After each of the 17 stories in Emma Donoghue’s The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, a brief note explains the real-life figure or historical anecdote that inspired the tale. As with Donoghue’s last novel, Slammerkin, it’s the history books—as well as obscure biographies, medieval ballads, and medical treatises—that provide the outlines for her sensually detailed portraits of misfits, eccentrics, and sideshow freaks. Both the famous and the forgotten populate these pieces, which are set in Scotland, Ireland, and England, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Episodes from the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Ruskin mingle with tales of the smallest woman on record; an apothecary tricks an English captain into marrying his spinster niece; and the title character, an Irish peasant, tries to scam the public by pretending she spawned 18 of the little cottontails.
Reading the book, one finds oneself anticipating each explanatory note with surprising intensity. That’s because a moral of sorts creeps into most of the fictions. Either Donoghue tells us more than she needs to, or she insists on an ill-fitting larger meaning, or it’s simply too clear where our sympathies are supposed to lie. Only factual footnotes can redeem the mild sentimentality of the stories: There’s some relief in knowing that the plucky blind girl in “Night Visions,” who has been kicked out of school and dismissed as “stunted” by her minister, is not just a maudlin figment of Donoghue’s imagination, but the writer, Frances Brown, who became known as the “Blind Poetess of Donegal.”
But if the lessons fall flat, remarkably vivid, inventive scenes give life to each story, and make the collection absorbing in spite of its heavy-handed moments: The blind girl lies awake in a hot room crowded with her 11 siblings, where “the air smells of cheese” and she “can hear the room filling up with sleep; the little snores, the sights, the shiftings from side to side. My sisters and brothers hardly know how to move or talk in the dark—once the candle is snuffed out, the greasy air seems to extinguish them too.”
Another story, about Dido Bell, the daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an African slave woman raised by Lindsay’s high-born great-uncle, begins in an opulent, artificially heated greenhouse where Dido picks plums and grapes. A disillusioned, amorous 17th-century cavalryman who’s deserted the army spends the evening eating and drinking on a riverbank beside two women, thinking wistfully that he “could sit here forever . . . the three of them fixed and firelit like some new constellation in the black night.” Like the cavalryman, we too may wish that we had been allowed simply to linger with the details.