The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits is a book of fictions, but they are also true. Over the last ten years, I have often stumbled over a scrap of history so fascinating that I had to stop whatever I was doing and write a story about it. My sources are the flotsam and jetsam of the last seven hundred years of British and Irish life: surgical case-notes; trial records; a plague ballad; theological pamphlets; a painting of two girls in a garden; an articulated skeleton. Some of the ghosts in this collection have famous names; others were written off as cripples, children, half-breeds, freaks and nobodies. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits is named for Mary Toft, who in 1726 managed to convince half England that she had done just that. So this book is what I have to show for ten years of sporadic grave-robbing, ferreting out forgotten puzzles and peculiar incidents, asking 'What really happened?', but also, 'What if?
For each of the stories in this volume, Donoghue took inspiration from a different historical anecdote, figure, or other detail discovered happenstance while researching something else...which fact she probably includes in her foreword to deflect that writersbane query: "Where do you get your ideas?" In any case, there's some good stuff here, some disturbing (such as "Cured," about historical clitorectomies in the UK) and others genuinely bizarre (such as "The Last Rabbit," about a woman's claims to have birthed several stillborn lapines...hence the title of the book).
My favorite stories were the ones with which readers could make wry modern day comparisons: the captain who drunkenly marries a spinster is reminiscent of an ill-fated Vegas wedding; a woman leading a Rapture-ready cult has numerous cultic counterparts. "The Necessity of Burning," in which a woman is told her dead child will burn in Hell solely because she baptized him "In the name of the Son and Father," rather than Father and Son, has uncomfortable parallels with the unapologetic legalism of some religious people even today. Donoghue brings these marginalized and everyday women, who would have not made it in "real" history, to life as she retells their stories.
I would also like to point out that I'm not even particularly fond of short stories. Okay, I loved the Mark Twain stories my father read to me as a child, the Stephen King short stories I was addicted to in high school, then Neil Gaiman's short stories in college, but these are the exception. Most collections of short stories I never finish, rather I limp through two or three, then put the book down somewhere, never to be picked up again. I think the format is much abused, by people who can't be bothered to sustain a plotline long enough to create a novel. But Donaghue's stories are little gems.
What can I say to make you go out and pick up this book? Perhaps that each story is based off of some snippet of historical truth, a note in a ledger, a footnote in a biography of someone else. Some true thing that glimmered and fascinated, but was isolated, and nothing more of that life was known. Donaghue fleshes out these twinklings into stories, into women that we should have known. Passionate women who loved, raged and fought. Women who chose different paths, and women whose paths were chosen for them. All illuminate their time, regardless of how close to truth their stories are. And even better, following each story is a note of the truth behind it, documenting what parts of the story were true, and often how the rest was imagined.
This is one of the finest books I have read in a while. I would add it to Michelle Tea's class of women's experience in literature (read the upcoming bookslut interview to find out what I'm talking about.)
Some quotes I liked:
“Silence, like quicksand, under their feet.” (p. 47)
“When I sit up, cold air worms its way into the bed; Martha burrows down deeper.” (p. 71)
“Scotland is plague-stricken. Folk wear bruises of mauve and orange and yellow for a few days, and then they die.” (p. 73)
“They [the books] singe, their edges curl up prettily like the thinnest pastry.” (p. 197)