The fasting girls

Fasting girls

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

” Fasting girls is a Victorian term for young females, usually pre-adolescent, who, it was claimed, were capable of surviving over indefinitely long periods of time without consuming any food or other nourishment. Fasting girls were girls who not only refused food but who also drew attention to their fast by claiming to have special religious and/or magical powers.

Sarah Jacob

A tragic case was that of Sarah Jacob (May 12, 1857 – December 17, 1869), the “Welsh fasting girl”, who claimed not to have eaten any food at all after the age of ten.[ A local vicar, initially skeptical, became convinced that the case was authentic. She enjoyed a long period of publicity, during which she received numerous gifts and donations from people who believed she was miraculous, but doctors were becoming increasingly skeptical about her claims.

Doctors eventually proposed that she be monitored in a hospital environment to see whether her claims about fasting were true. In 1869, her parents agreed for a test to be conducted under strict supervision by nurses from Guy’s Hospital. The nurses were instructed not to deny Sarah Jacob food if she asked for it, but to see that any she got was observed and recorded. After two weeks, she was showing clear signs of starvation.

The vicar told the parents that she was failing and that the nurses ought to be sent away so that she could get food. The parents refused. They continued to refuse even when informed that the girl was dying, insisting that they had frequently seen her like this before and that lack of food had nothing to do with her symptoms. Sarah Jacob died of starvation a few days later, because she had actually been consuming very little amounts of food secretly, which she could no longer do under medical supervision.  Her parents were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labour”

This is fiction, based on my reading around the fasting girls [ see above for some basic background information].

This is one of the pieces I will be performing in my one woman show “The Hunger Writing”

Watch this space for more info !

She understands that it is her hunger that puts food on the table, bread in the mouths of the others. Her sacrifice is what keeps everyone else alive and besides, what sacrifice is there is this anyhow ?

To turn her face away from food, to close her lips, shake her head, a mute refusal sets her above the rest, the crowds that come to see her, to point and press closer, their fetid food breath on her and around her.

Hunger has always been her companion, her closest friend, sometime confidant, helping her to feel special and as Ma & Da keep pointing out, she is a star now, a good girl, keeping all the babies well fed, fat even.

She takes delight in their chubby arms, rounded bellies, pink and white skin, they are not like the ones they lost, pale, skin yellowed, eyes too large for faces and so silent,still.

Ghost babies even when they were alive.

She can remember the hunger then, before she learnt to embrace the emptiness, when it felt as if her very guts would tear themselves apart and food was eaten fast, arm wrapped protectively around whatever they had found to eat and her mothers’ plaintive cry of

” Leave a mouthful for the babbies……just a mouthful”

Disregarded in their driven desire to fill their own bellies, for that moment, that evening, that few minutes of near warmth, near satisfaction.

So, she knows how quickly hunger can come back, silence these babies, make wild animals of the half-grown boys, she knows that it is only her hunger that provides and she basks, unworthy, in the power that her hunger gives.

She is not stupid, knows that what is happening is trickery, but every day, she prays to someone, some ethereal creature, that today and tomorrow and the next day, there will be no trickery, no sleigh of hand, that finally, she will live on light alone and her family will never go hungry again.

It started in drink, like many of her fathers’ plan, hatched in liquor and desperation and the guilt only a man who looks into the eyes of his starving children, but still chooses to spend the money on cheap Dutch gin, can possibly feel.

“My Sarah doesn’t eat, hasn’t eaten for months, she’s a little miracle”

The other men reflect that in his house, not eating is no miracle, but simple every day occurence. they have watched his starving children, too weak to play or make sound and each has judged him and found themselves to be better, more man, more father, more provider, when set against him.

But he is insistent

” You pay  a small coin and you can see her, our own fasting girl. Any time, night or day, you’ll not see food pass her lips” and he creates a display, his own daughter on display in the stinking courtyard outside the hovel that even he rarely calls home.

She is, unsurprisingly, already very thin and has begun to turn her head away from food, so the performance has a ring of truth and as days go by and become weeks, the whole valley has heard of her and there is a steady stream of the slightly less hungry, who are prepared to sacrifice a tiny coin, a heel of a loaf, a block of cheese, to stare at the grey/ white  skin, the eyes that fill the face, the shoulder blades that protrude like the very start of angel wings.

