“Harlequin Toft; or, Imposture, Pantomime, and the Instabilities of Satire in the Early Eighteenth Century”
From October to December of 1726, Mary Toft hacked dead rabbits into small and not-so-small pieces; forced them, piece-by-piece into her vagina; then expelled these “made…monster[s]”i under the gazes of eminent and not-so-eminent medical men, scholars, general readers, and those of the public who could pay to see the freakshow. For some time, this fraud was acknowledged as fact by several medical men, and those who weren’t convinced were nonetheless caught up in the debate, publishing tracts, treatises, rebuttals and apologies. Well over ten substantial tracts—earnest medical explanations, “exact diaries” and “narratives,” satirical responses, philosophical mediations, and more—appeared in print throughout the months of November and December. The poets and satirists of the period quickly climbed aboard, too, riding the tide of Toft’s fraud. Alexander Pope published an anonymous broadside ballad satirizing the affair, though most students of 18th century will never see this in an anthology; Jonathan Swift, also writing anonymously, weighed in with two critical pieces on the subject. O ballads about Toft—or rather, the different surgeons associated with the case—emphasized the bawdy humor endemic to the meticulous examination and publicization of Toft’s lady parts. A fictitious “confession” also appeared, ostensibly in Toft’s own words and “natural” style, playing up ample opportunity for sexual innuendo. From November 1726 to January of the following year, the Toft affair made it into the newspapers over fifty times (Nov/Dec=47x; Jan=16x), in both advertisements for related publications and as news in its own right. The hoax was eventually discovered; various key players in the newly-minted auctoritas of obstetric medicine were subsequently and virulently branded “quacks,” and Toft herself briefly but impotently imprisoned—after which she virtually drops off the map until her death in 1763.ii In The Gazeteer, or London Daily Advertiser for January 21, 1763, a brief paragraph marked her passing.iii
The effect of her dramatic act of body manipulation resonated for years. William Hogarth created at least two engravings in which Toft’s ecstatic body figures prominently, and a collection of ephemera was given “Gratis” to anyone visiting the purveyors of the famous Anodyne Necklace.iv Several sales of eminent libraries throughout the eighteenth century list various tracts from the Toft affair in their catalogues, some selling for upwards of 17s.v A History of England (1749), written by “Thomas Thumb,” sandwiches a condensed version of the Toft affair between an account of the 1726 earthquake and a rumination on scrofula (277-78). Defoe describes the town of Godalmin in his Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1742) as notable chiefly because “the Place of Residence of the Impostor Mary Tofts, who so long amused Statesmen, Physicians, Anatomists, and, in short, all Degrees of Men, learned and unlearned, with her infamous Rabbet-productions, &c” (214). In 1776, a rogue’s biography of “Jemmy Sharp” was published, made even sweeter to the public with the addition of two of the most controversial pamphlets of the affair—Nathanel St. Andre’s Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits and Richard Manningham’s prodigiously titillating Exact Diary of What Observed During Close Attendance upon Mary Toft.
In contemporary criticism, as in the eighteenth-century, she becomes a springboard for inquiry into other discourses rather than a site of inquiry herself. Alan Shepard discusses how the satirical literature of the event renders the medical community’s failure itself the real monstrosity. Dennis Todd’s Imagining Monsters reads the Toft affair as a powerful sign of a larger web of Augustan cultural politics consumed with the threat of structural collapse (68), particularly the ongoing debates about proper and improper forms of representation, knowledge, and entertainment. The abstractions of print which, in the eighteenth century, focused increasingly on what Shepard has termed the doctors‘ monstrosity, effectively disciplined them through satire, and they were left to “[heal] their Reputations as well as they [could] by writing of Pamphlets” (Mists, December 17, 1726). As the public shifted its satire to the doctors, who—as visible members of the public sphere—had more to lose from such discipline, Toft also became less significant as a producer of meaning. It is almost as though, uncertain what to do with Toft, the doctors offered a more approchable site for satiric reform.
Given the nature of the textual production surrounding the Toft affair, it important today to remember that she did stand at the center of it all. The eye at the center of that storm, her body seems unanswerably present—anyone can comment, but none can know. She is present largely insofar as she has been remade in language, the last refuge of absence. The threat facing the body’s abstraction into print is much like the difficulty of accurately recapturing or completely theorizing performance, or even satire itself. In both cases, we attempt to treat the physical and experiential with tools of a more stable textual analysis, with the paradigms of thought descendant from the turn to print.
Yet, significantly, her act also became matter for another aspect of the modern entertainment economy: the notoriously wordless, problematically textless harlequinade or farce-pantomime so disagreeable to many the policeman of appropriate representation. A topical event par excellence, the Toft hoax seems to speak with the same tongues as pantomime, emerging from the fraught position of imagination publicly staged. While pantomime was routinely set up as the Bogeyman of good taste, it nonetheless commanded public attention, much like the Toft affair itself. And because of its silent, spectacular mode of presentation—as well as the distance of time–it is notoriously difficult for even ostensibly satirical pantomimes to maintain a stable core of meaning, rendering their satire at best vagrant.
