book review, historical fiction

Review: Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer


Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer fictionalizes the true story of an 18th century Englishwoman who convinced doctors of all rankings–even the King’s own–that she could birth rabbits. This unique historical nugget seems stranger than fiction, and Palmer vividly fills in the blanks and the world in which Mary Toft conducts her ruse (although it is unclear if it was her idea or her husband’s idea.)

The book is mainly told from the perspective of Zachary Walsh, the teen apprentice to surgeon and local doctor of Godalming, John Howard. Palmer leans in on the weird and fantastical, first showing Zachary’s experience at a “freak show” of medical oddities and curiosities. Shortly after, Zachary and John are caught up in the seemingly endless rabbit miscarriages of Mary Toft. Quickly attracting the attention of London doctors, and even the King’s own doctor, quasi-medical theories are born as to just how a human woman could give birth to a rabbit.

The 18th century was somewhat of a turning point in medicine. Doctors were still largely using antiquated techniques such as blood letting and “plasters,” however, cutting edge medical science was on the horizon–such was the case with John Howard preferring surgery to blood letting. At this time, many found surgery to be counter intuitive and savage, but a few believed it to be the future of medicine. As such, John Howard prides himself in being a cut above other doctors despite practicing in a small country town. But both John and Zachary find themselves questioning medical theory as they know it as they witness, time after time, Mary birthing rabbits.

Mary Toft or the Rabbit Queen is a study in social standing, the power of persuasion, and the pride of “learned men.” What’s more, this tale is also about Zachary’s coming of age and his changing view on humanity. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the few chapters that were told from Mary’s POV. Palmer’s writing is beautiful through Mary’s eyes and it was quite surprising to me that a man could write so well from a woman’s perspective.

This tale is certainly interesting and unique, and Palmer’s vivid descriptions will keep you engaged until the end.

Grade: A