The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England by Karen Harvey - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Hutch Ado About Nothing

The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England


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In October 1726 some ‘strange, but well attested’ news emerged from Godalming near Guildford. An ‘eminent’ surgeon, a male midwife, had delivered a poor woman called Mary Toft not of a child but of rabbits – a number of them, over a period of several weeks. None of the rabbits, not even a ‘perfect’ one, survived their birth, but the surgeon bottled them up and declared his intention to present them as specimens to the Royal Society. A report in the British Gazeteer furnished readers with the woman’s explanation. Some months earlier she and other women working in a field had chased a rabbit and failed to catch it. She was pregnant at the time and suffered a miscarriage. Thereafter, she pined to eat rabbit and had been unable to avoid thinking of rabbits.

The story was a sensation. It was not only the poor who believed a pregnant woman’s thoughts could affect the workings of her body – hence the arrival of the eminent surgeon at Toft’s bedside (the truly strange news would have been that an agricultural labourer had such care at all). More serious scientific men followed. Local people came in droves to stare. Excitement grew. King George I himself took an interest in the case. Could it be that something marvellous was about to be revealed? Toft was moved to London to be closer to the king and his doctors. Once lodged in a bagnio in Leicester Square, Toft found the delivery of rabbits – for, spoiler alert, the whole thing was a hoax – more problematic. The bagnio porter eventually admitted he had been told to go out and buy rabbits. Cut, skinned, only occasionally whole, rabbits had been introduced into Toft via her vagina in order to be found. Local women – a knife grinder’s wife, her own mother-in-law – seem to have masterminded the hoax, with the collusion of her husband. They promised her that she would ‘get so good a living’ from it that ‘I should never want as long as I lived’.

By December, a justice of the peace had been called in and Toft was arrested. She spent four months imprisoned in the Bridewell, doing hard labour. But no crime could be fastened on her and she was released. She lived almost forty years longer as the notorious ‘Impostress Rabbit Breeder’. Of her thoughts, feelings and motives little is known. Under interrogation, she repeatedly emphasised the pain she had undergone and implied her own powerlessness as bits of rabbit were put in and taken out. Karen Harvey thinks she was frightened and a victim of female kin and neighbours exercising authority over her body.

Media interest in the case, already intense, increased when the hoax was revealed. True or not, the story gave licence to dwell on the private parts of a woman’s body and to wonder at the mysterious ways of nature. It was rare for a news item to contain so many promising elements, from human interest to monstrous possibilities, from the king to one of his meanest subjects. The idea of a crowd of elite men elbowing each other out of the way at a poor woman’s bedside, each hoping to be the first to be associated with a grand new discovery in science, appealed to the satirist in Hogarth, who had recently issued a print based on Gulliver’s Travels. Hogarth’s The Cunicularii [‘The Rabbit Warren’] or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation shows Mary Toft in agony on her bed, giving birth. The template is a Nativity scene; the wise men are self-important, well-dressed fools. In the foreground, rabbits gambol. If you can believe in Virgin Birth, Hogarth seems to be saying, why not a woman giving birth to rabbits? And if the little people in Gulliver’s Travels, or the horses that can speak and govern rationally, were conceivable in the imagination, how much more credible was this: a miracle in progress that could be witnessed first-hand! Lord Hervey, going with Swift’s friend Dr Arbuthnot to visit Toft, wrote that ‘every creature in town, both men and women, have been to see and feel her: the perpetual emotions, noises and rumblings in her Belly are something prodigious’.

Love of the prodigious united all classes in an era that saw increasing division between rich and poor. Harvey is interested in what the affair tells us about 18th-century England, especially such matters as class, sex, power and the development of the press. While much of what she covers is familiar and her account is perhaps overgeneralised, there is a welcome edge to some of the detail. The local woollen industry was in decline but the property-owning classes were much less affected than the poor, and it was property owners who held positions on corporations, upholding laws designed to protect property. Some of those laws extended the concept of property to include fish in ponds and flesh in the woods, thus criminalising those who thought it fair game to help themselves. Analysis of local records shows that the Tofts were part of Godalming’s persistent poor. Seven individuals named Toft died in the workhouse between 1729 and 1757. It was impossible for an agricultural labourer to keep body and soul together without help. Toft earned a penny a day. As the Tofts faced winter in 1726, Harvey notes, the Duchess of Richmond was buying a coat for her pet monkey priced at 12 shillings (144 pennies). In the summer before, Joshua Toft, Mary’s husband, a clothworker, was one of thirty-eight people to admit to trespassing on the pond of James Stringer.

The rabbit hoax brought the Tofts notoriety – the artist John Laguerre drew Mary with a rabbit on her lap while she was in the Bridewell – but it did not make them rich. Mary Toft wasn’t charged with any offence in 1726, but she did find herself in court in 1740, accused of handling stolen goods. By then Horace Walpole was complaining that the taste for ‘the wonderful’ had become worn out: in the old days there were elopements, epic poems and rabbit women.

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