The print output constituting the Toft affair mined the discourses of poor taste, bad theatricality, and the modern entertainment economy. When John Howard began advertising his discovery to his medical colleagues, he did so using the language of participatory spectacle, inviting the “Curious” to observe her give birth. Toft’s labor (and the discursive and medical effluvia surrounding it) was routinely described as “uncommon,” “singular,” an “extraordinary…Production,” an “extasy,” a “Wonder,” and, several times, an astonishing “Piece of Diversion” or a “[glib] Trick” (Brathwaite 20). On December 17, Mist’s Weekly Journal featured a letter from the deceased Thomas D’Urfey in which he argues from the grave for an aesthetic continuity of kinds between the performances of “Italian Comedians” and the performances of “Bartholomew Fair,” including “Harlequin Clark, Mrs. Violante and her Companions, together with the Rabbet-Woman, the Puppet-Show, Mr. Fawks, and Mr. Clinch of Barnet […]; nay, even the itinerant Bear and Monkey, the Woman in the Box, and all the Raree Shows about Town….”vi Finally, the Toft affair was playing out, in real time, during a particularly vivid parade of holiday harlequinade and farcical variety shows on the legitimate stages.vii [including Violante’s and High German woman’s rope dancing exploits and Fawkes’ noted “dexterity of hand,” as well as the productions of Rich at LIF]
It is thus in some sense no surprise that a pantomime emerged from the affair; not only did it throw into relief the most appalling tastes of the town, but it also became the means through which those bad tastes were perpetuated. One of the many products of Toft’s imaginative act was a pantomime for Lincoln’s Inn Fields that recreated the whole event through spectacular stage magic. The “Rabbit Scene,” as Mist’s terms it, apparently took place on December 9th, during the concluding afterpiece entertainment at Rich’s theater—either Harlequin a Sorcerer or The Necromancer (the reporting newspapers seem to use the titles loosely). Within this entertainment, there seems to have been either an additional entr’acte entertainment based on the Toft affair, or another episode incorporated into the existing afterpiece. According to Brice’s Weekly Journal, published out of Exeter, “the Audience were unexpectedly diverted with a Representation ridiculing the aforesaid imposture; Harlequin, assisted by a Man Midwife, being delivered of 4 Rabbits, which ran about the Stage, and raised such a Laughter as perhaps has not been heard upon any other Occasion” (Fri., Dec. 16, 1726). Mist’s takes a much more removed glance at the event, merely noting that during the “Entertainment call’d the Necromancer…a new Rabbit Scene was introduced by way of Episode–” (Saturday, December 17, 1726).viii
While there is no text of the episode referred to in the newspapers, there is a printed version of a piece called Harlequin Turn’d Imposture; or, The Guilford Comedy, billed on the title page as “a Diverting Entertainment in British Characters; Shewing the whole Intrigue of the late Guilford Imposture, Or, Rabbit Gossiping.” The title page, advertising that the “part of the Rabbit Woman” was played by Mr. R—h, also indicates that “the Scenes [are] entirely New, and beautifully Painted for that purpose.”ix The pantomime, like the impromptu entertainment, details the entirety of the media event, from Toft’s fascination with rabbits and the miraculous births themselves, facilitated by an effeminate husband and a savvy nurse, all the way to the doctors’ salacious examinations and inept exhortations, and even her imprisonment in Bridewell.xxi All this suggests that Harlequin Turn’d Imposture is probably a revision of the impromptu performance of the 9th, especially since Toft’s imprisonment, staged at the end of the pantomime, had not yet occurred. Though there is no hard evidence that this pantomime was performed again, it may have continued as an unadvertised insertion or addition. It is also probable that this harlequinade is the same alluded to in at least two prints published during the height of the affair, both of which draw on the visual symbology of early eighteenth-century pantomime.xii The first of these is a print by George Vertue called The Surrey-Wonder, an Anotomical Farce as it was Dissected at the Theatre Royal. Published around the 23rd of December (CPPS 1778), it may represent a scene from the harlequinade entertainment of the 9th. In The Surrey Wonder, the Toft figure’s black mask ties her to Harlequin and suggests her trickster status. Another print again takes up the pantomimic context, though less directly than the first; this print, undated and unsigned but probably published late in 1726, is entitled The Doctors in Labour; or a New Whim Wham from Guildford (CPPS 1781), and it characterizes itself as “a Representation of the Frauds by which the Godliman Woman carried on her pretended Rabbit Breeding; also of the Simplicity of our Doctors, by which they assisted to carry on that Imposture…and contributed to the Mirth of His Majesties…Subjects.” In a series of twelve panels, throughout which both Toft and a Harlequin figure centrally, the print couples each rendering with satirical lines beneath.
