In 1869, the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’ Sarah Jacob was a national sensation. She was also an enigma: a twelve-year-old child who appeared to have survived without food for two years. Sarah was just ten when her fast had begun. An otherwise unremarkable child living in rural Carmarthenshire, she first began to refuse food after a short illness. Some claimed her to be a miracle, a fasting saint; visitors travelled across Britain to bring her money and gifts. But the apparent miracle provoked controversy in the national press, with pilgrims and scoffers battling over the bona fides of this small Welsh child. To settle the case, sceptical doctors placed her under strict observation by a team of nurses. Scientific curiosity was quickly satisfied; under a twenty-four hour watch, Sarah Jacob starved to death within days. Her parents – who had refused to send the nurses away as the girl weakened – were later convicted of manslaughter.
It was a tragic and, in many ways, an inexplicable case. But Sarah Jacob was only one of the ‘fasting girls’ who exerted a strange fascination in the Victorian period. As the most famous of them all, she is surely the inspiration for Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Wonder. Like Room, which inspired Donoghue’s Oscar-winning screenplay, this novel again presents a story of a child in captivity – though in this case, the prison may be one of her own making. Anna O’Donnell is eleven years old, a pious and intelligent child who has apparently not eaten in the four months since her Confirmation. The lineaments of her story closely follow that of Sarah Jacob, but Donoghue has transported it to 1850s Ireland, and to a countryside still in recovery from the cataclysm of famine. It is a setting in which self-willed starvation seems all the more inexplicable and for those around her, the mystery of the girl’s survival might be horribly pointed. Why should this child be saved, and not all the others? If it is a religious miracle, it seems a cruelly belated one.
But that random stroke of luck, or miracle, accounts for the fascination which these fasting girls exerted across Victorian Britain. In an age when childhood illness often ended in death, the inexplicable survival of girls like Sarah Jacob made them not just objects of curiosity, but also of desire. They were charmed, or blessed; like the ascetic saints of the Middle Ages, they suffered and yet they survived – like modern incarnations of Catherine of Siena, given to punitive and extreme fasting.
In the culture wars of the time, the fasting girl might have seemed a dangerous relic from an earlier age
Yet the fasting girls had their detractors too. These cases channeled superstition more than institutional religion, and in doing so they also challenged the growing authority of science and professional medicine in the late Victorian period. In the culture wars of the time, the fasting girl might have seemed a dangerous relic from an earlier age: a last rallying of folk religion and superstition. And so a child’s sickbed could quickly become a battleground for the competing claims of folk cures and modern medicine, religious miracle and science. In the case of Sarah Jacob, that clash proved fatal.
There is no mystery as to the cause of her death in 1869. The real mystery is in the actions of the adults around her. Between the need for a miracle and the desire for proof, somehow a young girl was allowed to die. In 2014, the historian Stephen Wade published an account of the case which explored the mystery in terms of the conflict of religion and science in Victorian Britain, the medical treatment of women and the culture of spectacle. The Wonder takes Sarah Jacob’s story as a frame for quite a different set of concerns. Donoghue’s story is told by an outsider, Lib Wright – an English Nightingale nurse who is engaged by a local committee to investigate Anna O’Donnell’s case. Lib is to watch the child by day and night, sharing her duty with a reticent Catholic nun. The stage is set for a conflict between English rationalism and Irish superstition, the claims of science and those of religion.
The character of Lib Wright is rather broadly drawn: a prim woman with a native suspicion of Ireland and its Catholics. Country practices confuse her – she ‘understood nothing about this place’ – but her determination to understand and expose Anna’s fraud gradually turns to concern. The two are pitted in a game of wits against each other, one that is reflected in the riddles Lib poses to Anna and which the intelligent child invariably solves. But Ireland itself remains a riddle to Lib, with its piety and its superstition, its people’s belief in maleficent fairies and beneficent saints: ‘Like babies, the Catholics, babbling as they squeezed their beads.’ Out walking, she follows a road through a bog and finds that, aggravatingly, it leads nowhere. It is another example of Irish fecklessness and carelessness, she suspects, until a local man explains that the road is a legacy of famine relief works, built to occupy the destitute and forestall the need for charity. The road to nowhere is the result of British mismanagement rather than Irish ineptitude.