In a place where everyone is hungry, there is some pleasure in seeing someone embrace this starvation which all the others fight and rail against.

And of course, there are additional services, secret touches, stolen glances. Her father takes charge of this and she lies still, face up to the heavens, mind blank, empty of everything, waiting for weightlessness.

For the first time that she can remember, her father, even her wispy, bend in the wind mother, are pleased with her, pleased with what she brings in, but, her father has plans. Not staving is no longer enough for his family, he has dreams of the gentry, the fine folk visiting his little miracle, the child who doesn’t need to eat.

In some part of his gin soaked mind he has managed to forget the crumbs of bread, the slivers of almost good meat his wife feeds the child when the courtyard is deserted, he has begun to believe that she is actually existing on air and he wants recognition and the fortune he is sure will come when others, not just the miners and the dirt poor farmers, come to look at her translucent skin.

He has managed to ignore exactly how thin and slight she has become and how quietly she lies, eyes to the sky, hour after hour.

The vicar calls, all thin nose, beaky face, seeking a miracle, anything to raise up the souls who struggle in a landscape designed to drag them down. He stands, hands behind his back , trying to emulate the expression of scientific detachment he has seen on the faces of the gentleman botanists.

The girl stares up at him, smiles and extends an arm so thin that every vein is visible, the vicar extends one hesitant be-gloved finger and even through the wool, he can feel the cold that emanates from her bones.

The father is in full spiel, he stands tall, chest puffed out, an angry robin of a man while he tells the tale, how his daughter exists only on sips of water, gains sustenance from light and air, is his little miracle and the vicar believes, needs to believe, wants to believe.

Everything changes then, the big house sends linen sheets, blankets. Her bed becomes a nest, a refuge, where she lies, day after day, staring up at the sky.

More visitors arrive, dresses lifted to avoid the filth of the courtyard, the ever-present spillage from the midden.

The father retains some animal cunning, understands that asking for money would set a jarring tone, instead, he smiles, twists the brin of his filthy hat in muck incrusted fingers and calls out the other children, still, by any standards, thin and allows them to stand, mute witness to his poverty, his desperation.

The visitors understand, bring little and not so little gifts, food, meat that is close to spoiling, but good enough, yesterdays’ white bread, cakes. The children approach these foods cautiously, their ever-present hunger makes them brave and eyes bright, they grab and run into corners, elbows sharp to fight off younger weaker siblings.

The fine ladies bring lace handkerchiefs, tiny bottles of scent. They dab the lavender and lily of the valley water onto the fasting girls’ forehead, sweet smells that almost, but not quite, cover the other ever-present smells.

More and more visitors call, the family begin to forget hunger, the children become louder, more of a presence in the courtyard, they begin to play, to call out and in the centre, a constant silence, is the fasting girl.

Late at night, when the households that share this courtyard sleep, the mother creeps out to the girl, tiny scraps of bread, meat, cheese hidden in her apron. The girl struggles to sit up now, needs the support of her mothers’ arms. She turns her face away as she eats, almost as if she is willing this not to happen, almost as if she has begun to believe her own fathers’ lies.

And then, a coach, painted, imposing, somebody important, arrives to see the famous fasting girl, but this visitor is different, less willing to believe, looking for proof. A man of science, a real doctor and one with a plan, a proposition to make.

He stands, fleshy, hat  jammed firmly  down on his  head against the winds that blow constantly down the valley.

He talks to the father man to man. An experience so foreign, but so seductive, that the father grows in stature, becomes more man, but also looses his valley cunning, his  natural cautiousness and makes a fatal error, perhaps because he has finally, fallen prey to his own deceit, begun to believe his own fantasies.

The child will be taken to a hospital and there it will be proven, by men of science, men of education, that the girl, his daughter is truly a miracle, can live on air, on light itself.

The parents stand at the doorway, the younger children silenced by these unusual occurences, the sudden appearance of so many solemn men into their home.

The girl is lifted, although she weighs so little now, that lifting hardly describes the action needed to move her.

The father smiles, it will be alright, he is sure of it, the miracle will happen, they will be rich and no-one will ever have to be hungry again.

About cathi rae

50ish teacher & aspiring writer and parent of a stroppy teenager and carer for a confused bedlington terrier and a small selection of horses who fail to shar emy dressage ambitions. Interested in contemporary fiction but find myself returning to PG Wodehouse when the chips are down View all posts by cathi rae

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