In some cases it seemed to me that feeling literally in pieces could be traced back to that sort of original fragmentation that is bringing into the world-coming into the world. I mean feeling oneself mother at the price of getting rid of a living fragment of one’s own body; I mean feeling oneself a daughter as a fragment of a whole and incomparable body.
Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
My children are not fragments of me, but do contain fragments of me. My cells squiggling and squatting in their bodies. During pregnancy cells pass both ways through the placenta. Microchimeric cells from my children’s foetuses swam through my blood and embedded in my brain. My microchimeric cells have travelled into my children’s brains. Maggie Nelson writes, ‘there is no such thing as reproduction only acts of production.’ But acts of production don’t travel in one direction. I became a Russian doll when pregnant. A living box with a person inside. I remain a Russian doll, their fragments deposited in my body. My biology changed. I wonder how many mannerisms and tics – that demonstrate familial resemblance – I might have picked up from my children, rather than them from me.
In 1677 Antonie van Leeuwnhoek announced the discovery of ‘animalcules.’ According to his theory on reproduction, the baby was formed and encased in the sperm and the first male ‘had been created with all those of the same species that have been engendered and will be engendered until the end of time.’ He turned men into the Russian doll with tiny humancules sewn in their sacks of wrinkled skin. Leewenhoek’s belief that the male seed contained the whole human and that the mother was compost went back to Aristotle. The proof that men authored their children was demonstrated by familial resemblance. Aristotle writes:
anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these cases Nature has in a way strayed from the generic type. The first beginning of this deviation is when a female is formed instead of a male.
Aristotle’s mother is a monster – a deviation from the generic male and from the male seed. Once medical science understood sperm and egg, Aristotle’s monstrosity was reversed. As Marie-Hélène Huet points out, resemblance ‘is uncanny. Contrary to the Aristotelian definition, he who does not resemble his parents is not a monster but a normal child; the monster is a rarity, the result of pure chance, he who does perfectly resemble his parents.’ Children are not fragments. They are productions rather than reproductions. The reproduction is the uncanny monster.
It’s thought that the word monster derives from the Latin monstrare (to show or display); or from monere (to warn). The words ‘monster’ and ‘demonstrate’ grew from the same Latin root.
I’m a demonstrative mother. I demonstrate my emotions. I show forth. I produce the evidence, but my children are at the cusp of finding this monstrous. Walking through the supermarket, I try to catch the ten-year old’s hand and, instinctively, he snatches it away. After a shifty look around, he gives my hand an apologetic squeeze. I sing to the little one in the car, even when his friends are there, Just like me/ they long to be/ close to you-oo-oo—
‘Please shut up, mummy.’
Elsa Morante writes that for a dutiful Sicilian son,
the word “mother” means two things, “old” and “sacred.” The proper color for a mother’s clothes is black, or, at most, gray or brown. The colours are shapeless, since no one, starting with the mother’s dressmaker, must think that the mother has a woman’s body.
To show herself as anything other than a shapeless colour – a detached shadow – is demonstrative. A monstrous mother reveals herself. Monsters are revelations. They portend.
Mary Toft was a peasant from Godalming who managed to fool the eighteenth-century medical profession into believing she could give birth to rabbits. Her imagination imprinted the foetus with long ears and cotton tails. Her tale was: she was working in a hops garden with a group of other women when she saw a rabbit and longed for it. She was twenty-two weeks pregnant. She chased that rabbit. On the way home from the hops garden a long miscarriage commenced: ‘Some thing came away with a flooding.’ Doubled over, she was forced to throw away a large lump of flesh. In the following days more flesh pulsed out. Some of it looked to her like ‘parts of a pig.’ She began to equate the contents of her womb with something bestial, or monstrous.
In the following weeks Mary ‘gave birth’ to rabbits. These were not live rabbits, hopping from a warren between her thighs, like in William Hogarth’s painting, ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism. A Medley (1762).’ These were rabbit parts. One was described as ‘the entire Trunk, strip’d of its Skin, of a Rabbet of about four Months growth.’
Although I know how absurd all this sounds, part of my maternal imagination holds on to credulity, superstition and fanaticism. I had a dream, at eight months pregnant, that I gave birth to a cat. Disappointment was a bubble popping in my throat but I tried to make the best of my neonate. I pushed the kitten in a pram until he sprang out and ran away. Around the same time, I told my mum that I was thinking of calling the baby Ted.
‘I had an uncle Ted. He was ugly and stupid. He had a hare lip,’ she said.
The first things I looked for when Ted was born: fur, paws, a hare’s lip.
