The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories

by Emma Donoghue

In these seventeen robust tales Emma Donoghue vividly brings to life the strangely exhilerating sideshows of humanity lost to traditional history over the last seven hundred years. The obscure records she stumbled across--an engraving of a woman giving birth to rabbits; a plague ballad; surgical case notes; theological pamphlets; an articulated skeleton--are ingeniously expanded into rollicking, full bodied fictions. Here kings, surgeons, soldiers, and ladies of leisure rub soldiers with cross-dressers, cult leaders, pioneers, and arsonists.

Whether she's spinning the tale of an Irish soldier tricked into marrying a dowdy spinster, a Victorian surgeon's attempts to "improve" women, a seventeenth century countess who ran away to Italy disguised as a man, or an "undead" murderess returning for the maid she left behind to be executed in her place, Emma Donoghue brings to her tales a colorful, elegant prose filled with the sights and smells and sounds of the period. She summons the ghosts of those women who counted for nothing in their own day and brings them to unforgettable life in fiction.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780156027397
  • ISBN-10: 0156027399
  • Pages: 272
  • Publication Date: 06/01/2003

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
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  • About the Book

    Donoghue finds her inspiration for these wry, robust tales in obscure scraps of historical records: an engraving of a woman giving birth to rabbits; a plague ballad; surgical case notes; theological pamphlets; an articulated skeleton. Here kings, surgeons, soldiers, and ladies of leisure rub shoulders with cross-dressers, cult leaders, poisoners, and arsonists.

    Whether she's spinning the tale of an Irish soldier tricked into marrying a dowdy spinster, a Victorian surgeon's attempts to "improve" women, a seventeenth-century countess who ran away to Italy disguised as a man, or an "undead" murderess returning for the maid she left behind to be executed in her place, Emma Donoghue brings to her stories an "elegant, colorful prose filled with unforgettable sights, sounds and smells" (Elle). Here she summons the ghosts of those women who counted for nothing in their own day, but who come to unforgettable life in fiction.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    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 ...

  • Reviews

    PRAISE FOR SLAMMERKIN

    "Superb . . . A novel of real force, filled with unforgettable sights . . . A profoundly entertaining and intelligent book."--Elle

    "[A] colorful romp of a novel . . . Impossible to resist. Donoghue paints a spirited picture . . . Fabulous."--The New York Times Book Review

    "This book rocks from the title on. A spectacular job."--USA Today

    "What a great read this book is! Donoghue is a real writer, and she's elevated her racy story close to art."--The Washington Post Book World

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