What is striking about these prints, like the pantomime Harlequin Turn’d Imposture, is the way Toft’s act becomes a conduit not only for satire against the doctors’ flagrant—even itself monstrous—scientific ineptitude (Shepard), but also for the popular entertainment in the early eighteenth century. In both The Surrey Wonder and The Doctors in Labour, the symbology of harlequinade dominates the satire, suggesting an intimate connection between Toft’s act and the actor at the center of English pantomime.xiii In the twelve panels of The Doctors in Labour, the print tells the story of the Toft affair and the medical men who “Plac’d all their faith in such a Stupid Creature” (panel 1).xiv Throughout the panels, a harlequin figure distinct from Toft features prominently; described in the accompanying satirical verses as a “Merry Andrew,” he is identified in Nichols’ Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth as Nathanel St. Andre, the most virulently attacked of the surgeons concerned in the affair. Yet, there seems only anecdotal evidence that this is in fact a representation of St. Andre, who was also reviled as an ex-dancing and fencing master.xv It is equally plausible to read this figure as a less concrete but no less efficacious force in the plates, a kind of deliberate, entertaining, and intensely physical will-to-fraudulence that interferes in and directs the happening itself, especially given the overlap here and in the pantomime I’ll discuss later.xvi Whether we read the harlequin figure here as a satire on a specific individual or on the dangers of improper representation more generally, it is clear that the public saw an easy connection between the events of the Toft affair and the pantomimic stage. If the public sphere becomes a dissection-chamber for the discovery of frauds and cheats, then what kind of dissection-chamber is a pantomime, itself subject to criticism and, as a quintessentially performative entertainment, nearly impossible to hold accountable?
Drawing attention to the imitativeness of the action,xvii Harlequin Turn’d Imposture dramatizes—indeed, relishes—the act of turning imposture, the pleasures of the body become a site of uncertainty. Ultimately, we are not meant to condemn Harlequin Toft, despite his/her being “Committed to Bridewell.” Rather, we are meant to enjoy the spectacle of fungible flesh and the extravagant technologies of mimesis. As a pantomime, Harlequin Turn’d Imposture treats the human body as the primary mimetic technology. In his guise as Lun, Rich becomes a body double for Toft. When his body is laminated onto Toft’s, the crisis about to be played out becomes not only one of aesthetic value, but also interpretative instability. [in the interests of time, I will only bring up one important aspect of the pantomime’s performance as indicated in the text]xviii
In Harlequin Turn’d Imposture, Rich plays the title character as a woman; throughout the text, “he” is referred to as “she,” “his” becomes “her,” and so on. The pantomime’s sense of the body and its meaning is already subject to debate and uncertainty, especially in the realm of gender as a sign of identity. In the beginning of the entertainment, we are told that Harlequin “goes first with Petticoats on”; and yet, we know the cross-dressing is just that. In fact, the “imposture” pointed to by the title—while implicitly Toft’s notorious hoax—refers primarily to Harlequin’s long-maintained camouflage, but as Toft or as Harlequin, we are never sure. At the end of the farce, after the bustling activity of the miraculous births and the quarreling doctors, Harlequin, like Toft, is imprisoned in Bridewell and exhorted to confess. Yet, unlike the happenings that played out in the newspapers of the day, in the pantomime, Harlequin’s comeuppance is clearly described as a function of his refusal to admit his identity as Harlequin. After a live rabbit was discovered in his/her chamber,
poor Harlequin was brought to Confession, but no agreeing thereto, they pull of Harlequin’s Apparel, and discover’d her proper Habbit [sic], for which cheat poor Harlequin was Committed to Bridewell, there to remain, till the next time it is Acted. (8)
The “cheat” for which “poor Harlequin was Committed to Bridewell” is one of appearance, a crime of performative uncertainty.xix Of course, the missing term here is precisely our knowledge of the crime itself—both Toft’s performance and that of Harlequin Turn’d Imposture. Left with only a very brief and general description of what occurs on stage, as well as a few possible prints and some anecdotes, we must acknowledge the opaque transience of the body in time. Left with only the doctors’ effusions of text, the newspaper accounts, and a few other documents, we must acknowledge what we don’t know. What this pantomime represents, above all, is what happens when we try to get back to the origin of the hoax, when we realize that the performance is not satirizing something stable—like the doctor’s clearly imperfect knowledge—but rather staging harlequin as a sign of impossible knowledge. Harlequin Turn’d Imposture deliberately leaves the satire open—and there harlequin will “remain, till the next time it is Acted.”xx The closure presented is far from resolute, in contrast to the authority of verse satire or the authority of print in general to give stability to meaning.
