The book teases apart archival details of the case to shed light on the social concerns, medical debates, gender relationships and political dynamics of the day. In doing so she gives voice to women like Toft and her circle who are so often silent in history, exploring her physical and emotional state and possible motivations for the hoax. But she also presents Toft’s story in a fresh new, even modern, light: as an attempt by a disempowered section of society to take back control of their lives - and the harsh backlash from the moneyed elite that ensued.
This is a fascinating but difficult story. We will never be quite sure why the hoax was committed (Toft seems to have made only a single chance guinea from the affair) or quite who put the poor girl up to it, and Harvey deserves credit for the immense amount of research that has produced what feels like a definitive account. Nonetheless, her learning is, on occasion, rather heavily worn. A cameo appearance from the Duke of Richmond prompts the remark that “the 26-year-old Duke… may have been wearing the blue velvet suit with silk lining, along with the ‘fine bever hat’, all ordered earlier in the year”.
Harvey fills out the case fascinatingly, to create a view of the country and city in a shifting era. The local scene entails such matters as the decline in clothing work, the siting of the town clock to ensure that workers were not late, and the sandy soil’s being ideal for rabbits, a creature no longer considered wild but part of a landowner’s property, which here included commercial warrens. The consequence of this change in rules on rabbit ownership was bad feeling and court cases...
Harvey’s prose is dry, but so is a good martini; and her extraordinary narrative will surely be savoured by a wide audience.
Love of the prodigious united all classes in an era that saw increasing division between rich and poor. Harvey is interested in what the affair tells us about 18th-century England, especially such matters as class, sex, power and the development of the press. While much of what she covers is familiar and her account is perhaps overgeneralised, there is a welcome edge to some of the detail. The local woollen industry was in decline but the property-owning classes were much less affected than the poor, and it was property owners who held positions on corporations, upholding laws designed to protect property. Some of those laws extended the concept of property to include fish in ponds and flesh in the woods, thus criminalising those who thought it fair game to help themselves.