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Review of “Mary and the Rabbit Dream” by Noémi Kiss-Deáki: An 18th-Century Hoax
Wild tales in Mary and the Rabbit Dream. Photograph: Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Getty Images

Growing up in Surrey, the story of Mary Toft from Godalming was a frequent local legend. In 1726, Mary allegedly gave birth to multiple rabbits, a tale that became embedded in the region’s culture and historical guides.

In 2020, historian Karen Harvey explored this peculiar tale in her book, The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England. Harvey delved deep into why this hoax captivated the public and the consequences it had on the medical field. Noémi Kiss-Deáki’s creative retelling is built on this detailed research.

Mary Toft worked as a seasonal field laborer, earning merely a penny a day. Her husband Joshua was a cloth worker, and they lived in near-destitution alongside Surrey’s wealthy elite. Illiterate and described as having a “stupid and sullen temper,” Mary was not well-regarded by her contemporaries. This contemptuous attitude toward working-class women echoes through to today.

Although some experts who studied Mary had their suspicions, none seemed willing to call her a fraud.

The first “rabbit birth” came shortly after Mary’s miscarriage. She reportedly delivered several animal parts, which her mother-in-law, Ann Toft, forwarded to John Howard, a doctor in Guildford. The spectacle ballooned, with Mary producing more rabbit parts. Initially moved to John Howard’s house, she was later transferred to London as the situation spiraled out of his control.

In London, Mary gained the attention of the press, the king, and rival surgeons, including eminent obstetrician Sir Richard Manningham. While some experts had doubts, the prevailing theory of maternal impression—whereby anything a woman sees or imagines during pregnancy could affect the fetus—kept suspicions at bay. Mary claimed she dreamt of catching a rabbit after an unsuccessful attempt in the fields.

Kiss-Deáki’s book employs anaphora, a rhetorical device where words are repeated to link sentences. This technique creates a powerful narrative voice that shifts from irony to icy outrage, fitting the story’s themes of indignity and suffering inflicted upon a powerless woman by egocentric individuals.

This repetition, while impactful, can be challenging, making it hard to read continuously. Despite the fascinating historical window it opens, the persistent tone can be taxing.

One of Kiss-Deáki’s aims was to give Mary a voice, and she does rehumanize her, transforming her from a case study into an individual we feel pity for. However, the book could benefit from more direct dialogue between Mary and her family, or insights into her thoughts about her bizarre predicament.

The lack of a clear motive for the hoax in historical sources may also contribute to Mary’s muteness in the narrative. Harvey suggests the “births” might have been an act of resistance against economic inequality. Rabbit farming was a privilege for the wealthy, and poaching one could lead to severe punishment, even for the desperate poor. Was Mary making a political statement? Was she mentally unstable, seeking fame and fortune, or simply longing for a break from hard labor?

Kiss-Deáki suggests one possibility, but the reader is left wanting to hear Mary’s own grappling with these questions. The story of the hoax and its impact is indeed compelling, but even in fiction, Mary remains elusive, her true motives and thoughts unknown.

• Mary and the Rabbit Dream by Noémi Kiss-Deáki is published by Galley Beggar (£10.99).

Source: The Guardian