In the mid- to late-1800s, a phenomenon known as “fasting girls” were documented in the Americas and Europe. These young girls, usually preteens, claimed that they could survive for long periods of time without eating.
During the Middle Ages, some saints were said to have been able to survive without nourishment. Because of this precedence, many of the Victorian-age faithful regarded these fasting girls as miraculous and saw this self-starvation as a sign of sanctity. As a result, these young girls became spectacles, put on display, often for a price and always at a cost.
Thankfully, the fascination with fasting girls faded. Doctors eventually determined that these girls had suffered from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder where food intake is restricted as a way to cope with negative emotions.
“There is a coruscating awakening in the brain when the innocent are harmed, a crackling snap of the nerves and a leap of the limbs… Innocence dies fast and hard in this life, and thus it is holy when it exists.”
The novel, The Welsh Fasting Girl, by Varley O’Connor, focuses on one of the more famous fasting girls, twelve-year-old Sarah Jacob of Wales. The year is 1869. Sarah Jacob claims that she has not eaten for two years. A local vicar, initially skeptical, is convinced that Sarah’s claim is authentic and immediately notifies the press. News of the miraculous Welsh Fasting Girl spreads across the Atlantic Ocean, and American journalist Christine Thomas, a Civil War widow, is sent overseas to investigate. Once in Wales, Christine detects underlying nuances in the Jacob family’s dynamics and suspects that there is more to Sarah’s situation than meets the eye.
Two aspects of this novel stood out for me. The first is “control.” Sarah Jacob tries to control her negative emotions by withdrawing inward and by foregoing sustenance. The father controls Sarah and the rest of the family, constantly yearning for money and glory. The vicar is desperate to control the “message” —through Sarah he fights to maintain faith’s hold in a modernizing world. However, the harder these three try to seize control, the quicker it slips away.