In Harlequin Britain, John O’Brien has described Harlequin as a widely recognized symbol of “the expansion of the entertainment culture” (103) in the early eighteenth-century, an entertainment culture increasingly organized around the dynamic and transitory structures of the “media event”–which the Toft affair certainly was. Critics of this expansion of entertainment culture often satirized it as effeminate and effeminizing, smacking of luxury and the sensuous gratifications of spectacle over the rational pleasures of the mind set down in measured verse. During their boom in the 1720s and 30s, harlequinades “both narrated and marked” the transformation of a traditional culture into a modern one (O’Brien 95), though that modernity was not untroubled by anxieties. According to O’Brien, these entertainments—emblematized by the Faustus pantomimes during one of which the Toft harlequinade was inserted—dramatized how secular magic had “displaced superstition.” Yet, that spectacle of modernity was effected through a threatening because “wordless form” (95). Given the ease with which Toft was not only subsumed into the discourse of harlequinade but also imagined as, herself, a harlequin figure, we might fruitfully read her as an icon of that modernity—and specifically, as an icon of the problems of interpreting performance in a world increasingly governed by print.xxi
While the media event dramatically remade her body as an effect of print, its presence in harlequinade offers an opportunity to theorize some of the problems of embodiment. Performance of all kinds, as Jean Marsden has noted, “lacks a narrative voice to establish authority” (Marsden 161), making the question of satire necessarily difficult—and wordless performance doubles that lack. Further, embattled modes of performance like harlequinade—much less the kind of modern media performance that takes shape both in print and in the spaces between, or an act like Toft’s that spurs such media events—are themselves subject to critique by other established voices of authority. By taking Toft’s body as not only the center but also the sign of such a media event, much like the masked, voiceless Harlequin itself, we can begin to see the instabilities of satire emerging from it. After all, what Toft’s act presents us with is the very real fact that, for bodies as bodies and acts as acts, we have no interpretive index but must make one. Her act—like the pantomime that seems so natural an aesthetic form for her act—brings home the way in which, increasingly, one’s being in the eighteenth-century public sphere is less defined by true or false and more by the acts and products of being. And in this new world, even an illiterate woman who had the temerity to make such a spectacle of herself can trouble the power of print to structure meaning.
Even today, a visit to performance artist Shelly Jackson’s web presence—where one can download a connect-the-dots image of Toft giving explicit birth to bunnies—reveals her continued power of fascination.xxii
What the Toft affair teaches us, especially in considering its appearance in harlequinade, is perhaps that the early eighteenth centjury, too, was struggling with this question of what to do with a body that resists interpretation. “definitions that are unexpectedly dependent upon the pressures of literary figures in an age more and more shaped by the power of print” (59) But even as print asserts its power to shape meaning, Harlequin Turn’d Imposture—like Mary Toft herself—suggests the frightening possibility that incomprehensible actions can have a meaning that escapes it.
close: Mist’s Weekly Journal (London, England), Saturday, December 17, 1726; Issue 87.
“Mary Toft, the Rabbit Woman, is order’d to be prosecuted upon a Statute of Edward III. as a vile Cheat and Impostor. The learned Gentlemen, who find themselves mistaken at last in their Judgments of that Affair, are healing their Reputations as well as they can by writing of Pamphlets.”
next paragraph: “the Common Shore in Piccadilly overflowing last Sunday…”
Next paragraph: “Last Week the Entertainment call’d the Necromancer, was perform’d at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, wherein a new Rabbit Scene was introduced by Way of Episode,–by which the Publick may understand as much of that Affair, as by the present Controversy among the Gentlemen of the Faculty, who are flinging their bitter Pills at one another, to convince the World, that none of them understand any thing of the Matter.”
What strikes me as particularly worth investigating, for the purposes of this panel, is the complex question of how we are to interpret this historical and performative event, the satire of which, like the body of Toft herself, seems to have been clearly rerouted into a referendum on the medical establishment. As the brief news item on the piece in Mist’s notes, the “new Rabbit Scene” staged at Lincoln’s Inn Fields offered an entertaining digest “by which the Publick may understand as much of that Affair, as by the present Controversy among the Gentlemen of the Faculty, who are flinging their bitter Pills at one another, to convince the World, that none of them understand any thing of the Matter” (Mist’s Weekly Journal Sat. Dec. 17, 1726).
For Alan Shepard, “Toft’s labours are in effect theatrical performances of the womb-as-animal, in which she supplies her audience with precisely the physical signs of authenticity for which they have been waiting” (Shepard 66). The trauma she undergoes in pursuit of what I might call her piece de resistance becomes a sign of the performative quality of truth;
Though the dissection chamber of the Royal Society is a more suitable venue for the discovery of scientific and material truth than the transient space of the public sphere (Shepherd 67), one cannot but wonder what kind of truth a pantomime becomes suitable the stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields a suitable venue for?
Yet, That is, whether she was in fact giving birth to rabbits or merely pretending to do so, her act
matizing the ability of observers to distinguish between the mimetic qualities of performance and the actual event.
In the removal of print and re-presentation, the question of agency and authoritative interpretation becomes equally inaccessible.
The English pantomime tradition “came to prominence” (O’Brien 40) during the 20s and 30s, the same years that—for a brief period, at least, the public was also consumed by another figure of misrule, Mary Toft.
