Friday, 15 July 2011

Sooterkin - half boy, half seal

Set in Tasmania, Tom Gilling's fantasitic-ludicrous fiction The Sooterkin describes how Sarah Dyer was delivered of a monstrous seal-pup child in 1821.

The novel presents a variety of comic responses to the event from an array of characters and caricatures who people the whaling town of Hobart. The place itself is rendered in its grotesque physical reality: blood, guts, mud, and `rancid with blubber'.

Hobart is land reminiscent of the primeval mud of the Nile, which according to the ancient writer, Pliny, breeds monsters. The land is marked by manifest signs of the colonised but these vanish into the undifferentiated as soon as the agents of `culture' stray too far beyond the town.

The Chaplain, Mr Kidney, finds that the country `seems primordial, uncouth, devoid of any human presence save his own.' The darkness seems to `conjure disembodied noises' (121) and he feels finally `taunted by a monstrosity that science and the Bible have been unable to explain.' (183).

The story parallels then, the conjoined history, one of a monstrous birth, the other the `birth' of Australia. Both are essentially unreadable, despite competing theories.

Crimes, like Mrs Jakes' unnamed abortions (`a parcel the size of a cauliflower' (184), lie buried in the ground. `He didn't ask what she was doing and he never said.' (184).

I have taught this book as part of a second-year University course on the gothic and the grotesque and can confirm that it was well-received by the majority of students. A minority of readers was irritated by the fantastic elements of the plot - though these are not materially significant and are easily exaggerated.

There was a lively debate on the allegorical features of the novel: to what extent is the story a version of Australian history as a grotesque narrative of monstrous births and colonisers' discourses?


A sooterkin is a fabled small creature about the size of a mouse that certain women were believed to have been capable of giving birth to. The origin of this initially jocular fantasy lies in the 18th century, and came to be considered factual by some eminent physicians of the day. It is attributed[1] to a tendency of Dutch women to use stoves under their petticoats to keep warm, hence causing the breeding of these small animals, which when mature would be born.

The English physician John Maubray published a work entitled The Female Physician, in which he proposed that it was possible for women to give birth to sooterkins. Maubray was an advocate for maternal impression, a widely held belief that conception and pregnancy could be influenced by what the pregnant mother dreamt of, or saw.[2]

Maubray warned pregnant women that over-familiarity with household pets could cause their children to resemble those animals. He was involved in the case of Mary Toft, who appeared to vindicate his theory by giving birth to rabbits, although the whole affair turned out to be a hoax.[3]

A sooterkin may also be used to refer to an abortion, an abortive scheme, or a failed plan.[4]

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