About this title:
The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits is a book of fictions, but they are also true. Over the last ten years, I have often stumbled over a scrap of history so fascinating that I had to stop whatever I was doing and write a story about it. My sources are the flotsam and jetsam of the last seven hundred years of British and Irish life: surgical case-notes; trial records; a plague ballad; theological pamphlets; a painting of two girls in a garden; an articulated skeleton. Some of the ghosts in this collection have famous names; others were written off as cripples, children, half-breeds, freaks and nobodies. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits is named for Mary Toft, who in 1726 managed to convince half England that she had done just that. So this book is what I have to show for ten years of sporadic grave-robbing, ferreting out forgotten puzzles and peculiar incidents, asking 'What really happened?', but also, 'What if?
About the Author:
Emma Donoghue is an Irish novelist, playwright and historian. Her second novel HOOD won the American Library Association Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Award in 1997. She is currently adapting her novel STIR-FRY for Horizonline Films (Ireland).
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
the last rabbit
We were at home in Godalming, though some call it Godlyman, and I can't tell which is right, I say it the same way my mother said it. I was pregnant again, and cutting up a rabbit for our dinner. I don't know what sort of whim took hold of me to give a scare to my husband, that is Joshua Toft. When he came in from his day's work at Will Parson the stockinger's, I leant on the stool and huffed like a bellows. "Tis my time come early, Joshua," I told him.
Now, he was all set to run for his sister but I reached up and grabbed hold of his shoulders and bore down with a great groan that must have woken the children behind the wall. Then I reached under my skirt and what did I pull out but the skinned rabbit, with the dust of the floor stuck to it in places?
Joshua staggered till his back hit the wall. I thought he might spew up his breakfast.
Then I took pity on the man and started to laugh. I laughed more than I had in many a year.
We amused ourselves very much with talking of it till we went to bed. Joshua said I was a clever one and no mistake. When his sister came in the day after to borrow a drop of milk, we told her all about it and she laughed very hearty too. She is a midwife, like her mother, and has often said no man could bear what women must.
I miscarried of that baby some weeks after, while I was shovelling dung on the common. It was just as well, Joshua said, as in these times we were hard put to it to feed the two we had got already. The cloth trade was gone quite slack, and Joshua had no work nor any prospects.
"Mary," my sister Toft (Joshua's sister, that is) said to me, "look at that rabbit."
She and I were out in the hop field off the Ockford Road, weeding at tuppence a day; I was still bleeding, but stronger in myself. There was a fat rabbit watching us. "Too far off to catch," I said.
"Mind that trick you played on poor Joshua, though."
I straightened up and smiled a little.
"Think how it would be if it was true," she said. "If you was the first woman in the world to give birth to a rabbit. Wouldn't that be a fine thing?" She had let her trowel fall on the clods. "If it was true, Mary, would you not soon be famous? Would people not pay to see you? We would all be in the way of getting a very good livelihood, and not have to scratch it out of the ground."
My husband's sister is a good woman, but given to mad notions. "How could it be true, though?" I said, bending to the weeds again.
Her eyes were shining now. "Weren't there a child born a few years back with dog's feet, because the woman was frighted by a dog in her sixth month? And another only last year born with all its organs on the outside, that I myself paid a penny for a look of?"
I tried to speak but there was no stopping her.
"And if who can tell what's true and what's not in these times, Mary, why then mayn't this rabbit story be as true as anything else?"
I do not think as quick as my sister Toft but I come to the point in the end. "I'll not go round to fairs, but," I told her.
"No need, no need," she said, picking up her trowel again. "The folks will come to you."
It was said of Mr. Howard the man-midwife that he'd drop his breeches in the High Street of Guildford if it would increase his fame. Before he put his hand up my petticoat to see was I big enough for the trick we were planning, I sent the children to stand outside, though it was raining. The doctor's hands were as cold as carrots, but Joshua bade me hold still. Mr. Howard said it was all to the good that I still bled, off and on, after miscarrying, and had a drop of milk in my breasts; it would be more lifelike, that way. If all went well and I won some fame, he said, the King might give me a pension in the end.
Now, I couldn't see why I'd get a pension for bringing forth rabbits, when the country was full of them already, but Mr. Howard was an educated man.
Joshua got some dead rabbits from Ned Costen and some from Mary Peytoe and some from John Sweetapple the Quaker, all at thruppence a head; no more than three from anyone, so as not to cause wonder. From Dick Stedman the weaver he got a very small gray one at tuppence. We kept them piled up in the cool of the cellar. I caught our girl playing with one and smacked her legs.