O’Brien argues for the modernity of the pantomime tradition in England, the way it both signified “the new” and worked as a great source of anxiety.
acknowledges the theatricality of the event (Shepherd 66).. the very real physical trauma she experienced in pursuit of what I might call her piece de resistance;
Wealth of satiric discourse that conspired to “spoof” the Toft affair; “Collectively, these texts portend a shift in the regulation of definitions of monstrosity in the early eighteenth century, definitions that are unexpectedly dependent upon the pressures of literary figures in an age more and more shaped by the power of print. Among the satirists who respond to the hoax, monstrosity is neither a product of witchcraft…, nor is it a pathology of the body. Instead, I argue, in an arena of readers that is / policed more by satirists than by the Royal College of Physicians, what is now monstrous is the failure of learned scientists to reason inductively, an error compounded by the gullible disregard of common sense” (Shephard 59-60)
See " The Genuine Works of William Hogarth ; " by J. Nichols and G. Steevens, 1 8 1 0, vol. ii. p. 5 1 . To this follows a considerable number of particu- lars, the results of researches by the authors in this subject. It is said that the stage joined in satirizing the performers in and dupes of this imposture. " In Mist's Journal, for Saturday, Dec. 17, 1726," it is stated that " a new rabbit- scene " was introduced by way of episode to ' The Necromancer ' in the Theatre, in Lincoln's -Inn- Fields. 1 " p. 52. "I am told by one of the spectators, still alive, that in this new scene, Harlequin, being converted into a woman, pretended to be in labour, and was first delivered of a large pig, then of a sooterkin, &c. &c."
Rich’s decision to stage Toft’s body as the centerpiece of a farcical harlequinade is telling. Why pantomime? What, if anything, is special about Toft’s body, what she chose to do with it, and its discursive presence in the popular consciousness? What makes it suitable material for this disreputable but fascinating form?
Such rich resonance in the popular specular and textual realms severally supports Noble’s claim that “This woman’s impudent wickedness produced much wit and satire” (Noble, Biographical History of England, 3.477, qtd. in CPPS vol 2). Indeed, her startling act of body manipulation and what we can, I think, easily describe as performance art was not only as productive of satire as it was of rabbits. Toft’s act, and the ensuing whirlwind of activity it caused, also produced at least one pantomime, and possibly two.
As much as her imagination was believed to have bred monstrous flesh, her monstrous body engendered lavish displays of equally monstrous imagination and spectacle.
Thus, for Todd, Toft’s power is not merely that of the monstrous maternal imagination; it is also, and perhaps more importantly, her ability—despite her illiteracy and her poverty—to contrive a plausible hoax. Hoaxing, which depends on the manipulation of representation so as to construct a semblance of the real that is actually taken as real, is a paradigmatic example of what Girard has called the “dangerous properties of mimesis.”xxiii
This power of Toft’s was consistently repudiated in the corollary discourse surrounding the affair by focusing attention on the medical men who either fell for the fraud or, apparently more logically, masterminded it. And in this case, their involvement throws into high relief the “perceptual confusion” Toft’s corporeal claims provoked: a “moment of fundamental confusion when the senses themselves fail to keep us in touch with the external world because their evidence is used to feed a fantasy constructed by a deluded mind” (Todd 79).
“This preposterous project of imposing upon the public was acted in the year 1726 ; and it is difficult to know which most to admire, the impudence of the impostor, or the credulity of those who could be so duped.” (Noble, Biographical History of England, 3.447)
That Nathanel St. Andre, a principle figure of riducule throughout the affair, was a foreign-born tutor of French, music, and dancing to a Jewish household before turning surgeon to the King is telling, given the ease with which the Toft affair was appropriated by the pantomimic stage—itself dogged by suspicions of foreignness and frivolity.
a ….; and over xx other non-medical satirical pamphlets emerged xxx… A byword for gullibility and imposture, Mary Toft is associated with “French Prophets” and the “S[outh] S[ea] Scheme” in George North’s Answer to a Scandalous Libel (1741); in William Bromfield’s Thoughts…Concerning the Present Peculiar Method of Treating Persons Inoculated with the Smallpox, she appears as the sine qua non not just of “the credulity of my countrymen” but also the extent to which it has been “justly the object of ridicule to foreigners” (2); the medical men’s suspicious desire to “search [this secret] to the bottom” (206) also coming under fire… (“A Song on TOFTS the Rabbit-Woman, to the Tune of, Chevy Chase”; The Honeysuckle). Henrietta Hobart, Countess of Suffolk describes in a letter to Jonathan Swift how, in 1726, “our island is in great joy; one of our yahoos having…brought forth four perfect black rabbits” (328); the Earl of Peterborow comments similarly in a Nov. 29th letter, that “Strange distempers rage in the nation…. Women bring forth rabbits, and every man, whose wife has conceived, expects an heir with four legs” (330) [letters, swift]; for James Ralph in The Touchstone, the Toft affair’s inclusion in his essay VII on Bear Gardens &c belies his claim that it is but one of many “Mushroom Amusement[s]…which…dies the Day it springs up” (237); he describes it as a “Rabbit-scene” that, “like the B—r’s O—-ra, engross’d all Conversation for six Months” (236), and it functions in the essay as the epitome of all he has to say about operas, public auctions, fairground entertainments, rope-dancers, strolling players, mountebanks, and all of the “Dramatical Jumbles” (225) of Rich’s pantomime, “a Scandal to any Stage, an Encraochment upon THEATRES, and a Banter on all kinds of Poetry” (225). These comprise a “strolling family” (225). Lemuel Gulliver’s pamphelt satirizing the willful obtuseness illuminated by St. Andre’s narrative of his examination of Mary Toft, The Anatomist Dissected –authorship attibuted to Jonathan Swift (1726); for Gulliver, the Toft affair iconically trivial; (the english have been so consumed with the Toft affair as “scarce to leave them any leisure for things of a more sublime Nature, and of vastly greater Consequence and Importance” (3); chiefly directed against St. Andre’s “profound deficiency” in discernment and common sense (4) “Monstrous!… If he thought at all, what could he be thinking of?” (14)–his “Resentment” (25) largely proceded from his skeptical and critical reading St. Andre’s Narrative itself. Again, references with shame the “great Detriment likely to accrue to our Nation by the Stir which has been made by this foul Imposture, both by the Actors and Examiners of it” (33)
“No people on earth are so inquisitive, and so fond of Rarities, as the English” (Wonderful Wonder, Swift?) (3)–fictional account of a dutchman’s desire to do the English a good turn by bringing a wild boy raised by bears to Britain for exhibition.
