I loved Dexter Palmer’s previous book, Version Control, and so I knew I’d be interested in whatever he did next. However, I did not expect his next book to be about a woman who, in 1726, claimed to be giving birth to rabbits. Luckily, weird historical topics do not put me off at all — quite the opposite, really — so I got my hands on a copy of this right away. And it was so good.
Although Mary Toft (an actual real-life person) is the novel’s title character, the book focuses mostly on the men who surround her, most of them surgeons and their apprentices. The character we spend the most time with, and through whom we see most of the events, is Zachary Walsh, the son of a clergyman and apprentice to John Howard, the first surgeon to attend to Mary Toft when the bizarre births begin.
The book is concerned less with the actual births than with what it is like to believe a thing that cannot possibly be true, something that defies all reason, something that even goes against one’s own senses. The notion comes up again and again, for example, in a variation of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” that takes a darker turn than any version I know. Throughout the book, the idea of truth is often governed by the crowd, as seen when Zachary gets swept up in an unruly group of opera lovers yelling support of their own favorite singer. It’s all amazingly relevant to our own time, when being part of the right crowd seems more important to some than actually being right. And sometimes, the truth depends on who is in the room.
And then when God gets brought into it, the idea of truth gets even murkier. Belief in God requires a willingness to go along with something that cannot be scientifically proven, so rabbits being born of a woman could happen if God wills it. And once someone declares that God wills a particular thing, then to deny it seems like denying God. As a person of faith, I found this deeply unsettling, but I also know and have seen this kind of thing in action. There’s a scene in the book that shows exactly what can go on in the mind to cause someone to, in an act of faith, go against their own senses.
I don’t think, however, this book is particularly anti-faith. It is more pro-reason. One of the book’s most decent and likable characters presents a line of thinking that I appreciate. It’s also a line of reasoning that unlocks the truth of the story:
The Lord made us in his own image. It is also true that he made us creatures of reason — our minds are what differentiate us from the animals. Therefore the Lord must also be a being of reason, yes? Which means the Lord’s actions may be inscrutable to us, we being not as wise as him, but they would not be senseless. If this is a miracle, then it is a strange one, for, if its cause is truly unfathomable, if its sole purpose is to affirm God’s existence and force us to admit our ignorance and powerlessness before him, then the only course of action remaining to us is to abdicate the exercise of our reason, and abandon our attempts to comprehend it. Which would involve going against our very nature, as God created us. Which would, in turn, involve going against God’s nature.
As inscrutable as the Lord might be to us, what God would ask such a thing? To deny the very feature of our being that makes us what we are, that makes us what he is? For what reason?
In the end, reason is the way forward. But the book shows at least one example of supposed scientific reason being used to horrifying ends. (This incident almost made me want to stop reading as it involves cruelty to cats, something I find especially hard to stomach right now.)
However, I think this terrible incident shows that reason itself can be manipulated, if the crowd wants it enough. And so another principle, one of compassion and love, is needed. This is something that Palmer merely glances at, but it’s important. And the same ethic in the quote above could apply. God would not command people do to something unloving (like lock children in cages, as one example). To do so is to go against what God made us to be.