I wiped a space on our table for Mr. Howard's paper and ink and pen. The letters he composed were full of grand words. The woman Mary Toft has just now given birth to five praeternatural rabbits, all dead, a fact of which there is hitherto no instance in Nature. He pickled them in my sister Toft's jelly jars, numbered one, two, three, four, five, just as they were supposed to have come out of my womb. All I had to do was produce one more out of my body in front of a crowd of London doctors, and they would all believe in it. "Stupidity and knavery, that's what we can rely on," said Mr. Howard, wiping his hands on a rag.
But nobody came, for all his letters.
After a week Mr. Howard ran over from the inn with a notion that he would teach me to make my belly jump as if live creatures were sporting in it, which would be all the more impressive. Our children thought it a great game. Mr. Howard sent off more letters. The woman Mary Toft has just now given birth to three more rabbits, one of which leaped in her body for all to see, for eighteen hours before it died and came out, which was a great satisfaction to the curious.
But the weeks went by, and still nobody came to see me.
When Mr. Howard knocked on our door, with a long face, I thought the game was over, and I was not sorry neither, though he might have given me a shilling for my trouble. But instead he said I must go in his chaise to Guildford, which would be more convenient for him to carry on the scheme.
At this I began to be afraid, but Joshua got out of bed and said I must go. His brother's wife could come in and see to the children, as she had none left of her own.
"What sport," said my sister Toft, who was to come with me as my nurse.
Mr. Howard kept writing letters all the way, though the ruts splashed ink on his lace cuff. There are three more rabbits come out of the woman Mary Toft's body, the sum being eleven, all which may be seen in jars at Guildford by any person of distinction who likes.
While he was resting his hand, I asked him, "How many rabbits, sir, could one woman of middling size be supposed to have in her body?"
But he said they were only small ones, and eleven was a good number.
I lay on the bed in Guildford and groaned and made my stomach go in and out so the sheets moved, just as I was instructed. I had to keep my eyes shut so as not to laugh. Some folks came in to see me at last. One pointed and said she could see the shape of a rabbit's paw, but her husband said it was clearly a tail. Others only stared, and one woman said it was a fraud and spat on the floor. Mr. Howard wouldn't charge any of them so much as a farthing. "Patience," he told my sister Toft; "our sights are set higher."
Joshua came to Guildford on Nat Tucker's cart one day. He told me I was a good woman, then lifted the lid of his basket a crack so I could smell the fresh rabbits he had brought.
"Is it not a great expense," I said in his ear, "when we could be feeding them to our children?"
But he shook his head, lightsome as ever, and said soon we would have the King's coin and dine on venison.
The morning I heard the jangle of a gentleman's carriage out in the courtyard, I felt so cold in my bones that I would have run all the way home to Godalming, if Mr. Howard had let me out the door.
I was to look weary and say little; that was easy. I kept my stays on, but loosened. The visitor was a foreign gentleman, a Mr. St. Andre, surgeon to the King himself. He felt my belly and remarked that it was barely swollen. Then he reached into my dress and squeezed my nipples to see what would come out.
Mr. Howard ran back from the inn at dinnertime, with sauce down his neck-kerchief, and told me not to fret. "St. Andre is no man-midwife, Mary; the only females he's seen close up are dead ones."
At that I started to shudder, but my sister Toft told me to give over my nonsense.
That afternoon I gave birth to my first rabbit, which was supposed to be my twelfth. The first thing was, Mr. St. Andre rolled up his flowing cuff and put his hand into me, to be sure there was nothing there. He turned his face from me and stared at the wall. After I had moaned and shifted about awhile, Mr. Howard walked me up and down the room. In the darkest corner he sat me down on a stool opposite his, and squeezed my legs between his own. Mr. St. Andre called for a light, but my sister Toft cried out that it would hurt my eyes. All this time I kept up my panting and wailing. Mr. Howard took my hands in his and squeezed them. He leaned his head against mine. Then he pushed me back all at once, as if the creatures were leaping inside me, so my stool almost toppled. Mr. St. Andre came closer, but Mr. Howard told him sharply to sit down again, so an unfamiliar face would not disturb the woman at her moment of crisis.
Now I could feel Mr. Howard reaching under my skirt in the shadows, and taking the limp rabbit from my pocket that dangled inside my hoop. He kept talking as if to soothe me while he nudged my legs apart and pushed the creature into me. I slid forward on my stool to help him; tears were falling down into my stays. It felt like cold cheese, till a little bone scraped me.