Much Ado about Nothing—Toft’s so-called “Confession,” written “in puris naturalibus, (i.e.) in her own Stile and Spelling, without any Amendment or Adulteration, which would but spoil its natural Simplicity, and render it less Genuine and Credible” (9-10) Ties Toft’s supposed illiteracy to the nature of the fraud itself, amplifying the critique of the gullible as well.
Lots of puns, double entendres, innuendos that work primarily to discursively expose of Toft’s lady parts: she’d been told she was “a Woman as had grate natural parts, and a large Capassiti” (Much Ado 12); ultimately, she hopes “sum good Christiun will stand in my gap, and not let a pore Wuman be hangid for a parsil of navs and fools” (21); the medical men “would go down…/ the Scale to take / Of this Phenomenon” (205); “Resolv’d this Secret to explore, / And search it to the bottom” (206); “first let us try, / Now that her legs are ope; / If we can any thing descry, / by help fo Telescope” (207–”A Song on TOFTS the Rabbit-Woman”)
The act of investigating with the eyes is tied to both licentious gazing and with the physical act of inserting and removing the rabbit part, itself metonymically related to sex; most evident in Much Ado (14), where the parade of nameless medicos visit Tuft and, to greater and lesser extents, provide her with what she needed.
Shorter and Truer Advertisement: “There’s something Curious! Make no doubt / E’re it be long, I’ll pull it out.” (4)
At the end of November, Parker’s Penny Post (Mon. Nov. 28) ran an excerpt from a letter written by the discovering surgeon John Howard, in which he writes that he had delivered the 17th rabbit, news of which was reported by St. Andre and Molineux to the King, which affords him the opportunity to claim “that the Truth of this monstrous Produce of Nature, mentioned in this Paper a few days since, is not to be doubted of.” Ironically, this abstract was published mere days before Toft was moved to a bagnio in London, where the fraud was discovered; in the first week of December. On the 3rd, the British Journal ran a brief story about the discovery, concluding with a notice about the porter who first learned of the hoax (having been sent to fetch more rabbits) and the “several Noblemen” who “have been very active therein, not willing that so vile an Imposture should pass for Truth.” Once found to be an imposture, the newspapers of the day ran much the same announcement in the domestic news sections, altered only in the last lines and in smaller, telling internal details. On December 6, the Daily Post broke their curious silence about the affair—after all, they explain, “it [was] a filthy Story at best, and having withal the Appearance of Imposture”—with a paragraph about the new inquiries being made into guilt and innocence. Parker’s Penny Post for Wednesday, Dec. 7, cries up the affair as “Matter of diversion,” while the Daily Post for the next day, reads the “vile Imposture” as “a Blemish on human Nature”; like the “several Noblemen” involved in the discovery, the suggestion is, the newspaper will continue to report so that such a thing should not “pass for Truth, and as such be inserted in our Histories.” After the astonishing discovery, Toft was committed to Bridewell, where according to the newspapers she was “kept at hard Labour” of a very different sort (Brice’s Weekly Journal, Exeter, Fri. Dec. 16).
Repetition of the line about the discovery: “Several Noblemen and Persons of Honour have been very active in the Detection of this vile and shameful Imposture.”
Even after the discovery, however, the “Matter of diversion” continues: according to Brice’s Weekly Journal—and “notwithstanding all”—“a Book is publish’d by Mr. St. Andre, Surgeon and Anatomist to His Majesty, intitled, A short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits…., wherein, to the great Surprise at least of the Unbelievers, we see no less than 5 Affidavits, made before the Mayor of Guildford, attesting the said Production to be real Matter of Fact; as also an Affirmation signed by Mr. Molyneux, Secretary to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, that he did not perceive the least circumstance of Fraud in the Conduct of this Affair while he was at Guilford.” The paper contiinues with a sidelong glance at Howard, as well, who, “we hear, is also publishing the whole Account of this Matter, as is pretended, to put it out of all Possibility of D[o]u[bt].”
By the 17th of December, The London Journal’s update on the affair contains as much information about Toft, who is to be tried under an old legal statute “as a vile Cheat and Imposture,” as about the “learned Gentlemen, who find themselves mistaken at last in their Judgments of that Affair” and “are healing their Reputations as well as they can by writing of Pamphlets.”
