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Mary Toft; Or, the Rabbit Queen

by Dexter Palmer

Hardcover, 319 pages, Pantheon, List Price: $27.95 |


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Dexter Palmer

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NPR Summary

In 1726, in the town of Godalming, England, a woman confounded the nation's medical community by giving birth to 17 rabbits. This astonishing true story is the basis for Dexter Palmer's new novel.

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Excerpt: Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen


A Concerned Husband.


On October 13, 1726, the first day of the year that was chilly enough to compel John Howard to light a fire in his office, his first visitor was one Joshua Toft, a journeyman in the cloth trade.

The man was hulking and hirsute, and stood at the threshold of Howard’s office, a faded, weather-beaten cloth cap clutched in his hands. His slumping posture suggested a diffidence at odds with his frame: with his stooped back and drawn‑in shoulders, he seemed as if he genuinely believed he was half his actual size. His eyes were at odds with the rest of him, twin glints of silver twinkling in the shad­ows cast by his hooded brows.

John closed the volume of Locke on his desk, putting it aside with a mixture of relief and regret: he was finding Locke’s pedantic defini­tion of infinity to be deeply befuddling, but unpleasant as it was, his confusion had a cast to it that signaled an impending enlightenment. It would take him another morning to pick up the thread of reason­ing once he dropped it. Alas: too late. “May I help you?” he asked, stifling a sigh, feeling the flickering flame in the back of his mind go cold.

Joshua Toft took two timid steps forward, eyes on the floor. He mumbled something John couldn’t catch: a stuttered sibilant, a word that sounded like “wife,” and little else. “Speak up,” John said, becom­ing aggravated.

“My wife!” Joshua fairly shouted, then cringed as if startled by the sound of his own voice. “My wife,” he said again. “Sh . . . she’s. She’s . . . she’s with child. It’s time.”

He looked away from the floor and at John, who was leaning back in his chair, staring up at Joshua in puzzlement. “It’s time,” Joshua said again, his voice now steady and even, though his posture still suggested an instinctive supplication. “We need you. Today. Certainly before nightfall. Perhaps now.”

Slowly, John pushed back his chair and stood. He looked at Joshua, then down at the book before him, as if some secret were hid­den between its covers that needed urgent deciphering, then back at Joshua again. “That cannot be,” John said quietly; then, again, louder: “No. That cannot be.”

“I tell you, it is,” said Joshua. “Perhaps I am not the expert in human anatomy that you are. But I know my wife, and I trust my eyes.”

“Sit,” said John, gesturing toward an empty chair.

“We don’t have—”

“Sit, I said.”

With slow steps Joshua found his way toward a chair and col­lapsed into it, the joints crying out as his formidable weight settled. He began to wring his cap in his large, meaty hands, as if he intended to tear it in two.

“Mr. Toft,” John said, sitting down behind his desk once more and attempting to infuse his voice with a warmth and gentleness that he did not at all feel, “it has not even been six months since your wife’s . . . untimely exclusion in the spring. The blessing of a preg­nancy, even one that might appear to have progressed far along, is easily within the realm of probability: I grant you that. But to suggest that my services are needed urgently? That the birth is mere hours away? This defies belief—my apologies, but there is no other honest way to state it.”

The silver in Joshua’s eyes brightened. “I know what I see,” he said, his voice rising. “We have had three children before this—James, and the girls Clara and Bridget, both taken by the smallpox two years back. I am no fool. Sir.

“I did not intend to suggest you were,” said John. “I offer you my sincerest apologies, once again. But you do see the problem here, all the same? The situation presented to me requires either strange biol­ogy, or new mathematics; I refuse to ponder the latter, and cannot find any justification for considering the former. There must be some mistake; the facts must not be as they seem.”

Joshua became still more anxious, twisting his cap in his hands, biting his lower lip, knocking his knees against each other. “There is . . . something else,” he said. “This is a matter of shame for me; when I tell you of it, I fear you will come to the wrong conclusion, and call me the fool I say I’m not.”

“Speak freely, Joshua: I am a doctor, not a judge. And these walls have overheard more confessions than you can ever know, from patients who contracted their illnesses through sins beyond most men’s ability to forgive.” John spread his arms in magnanimity. “I promise you: your secrets will remain within this room.”

Joshua sat in silence for nearly a full minute, and John thought it wisest to stay silent as well, and wait. Then, with a long, heavy sigh, Joshua said, “Since the . . . exclusion . . . I have not . . . lain with my wife. But I tell you: I am no cuckold, either, and Mary is not one for adulterous intrigues. I know her mind as I know my very own.”

John frowned. “Whether or not this is the case—”

“It is not!”

“I believe you. As I intended to say—whether or not this is the case, adultery would not resolve the basic impossibility of what you claim. Though it is true that the lack of adultery makes the situation even more confusing.”

“There is . . . still more I might reveal,” said Joshua, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Friend, you need not parcel out the details of this case in such a parsimonious manner,” John replied. “The knowledge only has value after I’ve received it.”

“You may perhaps not find this credible, sir. My wife . . . these past few months, she . . . talks in her sleep. Mumbling, but also . . . curses. The foulest language. I can’t bring myself to repeat it. And, a few weeks ago, she began to weep in her slumber. Each night, without fail, I am awakened by her sobs. In the morning I ask her about her troubled sleep, and she remembers nothing.”

“It seems that the two of you have failed to put the past behind you,” said John. “All of what you describe to me—the illusion of a pregnancy by which you are both convinced; the ceasing of your mari­tal relations; the woman troubled by dark dreams—all this suggests to me that neither of you has brought yourself to accept the unfor­tunate loss of your child a few months ago. I fear, Joshua, that you and your wife have indulged in a mutual comforting fantasy, in an attempt to recover—”

Joshua leaned forward. “Sir. She weeps not tears, but blood. In the morning I see the evidence on her face: twin tracks of red, leading back from the corners of her eyes to her ears. And spots of blood on our bedding as well.”

John Howard stared at Joshua in silent shock.

“For months now,” Joshua continued, “I have attempted to turn a blind eye to these details, for they were too bizarre for me to com­prehend, and I could only hope that they would somehow vanish just as they came. Her restless sleep; her bloody tears; her complaints of the symptoms of pregnancy, despite the fact that relations between us have grown cold, and her belly has not swollen. But she tells me, this morning, that a child is ready to come, and I believe her. I do not understand what I see, but I can no longer pretend that I do not see it.

“And sir—I am terrified.”