Andry de Boisregard writes on birthmarks:
These marks are called in French Envies [desires], because they are attributed to certain Longings which the mother has had during the time she was with Child, for some things, the Marks of which are stamped upon the Infant, some upon the Face, and some upon other Parts of the Body. Some Children are born with the Figures of Cherries, Strawberries, Mulberries, &c. others with spots of Wine or Milk, &c. either upon the Face, or some other Part. All these owing to the strong Imagination of the Mother, who while with Child had longed for these things, which could not be got immediately; and the Marks of them are impressed the more strongly upon the Child, that the Mother’s Longing could not be satisfied.
It’s easy to snigger at the eighteenth-century theory of the maternal imagination – the widely held belief that, by craving something (or sometimes, just by looking at something), a woman could print its image onto her baby. However, there are twenty-first century studies demonstrating that the mother’s mental state changes the physical state of a baby. Babies whose mothers suffer from anxiety or depression when they were in utero have a lower birth weight. When experts in perinatal psychiatry weigh the benefits versus the risks of prescribing psychotropic drugs during pregnancy, they consider the effects of the mother’s mental health on the foetus. Medical knowledge hasn’t moved too far from the eighteenth-century theory of the maternal imagination; a theory that translates the woman’s mind into 3D printer.
Mary Toft was not working alone. Mary Toft didn’t do this to her own body. Medical reports claim that parts of these animals were expelled from the uterus and had been stashed up there for weeks. The rabbits were decomposing, causing swellings and fevers. Her body was trying to expel the meat. Another woman was working with Mary. Another woman was working on Mary – forcing her body to submit to the rabbit. Initially, Mary confessed that her accomplice was a travelling woman – a knife sharpener by trade. Later, Mary said, since she had no idea how the rabbits got in there, it must have been her mother-in-law.
It seems like quite a hop, ‘It must have been my mother-in-law.’
Mary lived with her husband’s family. I don’t know many women who don’t have a fraught relationship with their mothers-in-law. I don’t expect this was any different in 1726. When grandchildren are involved, the power relationship seesaws. Who has control over the babies? The parents? If the grandparent is providing free childcare, like Mary’s presumably was (there is no mention of Mary’s first son, James, in that hops garden), it’s an impossible debt to pay. The interest on the debt is usually drip-fed by relinquishing control over the child.
Mary’s mother-in-law was also the local midwife and had access to Mary’s vagina. In Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis argues that all gestation needs be acknowledged as a form of work. Someone – another woman (mother-in-law/ knife sharpener/ both) – felt she had a right to put Mary’s reproductive system to work. Mary’s labours became labour.
Marilyn Francus writes, ‘If, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, the pen is the metaphorical penis, then the printing press is the ever-producing womb.’ To reverse the microchimeric cells in this sentence, the ever-producing womb becomes a printing press and the rabbits ink out of Mary’s vagina. The rabbits were text. The rabbits monstrar: making manifest.
Karen Harvey makes the case that rabbits, as a symbol of land wealth – they belonged to the landowning classes – were a form of protest. Toft, and her accomplice, might have been using Mary’s labour to appropriate the land and wealth. By incorporating the meat into her body Mary was staking a claim to the foodstuff that should belong to the masses. There is also a more sinister undercurrent to this image if we read the rabbit texts as manifesto. Mary’s rabbit babies belonged to their surrogate mother no more or less than my sons belong to me. Babies aren’t property. The rabbit births make this explicit: the products of the woman’s gestational labour didn’t belong to their birth mother – in that feudal society they were meat to feed the capitalist machine.
Mary reappropriates a symbol of power through her imagination.
Immediately before the rabbit births, several men in Godalming were convicted of poaching. Probably poaching to stave off starvation. It was a hand to mouth existence – the fact that this eighteenth century woman was working in that hops garden at six months pregnant demonstrates how strapped for cash the Tofts were. Mary’s confession linked her longing for that rabbit (to poach that rabbit) with her miscarriage. The demonstration of rabbits can be read as political protest and satire, because it’s also important not to forget the joke. Imagine the women laughing when the king’s doctors dissected the rabbits. Cackling at the powerful men who were baffled that rabbits could be expelled from a woman’s mind through the cervix (with faeces already loaded in the guts). These men were ridiculed in the press.
Mary’s confession also reveals a woman’s subjugation by her husband’s family. It must have been her mother-in-law. The oppression of mother/ daughter has been read as a vicarious form of father/ daughter oppression. Mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law oppression can, therefore, be seen as a vicarious form of husband/ wife oppression.
Mary’s womb printed a tide of rabbit-pamphlets demonstrating:
just how much one poor woman [every poor person] longed for food;
that the male seed can be appropriated by the woman’s imagination;
that society uses the fruits of gestational production to feed the wealthy;
production can be appropriated,
but it is stillborn, sterile, useless;
and the male medical gaze can be distorted by women.
The rabbits were proof.