Mary Toft left her mark on history only with her body and what she was able to do with it. She left no record in her own hand, being illiterate,xxiv though Richard Manningham’s Exact Diary (1726) claims that “Dr. Douglas, who was so kind as to write down her Confession from her own Mouth, will…shortly oblige the World with it at large, when she has discover’d the whole” (37). Possibly, this “Confession from her own Mouth” is a ventriloquized satire called Much Ado about Nothing (1727), which attributes the appallingly bad spelling and grammar in which the events are recounted to one scandalously-named “Merry Tuft.”xxv
farce denotes not only a specific kind of dramatic representation, characterized by physical humor that at times verges on the violently obscene and disturbing, but also a broader cultural spectacle, specifically the cultural spectacle of authority gone awry.
i This is Toft’s expression, as quoted in Todd, 7.
iiAccording to Nichols’ Anecdotes of Hogarth, The Weekly Miscellany for April 19, 1740 reports that Toft was again committed to prison for “receiving stolen goods” (qtd. in Nichols 133).
iii: “Last week died at Godalming in Surry, Mary Tofts, formerly noted for an imposition of breeding Rabbits.”
iv The Hogarth prints I refer to here are Cunicularii; or, the Doctors in Labour (1726) [CPPS #1779] and Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1726) [CPPS #1785]. Cunicularii is overtly and specifically about the Toft affair, while Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism deploys the image of Toft in labor—along with several other iconic images of the period—to critique enthusiasm and zealous excess. An addendum to the Anodyne Necklace ad routinely found in London newspapers read: “Where is given Gratis, the Account of the whole Affair of the Delivery of the RABBETS, with the Pictures of the Woman herself Mary Toft, and the RABBTS [sic], and of the Persons who attended her during her pretended Deliveries.” Other ads of this sort, from the makers of the Anodyne Necklace, feature the free ephemera before mentioning the product actually on sale (see below).
v Lot 2716 of the “large and curious English library of Mr. John Hutton,” auctioned in 1764, contained “Ten Tracts on the Case of Mary Tofts, the Rabbit-Breeder, by Howard, Brathwaite, Manningham, Douglas, Ahlers, and others” (104). It sold, as a handwritten note in the margin indicates, for 17s. 6d.. An earlier lot from the same auction lists a variety of other Toft affair tracts that, together, sold for 18s. 6d. (96). From this catalogue, it seems that some gentleman named Payne was collecting Toft tracts—all items contain a marginal note, perhaps of purchase, reading “Payne.” Other Toft tracts were auctioned from the libraries of Richard Rawlinson in 1757 (Baker); “the late Right Honourable Henry, Lord Viscount Colerane, the Honble Mr. Baron Clarke, the Rev. Samuel Dunster” and others in 1754 (Osbourne and Shipton); and John Murray of Sacomb, Hertfordshire, in 1749 (Corbett). In 1767, George Wagstaff sold off “several thousand scarce and valuable books, manuscripts, pamphlets, &c.,” including St. André’s Short Narrative (Wagstaff).
vi Mist’s Weekly Journal, December 17, 1726. [insert notes about other personages named, especially fawkes.]
viiDuring the month of December, 1726, London newspapers were flooded with exactly the selection of problematic offerings that so tempted the satirists and the marketers of national identity. From John Rich’s infamous pantomimes at LIF (i.e. Harlequin Sorcerer and The Necromancer) and the competing entertainments at DL (i.e. Harlequin’s Metamorphosis and Harlequin Doctor Faustus), all the way to Isaac Fawkes’ celebrated dexterity of hand, the rope dancing acts by Mrs. Violante and the High German Gentlewoman at the (New Theater) Haymarket, and the Italian harlequin farces at the King’s Theater. As the scandal wore on, Toft was consciously appropriated into the antitheatrical debates centered around illegitimate entertainment.
viiiInitial research into this strange confluence of content and form suggested that there may in fact have been not one but two pantomimes generated from the affair; w
ixThe title page also contains a Latin motto from Juvenal’s sixth satire, described by Courtney as “a blunderbuss assault on women” (13), translated as “After that Astraea withdrew by degrees to heaven, with Chastity as her comrade, the two sisters taking flight together.”
x Todd, 2. Though Todd describes the pantomime as staged at Drury Lane, the title page of Harlequin Turn’d Imposture indicates rather Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It has also been suggested that Rich wrote the farce pantomime, in which case it would make more sense for it to have been performed at his theater. I would like to extend special thanks to Dr. Todd, who took time out of his busy day to mail a photocopy of this text to me after I made the appalling discovery that the original copy, housed in the special collections library of Glasgow University, had been “temporarily misplaced.”
xiCuriously, outside of Todd’s brief mention of the fact of the performance in Imagining Monsters, there seems to be no other sustained treatment of what strikes me as a significant coincidence. That Mary Toft’s fraud, and the critical frenzy surrounding it, should become material for staged drama, much less for a harlequinade suggests a confluence of discursive threads that cannot not speak to the metatheatrical penchant of English theater in the 1720s and 30s.
