The Welsh Wonder

Sian Busby. A Wonderful Little Girl: the True Story of Sarah Jacob the Welsh Fasting Girl. Short Books, 2003. 

In 1869, a year on the cusp of the modern age, a 12 year old girl in a remote part of Camarthenshire which was itself being initiated into modernity by the railway, lies in her bed apparently taking no food. After a episode of what might have been viral encephalitis, Sarah Jacob, a physically and intellectually precocious girl takes to her bed, and has fits every time some one tries to feed her. Under medical advise her family stop feeding her. They make a solemn vow not to feed her unless she asks for it. The family, the local doctor and the minister seem unsuspicious of the facts that she doesn't get emaciated, still passes faeces and urine, and doesn't develop bed sores. For them she is a sign of the transcending of the gross physicality of the human condition, she really is a girl "who lives on the air and wants no milk nor honey". Because this is taking place in the dawn of the modern age, there is pressure to put the miracle to scientific test, and a scientific watch is put on the girl. Of course once she really is deprived of food she wastes away and dies, steadfastly refusing to ask for food, and no-one will push her to take it.

The mystery here is the one we continually encounter, that of the human motivation. Though some sceptics thought there were financially motives for fraud (Sarah became a lucrative tourist attraction), this really does not seem to be anything like the whole case. How could the local doctor and minister have been so drawn in? Their answer is one we hear over and over again: "These people are totally honest, they have no motivation for lying", and the unspoken one: "No mere peasant girl could get one over one me". And also as Busby makes clear, because this is the very dawn of the modern scientific world, what is obviously impossible to us was by no means as clear cut to them. After all this was the sort of locality in which all manner of signs of wonders would manifest themselves during the Great Revival nearly 40 years later.

In the annals of science Sarah has gone down as a pioneer anorexic, but Busby argues that descriptions of her do not paint a picture of emaciated anorexia. Though Busby does not go down this route, I'd be tempted to look in the direction of Munchhausen's Syndrome. The fits and fasts were the means by which Sarah could prolong the solicitous attention she had received during her real illness. It was also an escape from the future of back-breaking labour and baby-breeding which was the lot of women in her situation. In the end Sarah allows herself to starve to death rather than break the game and force her parents to admit to themselves that she had deceived them. -- Peter Rogerson

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