The hoax was revealed by a porter, who had been bribed to bring rabbits to Mary. Mary was locked in a bagnio in Leicester Fields – watched over by doctors. Mary was trapped in a labyrinth – subjected to the paternalism of the ‘man-midwives.’
The rabbit texts made Mary both the mother of the monster and the monster. She was Pasiphaë and her child, the Minotaur. In Mary’s version of the myth, the fragments from the monstrous foetus (like microchimeric cells) embedded themselves in Pasiphaë and walled her up with her monstrous progeny. The monstrous baby reflects the monstrous imagination and reflects the monstrous mother. The monstrous mother reflects the monstrous baby and the monstrous imagination. This becomes a labyrinth of mirrors garbling the generic male image. The labyrinth is, itself, a patriarchal structure, like Amber Jacobs points out, ‘The crucial point is to change the labyrinth, not to find a way out.’ Finding a way out of the labyrinth is submitting to the rules.
Huet writes, ‘Monstrous births were understood as warnings and public testimony; they were thought to be “demonstrations” of the mother’s unfulfilled desires.’ Mary’s demonstration was a public testimony of grief and poverty. She lifted up the skirt of the shapeless dress. She opened up the living box of the mother’s body and showed her monstrous fragments. I read the text of the rabbit births with Mary as Pasiphaë, the Minotaur and Ariadne. Mother, daughter and monster. Fragmented. Monstrare. Even if she didn’t realise what she was doing, Mary Toft’s demonstration knocked down the labyrinth’s walls and exposed the mother and monstrous progeny.
My life as Mary Toft
We live with my mother-in-law – hustling around each other in the kitchen. I stay my tongue when she wipes the baby’s face with the floor cloth. When she turns away, I lick his chops clean. She fawns on that child, ingratiating silences. I crave rabbit so bad my bones curl.
The flood soaked through my clothes and dripped in the road, fizzing between my legs like a flicker of code filling a screen. My thighs velcroed and chafed with sticky hooks of data. A dark yolk in my pants – testis popped from skin. I wanted to lay it on a plate and slice – watch the champagne seeds froth and pop.
Instead, I threw it under a hedge and cramped my way home. When I dream about rabbit is my imagination giving birth? When I dream about rabbit stuffed in the neck of a turkey, is it my womb?
My stomach gestates a fever that beats in my brain. I wonder if it should hurt this much – failing to reproduce. Producing a dream of rabbits fired out of me – the mid wife catching rabbits in the air, swaddling a Trunk, strip’d of its Skin. At the first chance, it bounced out of my arms and shot under a hedge.
 Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia (New York: Europa Editions, 2016), p.224.
 Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (London: Melville House, 2015), p.178.
John Farley, Gametes and Spores: Ideas about Sexual Reproduction 1750-1914 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), p.20.
 Aristotle, Generation of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck (Cambridge: CUP, 1953), p.401.
Marie-Hélène Huet, Monstrous Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), p.95.
 For more detail on the etymology of monster, see Huet, Monstrous Imagination, p.6.
 Elsa Morante, ‘The Andalusian Shawl’, Modern Italian Stories, edited by WJ Strachan (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955), p.50.
 Nathaniel St André, A Short Narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets: perform’d by Mr John Howard, Surgeon at Guilford (London: John Clarke, 1727), pp. 8-9.
 Andry de Bois-Regard, Nicolas, Orthopædia: or, the art of correcting and preventing deformities in children: By such Means, as may easily be put in Practice by Parents themselves, and all such as are employed in Educating Children, 2 volumes [London: 1743], The British Library, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, vol 2, p.122.
 Susan Gennaro, Ruth York & Dorothy Brooten (1990) ‘Anxiety and Depression in Mothers of Low Birthweight and Very Low Birthweight Infants: Birth Through 5 Months,’ Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 13:2, pp.97-109.
 Nathaniel St André, A Short Narrative, pp. 39-40.
 Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now (London: Verso, 2019).
 Marilyn Francus, Monstrous Motherhood: 18th Century Culture and the ideology of Domesticity (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012), p.33.
 Karen Harvey, The Impostress Rabbit Breeder (Oxford: OUP 2020), pp.19-21.
 ‘For if babies were universally thought of as anybody and everybody’s responsibility, “belonging” to nobody, surrogacy would generate no profits’ in Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now, p.168.
 Tiziana De Rogitas, Elena Ferrante’s Key Words, trans. Will Schutt (London: Europa Editions, 2018), p.205.
 Amber Jacobs, On Matricide (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p.31.
 Huet, Monstrous Imagination, p.6.
Stephanie Limb is a writer from Derbyshire. She’s currently working on a creative/critical PhD at the University of Nottingham. Her work has appeared in Litro, The Moth, Stand, Structo and other journals. Her book: My Coleridge – a collection of essays about Sara Coleridge and motherhood – was published by Broken Sleep Books in October 2020.
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