xii and suggest a broader, more critical position on the ambivalent aesthetic status of the form.
xiiiWe will return to the image of Toft as, herself, a trickster figure in a moment, and for now I’d like to turn to its use in the narrative print.
xivDrawing at points on actual language from other printed materials, the story progresses from Toft’s story about ineffectually pursuing several rabbits, to her subsequent sexualized dreams about them, to her pregnancies and the doctors’ thorough and publicized examinations of her, to their scientific debates about the “preaeturnatural” quality of the rabbits that lept from her womb, to Toft’s removal to the Bagnio where “flock[ed] the Town and Court, / T’improve their Judgment some, and some for Sport” (panel 10), and finally to the discovery of the fraud and its aftereffects.
xv; unlike other plates documenting the event, like Hogarth’s Cunicularii, the characters in The Doctors in Labour are not identified in a key.
xviIn the final plate, when Toft is led off to Bridewell, the harlequin figure remains, alone, seated “upon Repenting stool, / Cursing his fate in being made a Fool” (plate 12). We can easily read the harlequin figure in the plates as an impish force instigating the event and pushing forward—perhaps the doctors, but not necessarily. In the eleventh plate, when Toft’s imposture was discovered, the harlequin figure is not directly present; however, the diamond checked pattern of the floor, which recalls Lun’s particolored suit, suggests that such a force nonetheless presides.
xviiHarlequin Turn’d Imposture is replete with the rhetoric of seeming, and this rhetoric is doubled in the generic imperatives of the pantomime play-text. The form is so contingent upon the actor’s work that it necessarily escapes textual utterance; on the page, the pantomime is full of gaps. Paradoxically, however, these gaps do not signify absence, but rather the unspeaking presence of the body—here, both Toft’s and Rich’s. The rhetoric of seeming inundating Harlequin Turn’d Imposture may at first seem too commonplace to merit mention. Yet, we cannot ignore the satirical work this rhetoric of seeming accomplishes. In play-texts of most any other kind, stage directions do not foreground the “make believe” aspect of what is staged, though the audience acknowledges it as such. Here, however, we are constantly reminded of the fact that these actors “seem,” “pretend,” and act “as tho’.” In other words, we are constantly reminded of the fact that these actors are using their bodies in ways that make evident that quality of seeming, pretending, and acting “as tho’.”
xviiiHarlequin Turn’d Imposture opens on Harlequin “first [in] Petticoats and pretty bigg belly’d” weeding “[a not very beautiful] a Garden” (2). This is the garden primeval, perhaps an abandoned Eden, or, tongue-in-cheek, as the sad patch of modern entertainments so grossly marred by weeds like this farce. In this garden marked by hyperactive fecundity, creativity has no boundaries, no logic, no order or rule. This is a space of bad fecundity and barren productivity. The kind of creation that marks the space of play is, much like John Rich’s dramatic creations and Mary Toft’s biological creations, somehow askew, deviant, perverse. And yet, as conscious as Rich—and Toft, as well—must have been about the embattled status of his aesthetic practice, it seems hard to read these representations of bad fecundity as purely self-satire. Self-conscious participation in a rhetoric that damns you is a time-honored oppositional tactic. In fact, I think the pantomime goes much further in destabilizing its objects of satire, largely through its self-consciousness about the inability to pin the body down, to make sense of it as itself.
xix. What doesn’t Harlequin agree to confess—are we to take this as a comment on Toft’s confession, which may have been coerced under threat of torture? Are we to remain within the fiction presented by the stage, or are we asked to step outside the stage and acknowledge Rich’s performance as such? Is this a play about Mary Toft? A play about Harlequin? Or a play about harlequinade? What does it mean, “there to remain, till the next time it is Acted”? Are we talking about the play, Harlequin Turn’d Imposture, or about the hoax, in which case the piece concludes with a sense that these modern media events will necessarily happen again, and again?
xxIndeed, the ending of this pantomime refers us once again to the popular print in which, anecdotally, it is St. Andre—not Toft—who takes on the guise of harlequin; in the twelvth panel, after the gig is up, bailiffs lead Toft off to Bridewell as Harlequin takes her place on the “Repenting Stool,” perhaps there to remain till the next time.
xxiSo, when confronted with the choice to translate the Toft affair into harlequinade, was the only product of the event a unidirectional satire on the doctors’ gullibility, the persistence of superstition, the threat of the excessive, unnatural, fraudulent products of the feminine imagination, whether they be Toft’s rabbits or Rich’s pantomimes? Or is the satire less stable, like the subversive potential of the trickster figure?
xxii At the start of the twenty-first century, Jackson juxtaposes a “connect-the-dots” image of Mary Toft with her “living book,” a 5,000-word text imprinted, word by word, in permanent ink on 5,000 human bodies.
xxiii Cite Girard here; see also Chapter 3.
xxiv Toft signed an affidavit, published as supporting material with St. André’s Short Narrative, signing it with her “mark.”
xxv The authorship of this piece is unknown.