The Wonder, the latest work of Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue to light up the fiction best sellers’ list (Donoghue’s prize-winning 2010 novel Room was the basis for the 2015 Academy-Award winning film), draws upon a very real, very disturbing Victorian phenomenon: the young women and men—but mostly pubescent females—who starved themselves to death to prove some kind of divine or spiritual presence in their lives. One person quite prepared to believe in the truth of a “fasting girl” was the English poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Hopkins was introduced to the religious efficacy of closely restricting or refusing beverages and food in the writings of Reverend Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman, who, as Anglican members of the “Oxford Movement” (or Tractarians), published tracts advocating the benefits of physical mortification. As an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1860s, Hopkins read both Pusey’s 1833 Thoughts on the Benefits of the System of Fasting (Tract 18) and Newman’s 1833 Mortification of the Flesh a Scripture Duty (Tract 21, also given as a sermon). In the latter, Newman recommended fasting as a necessary means of “humiliation” and a bodily “duty.” After converting to Roman Catholicism in 1866 (Newman ‘received’ Hopkins into the Church) and joining the Society of Jesus in 1868, Hopkins embraced any and all opportunities to master his body’s needs and desires—to the point where Jesuit superiors had to restrict his self-punished practices. (Hopkins first proved his ability to abstain from fluids as a young student at Highgate School, where, according to his brother Cyril, he refused water for a week).
In his diary for Winter 1870, Hopkins lists several important “events” from the last few months of 1869, including “Dec. 17— Fasting girl died: her parents were afterwards convicted of manslaughter.” As always, Hopkins had an eye for sensational news stories. Sarah Jacob (12 May 1857–17 December 1869), the daughter of Welsh Roman Catholic farmers in the Dyfed village of Llanfihangel-ar-arth, claimed not to have eaten any food for almost two years. On 10 October 1867, reportedly, she ceased to eat; bed-bound, she dedicated herself to religious reading and prayer. She was seen “lying on her bed, decorated as a bride, having round her head a wreath of flowers” (“Fasting Girls,” All the Year Round, no. 45, 9 October 1869). Pilgrims came to visit, assuming that Sarah’s life was miraculous; tributes of flowers and coins were presented. Articles in The Times and the Lancet, however, were explicitly critical and implicitly anti-Welsh and anti-Catholic.
In late 1869, her parents were pressured to agree to a “Watchers’ Committee” consisting of medical people from London’s Guy’s Hospital and a local vicar to ensure that she was not receiving food surreptitiously. After eight days of strict supervision, she died. Following her death, there was an inquest; the verdict, “Died from starvation, caused by negligence”, resulted in her parents, Hannah and Evan Jones, being charged with manslaughter (members of the ‘Watchers’ Committee were exempt from criminal allegations). Found guilty at trial, Hannah and Evan Jones were sentenced to six months and twelve months of hard labour, respectively. The Times suggested that Sarah Jones suffered from “simulative hysteria” and added that if she “had chanced to be born in some corner of France or Italy in which Romanism flourished unchecked, her prolonged fasting, after a great devotion to religious reading and a pious submission to ecclesiastical ordinances, would have assumed all the circumstances of a miracle” (“A Strange and Obscure Story,” The Times, 18 December 1869).
The Victorians did not invent extreme “fasting,” of course: ancient, biblical, and medieval examples of severe askesis were plentiful. In the later nineteenth-century, among commentators claiming a socio-scientific expertise on the subject were Robert Fowler, who published ‘The Fasting Girl of Wales’ in The Times (7 September 1869) and A Complete History of the Welsh Fasting Girl (Sarah Jacobs) with Comments Thereon, and Observations on Death from Starvation (1871), and Dr. William A. Hammond, whose Fasting Girls: Their Physiology and Pathology (1879) was designed for American audiences. More recently, Joan Jacobs Brumberg has studied Sarah Jones and those like her in the clinical context of anorexia nervosa: Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (2000).
From morbid Victorian enthrallment, and even earlier biblical references, to twenty-first-century scholarly studies, the strange fascination with self-mortification is not likely to abate any time soon.
Featured image credit: “Arthur Rackham, Vintage, Book Illustration” from Prawny, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.