrelated entities. After all, isn’t there some truth in fiction? Isn’t there even some aspect of fiction in apparent truths? Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen suggests so.
Palmer, from the opening lines of his latest novel, is set on exploring the nature of truth as Nicholas Fox’s Exhibition of Medical Curiosities arrives in 1726 to the small village of Godalming, England. I, just as the characters themselves, was immediately lost in the possibilities of the wonders that were to come. Are the people in this caravan carriers of miracles? Do they live hoax-profiting existences? Does it matter?
One of the novel’s most interesting choices is to plant its focus not on the titular character, but on its naturally curious fourteen-year-old protagonist, Zachary Walsh. Zachary works as a surgeon’s apprentice, a position that conveniently grants him the agency to question cases, symptoms, and origins.
Zachary’s curiosity works as an anchor for the narrative’s search for truth, especially when Mary Toft enters the novel with her miracle rabbit births. John Howard, the surgeon with whom Zachary works, openly discusses what truth might mean: “The truth of the matter. Is it a thing that exists outside of our minds, waiting for us to perceive it and know it as true? Or is truth a thing that collectively resides within the minds of all men, a matter of consensus, subject to debate, subject to alteration? The world outside our minds neither true nor false, but merely there?” Zachary’s response to it all: “I am uncertain, sir.” It’s a particularly wise statement from a novel that consistently transmits an aura of wisdom.
While looking at issues related to truth, Palmer also presents an interesting dichotomy that examines religion and science — how the two function in harmony and in opposition. Zachary’s own belief in God is “difficult to articulate to himself.” Howard turns to Crispin Walsh, Zachary’s minister father, when he loses his faith in science: “I am increasingly sure that we have encountered a problem we will never solve if we choose to rely only on the body of knowledge exclusive to the surgeon’s craft. More wisdom is required: we will have to speak to another authority.”
The novel also speaks to the value of listening to others, as well as the importance of being a part of a collective community. When surgeon Nathanael St. André and his own teenage assistant visit from London to look upon Mary Toft, he makes bold assertions of his intelligence and power to heal. However, he and his apprentice are only two men — and two men of the same cloth at that. They need the collective intellects of all involved to solve the mystery of Mary Toft’s rabbit births: “None of these men could justifiably be pushed aside or dismissed.” Only when these scientific, religious, and worldly-focused minds come together is progress made.
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is certainly ambitious — even occasionally to a fault (some of the medical scenes are a little too lively). Nonetheless, the novel’s level of ambition shouldn’t arouse intimidation or feel like a deterrent; in fact, it should be a prime reason to pick up Palmer’s book. The novel asked me to think about myself — my beliefs and my actions—in ways that made me uncomfortable. I had to set the book aside several times. I needed space to deal with the trauma and situations within the pages, but I always found my way back.
The language Palmer uses feels just as meticulous as the surgeries Howard and Zachary perform. This kind of thoughtful, detailed approach in the writing style feels necessary for a novel of such magnitude.
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen serves as a reminder that the issues that dictate — and sometimes define — our lives can often be as complex as the very people attempting to solve them.
I imagine the term “audacious” will be used often regarding Palmer’s newest work. Such a word is certainly fitting. Dexter Palmer is a bold and daring writer, and Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is a novel that captures his voice at its very best.
Near the end of the novel, Palmer writes, “For those who observed it from a distance, the Toft case acted as a kind of vortex that drew facts and falsehoods into it and stirred them together, so that all things were true and none were true. And if considering the case might give one that feeling that the ground was unsteady beneath one’s feet, that the world was filled with fog, then it also challenged one’s long-held preconceptions of the world’s true nature, and opened one’s mind up to myriad possibilities previously left unconsidered. For this reason — some might have said, if asked — it was wonderful.” The same can be said for the novel itself. When I read that last page, I knew one truth about Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen: it’s wonderful.
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen
By Dexter Palmer
Published Nov. 19, 2019
Bradley Sides is the author of Those Fantastic Lives: And Other Strange Stories. He lives with his wife in Huntsville, Alabama, where, on most days, he can be found teaching writing at Calhoun Community College. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.