Then Mr. Howard had me walk about the room again, to bring on the birth. I kept my steps small, so it would not slide out. Mr. St. Andre's eyes were on me no matter which way I turned, and I felt like a tumbler who has used up all her tricks. I tried to remember what it was like, the times my real children were born. I leaned on the back of a chair, squalling and roaring and twisting my body from side to side. I told Mr. Howard I thought I might be ready, but he frowned and had me lay down on the bed for another while. My sister Toft wiped my face with vinegar.
The two doctors passed the time by means of jokes. When Mr. Howard told a good one about a sow I couldn't help but join in the laughing. Mr. St. Andre looked at me oddly and I shut my mouth, "Ah, women of Mary's station are hardy as beasts, sir," Mr. Howard told him. "They don't recall a hurt when it's over."
At that I began to roar again, as if the pains were doubled. The doctors ran to the bed. I pushed and pushed so my eyes bulged; I could feel the mangled rabbit beginning to slide out.
"There," said Mr. Howard, "can't you hear its little bones crack?"
The men listened, not meeting each other's eyes.
Mr. St. Andre shook back his three rows of lace to the elbow before he reached into me. The rabbit came out on the first tug. It lay in his hand, the skin hanging loose. We all stared at it. My sister Toft muttered something like a prayer. It was dry and bloodless. It didn't look much like a rabbit.
"In the cases of several of the others, also," Mr. Howard said very fast, "the pubic bone crushed the foetus and the skin was pulled off in its passage through the os uteri."
Mr. St. Andre's wig had slipped sideways. He adjusted it, and wrote everything down in his little memorandum book. Prompted by Mr. Howard, I told him how my sister Toft and I had been weeding in the fields one day, and I saw rabbits and had a great desire for them, and tried to catch them for my pot, but could not, and that night dreamed I had rabbits in my lap. (And indeed, by now, it was true, I did dream of rabbits most nights.)
"What is the pain like, Mrs. Toft?" he asked.
I thought back to the birth of my boy, two years past. "As if very coarse brown paper is tearing inside me, sir."
He kept feeling my pulse, looking at my tongue, even examining the water in my pot for stains. He did all this without ever saying if he believed a word of our story. He took three of the pickled rabbits away with him, to dissect in front of the King.
I heard Mr. Howard standing by the carriage, reminding Mr. St. Andre to tell the King what pains he, Mr. Howard, had taken with this poor woman, and how he did not debar her from eating anything she fancied, no matter what it cost. And it was true, I supposed, that when there were no visitors I was free as any woman to sit by the fire and eat salt beef and drink strong beer as good as the doctor himself. The one thing I might not do was go home to my children, though I didn't trust my husband's relative to feed them. Mr. Howard shouted that he had staked his whole reputation on that magical womb of mine, and I was to get back to bed.
In the days after, a Mr. D'Anteny came down from London, and a Mr. Ahlers and a Mr. Molyneux and a Mr. Brand, and other doctors whose names I forgot as soon as I heard them. They all carried three-cornered hats that would never fit over their wigs. There was much nodding and bowing to each other, but anyone could have guessed they were not friends.
They watched me like owls. I am not a handsome woman; all my features are bigger than they need be for a body so small. But these gentlemen looked at me if I was made of gold, and by now I was so brazen I could look right back. One wiped his hand on his satin breeches and said he had discovered an enormous great tumour in the woman's-meaning my-stomach, but Mr. Howard informed him that it was simply the neck of the womb. He didn't like that, to have his ignorance made a show of.
The births we performed late in the afternoon, when it was too dark to see clearly but not so dark that the candles had been brought in. Mr. Ahlers pulled out the fifteenth rabbit like a child digging for treasure. "Did I hurt you?" he asked.
And he wrote it down in his book, and gave me a guinea, for my misfortunes.
Mr. Howard laughed, later, and said he'd wager I never got a guinea for a rabbit before. But his voice was high in his throat, and his hands were restless; I could tell he was fretting.
The visitors would not deny this rabbit miracle, nor swear to it. Two of the doctors spoke foreign gibberish; the others only hummed and hawed, and refused to make so bold, and could not positively say, and deferred to their learned friends' opinions. The day I produced my eighteenth rabbit, I suddenly saw what my sister Toft had meant, when she told me how impossibilities might as easily be believed as not.
I was sore inside from strainings and pokings, and bled more than I had before. I couldn't sleep at night for visions of fields full of rabbits. One day the lodging-keeper tried serving me one for dinner, and I spat it out. She complained that her larder was choked with rabbits, and the same throughout the country, as no one was willing to eat what might have come from between a woman's legs. My sister Toft roared laughing and told me I was famous.
I couldn't laugh...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.