But Lib’s innocence is perhaps too roughly sketched. She is a British strawman introduced to a post-famine Ireland, a character set up to pay a stock role – to be corrected for her prejudices, her religious bigotry and her arrogant attitude to a culture she cannot understand. The reader will always be several steps ahead of her, even in guessing at Anna’s true condition and the secret behind the child’s survival. The dramatic irony is perhaps necessary; it is a product of a more informed historical perspective. Lib points out that even a Nightingale nurse does not have access to the medical training enjoyed by male doctors, and so she is confused by the clear signs of malnourishment in Anna:
The milk-white skin was dry to the touch, brownish and rough in places. Bruises on the knees, typical in children. But those tiny spots on the girl’s shins, blue-red – Lib had never encountered them before. She noticed that same fine down on the girl’s forearms, back, belly, legs: like a baby monkey. Was this hairiness common among the Irish, by any chance? Lib recalled cartoons in the popular press, depicting them as apish pygmies. Emma Donoghue, The Wonder
As time goes on, she becomes almost blind to the girl’s deterioration. It is a suggestion, perhaps, of how the O’Donnells are able to live with their daughter’s condition: by becoming almost unaware of it.
Lib’s developing relationship with Anna O’Donnell fosters that blindness. The girl is re-created in the image of the religious iconography of her time: pious, patient, obedient to a fault. To Lib, her pliability at first seems cunning. But Anna’s piety is sincere, and her condition seems fed by a religious culture of self-abnegation and self-denial. Yet it is doubly significant that Anna should have stopped eating on her Confirmation day. As she says, that day marks ‘the end of being a child.’ In this much Donoghue nods to contemporary theories on the causes of anorexia –that a trigger may be the onset of puberty, fear of sexual maturity – but she steadily avoids anachronism in Lib’s exploration of the child’s case. Anna believes that she is fed with ‘manna from heaven’. Whether the manna has a spiritual or earthly source is for her nurse to discover:
“A case of hysteria she might possibly be, but utterly sincere. Lib felt her shoulders drop. No enemy, then, this soft-faced child; no hardened prisoner. Only a girl caught up in a sort of waking dream, walking towards the edge of a cliff without knowing it. Only a patient who needed her nurse’s help, and fast.”
The waking dream in which Anna is caught mirrors the child’s confinement in Room. Like the fasting girl, Jack is unaware of the peril of his situation. What both children need is an adult saviour.
This is the role given to Lib Wright. Though her naïve attitude to the Irish appears laughable for much of the novel, it falls to her to liberate the child from the grip of Irish superstition, and from a psychologically sadistic Catholicism. In doing so, she must battle a band of men – the committee who have brought her to Ireland to investigate the case. They are an uninspired band, full of prejudice. Among them is a doctor who believes that the child has somehow survived by developing a reptilian constitution with a ‘less combustive’ metabolism:
“…Perhaps our young friend presents a rare type that may become common in future times.” McBrearty’s voice shook with excitement. “One that may offer hope for the whole human race.”
Was the man mad? “What hope?”
“Freedom from need, Mrs Wright! If it were within the bounds of possibility for life to endure without food… why, what cause would there be to fight over bread or land? That could put an end to Chartism, socialism, war.”
The doctor does not mention that it would also put an end to Irish famine. In a reverse to Lib Wright’s expectations, in the battle between science and superstition it is the local priest who serves as sceptic here, though he is unwilling to intervene with the O’Donnell family. Lib must look for support instead from the nun who is sharing her watch, but that woman’s ideas of duty and propriety are far different from her own.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this novel is its attention to a religious culture that elevates suffering, and yet which provides consolation too. But as Anna’s case unravels, this element of the story is elaborated with lurid revelations, and these present too pat an explanation for the mystery Lib has arrived to investigate. As Lib comes to realise, the question is not how Anna O’Donnell is committing a fraud, but why. In answering that question, a novel which begins as a study of female confinement – both social and psychological – ends unsatisfyingly in high Victorian melodrama. Admittedly, in that much it might take inspiration from the fiction of the period in which it is set. Early on, Lib’s watch brings to mind that ‘awful nurse in Jane Eyre, charged with keeping the lunatic hidden away in the attic.’ Lib is not here to stand guard, she establishes with her employer, but ‘simply to observe’. In Brontë’s novel, the madwoman – the unconventional woman, full of the drives that Jane Eyre represses – finally escapes her prison, only to be destroyed. But in The Wonder, Lib refuses to play her part as jailer. She wants to bring about the salvation that this confined child, Anna, only dreams of. Anna O’Donnell looks to the afterlife for renewal and release. But the challenge for the rational Lib Wright is to enable the young girl’s liberation in this world.
This review was first published in The Dublin Review of Books.