Stephen Wade – The Girl Who Lived on Air (Seren)

In 1869, Sarah Jacob was a sensation. A twelve-year old girl in rural Carmarthenshire had attracted international fame by surviving for two years without food or drink. She might have been a miracle, a fasting saint. But she was not. After just a few days under strict observation by a team of nurses, she starved to death.

There is no mystery in the death of Sarah Jacob. The true mystery is in the actions of the adults around her. In the months before her death, the child’s sickbed had become a battleground for the competing claims of folk cures and modern medicine, religious miracle and science. And it is these conflicts that dominate The Girl Who Lived on Air, Stephen Wade’s new account of the infamous case. By the late 1860s, he writes, the British empire was ‘like a machine at full throttle’. Its captains of industry were in headlong pursuit of wealth and success, and at ‘the core of this was the total commitment to the dominance of knowledge’. Just a decade after Darwin’s Origin of Species, the world seemed a knowable place. But the miracle of Sarah Jacobs threatened that new confidence in science.

Suggestively, Wades notes that was the vicar of Llanfihangel-ar-Arth who first brought the child to public attention. It was ‘a most extraordinary case,’ he wrote to The Welshman in 1868, inviting the medical profession to investigate. Yet it is difficult to discern whether the Rev. Evan Jones did so out of real concern for the child, impatience at the superstition attaching to her (with the family already making a shrine of the sickbed), or as a direct challenge to these upstart men of science. Wade suggests it was the latter, though without entirely explaining his conclusion. As the first public statement by her puzzled doctor soon followed:

‘The scene was set for the believers in the centrality of objective and rational scientific knowledge to stand opposed to those who were prepared to believe that ‘there were more things in heaven and earth’ than observed fact and documented biological conditions. At the core of this was the question as to whether a human being could live on drops of water and tiny bits of apple juice for eighteen months and then not only still live, but still have flesh, rather than skin covering very prominent bones.’

In an age when childhood illness often ended in death, Sarah’s inexplicable survival made her not just an object of fascination, but of desire. Visiting pilgrims and tourists left donations for the family, adding to suspicions that the affair was simply a con trick. But Wade is careful to show that the family was reasonably well off, hinting that money was an unlikely – or at least, inadequate – motivation for such exploitation of a young child. Was it Sarah herself who was the arch manipulator? Her long confinement had begun with an ordinary childhood illness, and Wade is interesting on the family dynamics which may have encouraged a long subterfuge. However, he wisely refrains from speculating too far on the child’s motivations.

Whatever the cause of Sarah Jacob’s retreat from the world – physical, psychological or spiritual – the collusion or neglect on the part of those around her amounted to child abuse. This would be the conclusion of the courts, at least, which refused any appeals to miracle or mystery. Yet while Jacob’s parents were convicted of allowing their child to starve to death, the professional men who treated her escaped such repercussions. As she quickly declined under close medical observation, her father refused pleas to feed her. But the nurses and doctors observing had also agreed not to provide food unless Sarah herself asked for it. Between the need for a miracle and the desire for proof, a young girl was allowed to die.

It is a fascinating story, but it makes for an uneven book. Stephen Wade draws together a wealth of material on the conflict of religion and science, the medical treatment of women and the Victorian taste for spectacle, the legal niceties of the Jacobs’ trial and the afterlife of this strange case. Yet his authorial asides can be intrusive, and overall this is a book that needed some closer editing. Given the broad panorama of Victorian culture presented here, the story of Sarah Jacob all too often disappears out of sight. It is tellingly that it is in the small details of the Jacobs’ family life that Wade is most gripping.

The Girl Who Lived on Air is presented as a historical mystery, its subject open to many interpretations. Yet at its simplest, this is the story of a child who was allowed to die – whether through neglect, abuse, exploitation or ignorance. The problem, one suspects, was not a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to use it.

This review was first published in the New Welsh Review.

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