It has become rather commonplace to tie historical novels to authentic historical documents. The novel Enemy Women (2002), by Paulette Jiles, a chronicle about the imprisonment of often innocent women in Missouri during the Civil War, provides a good example of the genre. The basic story is fiction, drawn from the life of a strong Missouri woman whose dubious connection to treasonous acts lands her in prison, but there is underlying historical evidence—quoted in the body of the novel at the beginning of each chapter—which verifies that the fabricated details are based in poignant fact. Such a methodology holds the interest of the reader while at the same time providing assurance that there is reality underlying the invention and that the book is not merely imaginary fluff. The same technique has been applied to the short story form in Emma Donoghue’s most recent literary venture. The unifying theme of this interesting collection is a variety of sometimes obscure historical documents and artifacts—mostly about women—which provide a fertile bag of seeds from which to germinate her seventeen stories. In one narration it is a surgical note that prompts the creative narrative, in another it is a popular pamphlet, in still another it is the diaries or letters of known individuals. Any scraps that inspire are worked into the author’s material.
Donoghue has fashioned her sources into believable facsimiles of real persons who not only come alive in past times but give testimony in the present to personally difficult situations and contexts. The reader gets into the heads, hearts, and indeed the bodies of these often ordinary women with sometimes extraordinary lives. While some of the stories’ characters are commonly recognized figures—the art critic John Ruskin, for example, plays a prominent part in one story—many are faceless ghosts from the past, anonymous and understandably neglected by biographers. In the end, however, the reader develops an intimacy with both. All in all, the author has knit together bits and pieces into a full-bodied portrait of common and uncommon life in past years in England.
The title of the book, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, is derived from the first, outrageous, tale, which is based on an old woodcut, obscure medical treatises, and other sources. It recounts an elaborate scheme to exploit the inordinate multiparity of one Mary Toft who, in the 1720’s, was reputed to have given birth not only to a remarkable number of normal children but to an even higher count of long-haired rodents. Rabbits were common food and commonly available, even to the poor of Mary’s time. Their appearance as offspring of human mothers was quite uncommon, however, prompting discussion of the phenomenon even in pediatric medical literature as recently as 1980.
Topics addressed in Donoghue’s various tales range from syphilis to unwanted surgery, from witches to marital impotence, from royal marriage to peasant revolt. Some of the stories are humorous, others leave the reader uneasy or surprised. None strikes the reader as without merit, although some are better crafted than others. Particularly notable is the piece “Account,” which is simply that: a listing of data that includes everything from the cost of the king’s falcon to a chronicle of the dates of marriages, births, and ages of persons who figure in the overall impact of the work. It reads much like a compilation of isolated facts from public records. This unorthodox style has the effect of achieving the author’s purpose in spite of the parsimony of prose in a scant four pages. The technique, which discards all but the essential few words, underlines the point of the story, in which all that is nonessential to the preservation of royal goals—including people—is thrown away.
The women of Donoghue’s work stand out in each story as the more fleshed-out characters who take center stage in contrast to the supporting players, often men. Although Mary Toft, the woman of the book’s title, is clearly unschooled and uncouth, she is the amusing narrator of the unlikely tale of rabbit...
(The entire section is 1682 words.)