On 17 December 1869 twelve-year-old Sarah Jacob, the daughter of a Welsh farmer, died of starvation and dehydration. She did so in the midst of plenty, watched over by several adults, including members of the medical professional, who were seeking to ascertain whether or not Jacob could live without food and drink.

In the two years leading up her death Jacob’s parents were insistent that their daughter required no earthly sustenance whatsoever. Her father even went so far as to claim that to feed Sarah would kill her. She became a national celebrity, receiving visitors who saw her as a living saint. Yet it took only eight days of observation, during which she could no longer access whatever nourishment she had till then been taking in secret, to kill her.

In her last days Jacob stole a bottle of eau de cologne from one of the nurses observing her, concealing it under one arm. She also managed to open a stone hot water bottle using her toe, but it spilled over her bed before she was able to drink the contents. She was clearly very desperate, yet under intense pressure from so many credulous observers, she could not reveal the most obvious of truths: that she was not a heavenly being, but an earthly child with basic physical needs.

The story of Jacob and other famous “fasting girls” is the inspiration for Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, a rich and generous exploration of the relationship between bodies, faith and love. There are very few books on the topic of starvation that I would consider “safe” reading for those affected by eating disorders, but this is one of them. Like Donoghue’s earlier work Room, however dark it gets, the story still manages to be warmly, messily life-affirming. Hunger and self-deprivation are shown to be, not pure and transcendent, but ugly and cruel. Real beauty is found in having the courage to nourish yourself.

Anna O’Donnell, a young Irish girl, has not eaten for four months yet is perfectly healthy, or so those around her claim. As news of her supposedly miraculous fasting spreads, members of her local community form a committee tasked with testing the validity of this. English nurse Lib Wright is employed to observe Anna over the course of two weeks to see whether or not she eats. During this time she clashes with Anna’s family, her doctor and the local priest, all of whom see Lib as an uncomprehending outsider, unfit to engage with the mystery of Anna’s survival.

One way of reading this – and indeed the true story of Sarah Jacob – might be to see old, ignorant superstition pitched against modern, progressive thought. Yet in each of these cases both sides believe themselves to be representing progress. When Lib tells Anna’s doctor that the girl is dying without food, he suggests that “perhaps our young friend represents a rare type that may become common in future times.” The desires of both Anna’s doctor and her priest – for scientific discovery, for divine revelation – combine to position Anna as a new being, half saint, half evolutionary next step. Meanwhile Lib, with her stick-in-the-mud insistence that all human beings need to eat to survive, is dismissed as a hopelessly conservative English imperialist. As far as the committee are concerned, what Lib symbolises is a more powerful argument than Anna’s starving, dying body. Lib’s rigid belief that Anna will die without food is dismissed as crass biological essentialism. She lacks the theological and cultural background necessary to see that not all children are earthly beings; some of them are divine.

Reading this, I found it difficult not to draw comparisons between the starving angels of the nineteenth century and the puberty fleeing mermaids of the twenty first. Now as then, adults exploit the bodies of children to validate their most treasured fantasies. Their own distaste for mortal flesh is projected onto individuals who, they insist, may yet be saved from the trauma of sexualisation and growth. They turn healthy, fleshy, living children into mythical creatures. A child creates her own world from the raw materials those around her have provided: age-old stories about what makes a man, a woman, a god, a pure soul. And then an adult takes this world and refuses to see anything in it but the true reflection of his or her beliefs.

There is nothing progressive about believing a child has an identity which transcends basics of the human body. Bodies grow, age, reproduce, die. They cannot be frozen in time or recreated as some fantasy reimagining of male or female, heaven or hell:

Anna wanted to leave her body, drop it like an old coat. To shed her creased skin, her name, her broken history; to be done with it all. […] To wake up tomorrow and discover she was someone else. A little girl with no damage done to her, no debts to pay, able and allowed to eat her fill.

A child can want this very badly; so too can an adult. But as Lib tells Anna, “your body – every body is a marvel.”

A wonder of creation […] That means it’s your sacred task to keep going. To keep breathing, to eat like the rest of us, to do the daily work of living.

You cannot inhabit any other skin than your own. You cannot be anything other than the blood, bone and mess that is the making of you.

Both religion and the twisty semantics of postmodernism allow adults to delude themselves that the body is meaningless, a construct, something that can be shrugged off as soon as one accepts one’s true self as an ethereal other (a disembodied soul, a gendered essence, anything but decaying meat). In both the fasting girl and the trans child narrative, puritanical beliefs about the worthlessness of the flesh are recast as progressive enquiry into the mysteries of the soul. All those who seek to defend the flesh – and with it a child’s need for food, for growth, for wholeness – are positioned as ignorant heathens. But to talk of the sexed body, its function, its nature, its limitations, is not to bind it to Earth. Earth is where it is and always has been.

Towards the end of the novel, when Anna’s health is failing, Lib leans over the child to tuck her into bed:

She caught an acrid whiff. You, she thought. Every flawed, scrawny or bloated part, every inch of the real, mortal girl, I treasure you.

To Anna’s mother, her daughter is “a cherub,” a “little angel,” who will be even more perfect in death (“Unlike a live daughter, a dead one was impeccable”). To Lib, the fleshy imperfection of a living, breathing Anna is all there is to love. She is willing to risk the child’s hatred, to be blamed for “weighing her spirit down again, anchoring her to the tarnished earth,” if only to give her another chance at life.

Children’s bodies are not symbols to be fought over. Puberty is not some mystic state of transition to be entered into only by the true initiate. It is part of growth, part of living, even when the desire to rise above the flesh is as human as the flesh itself. There are no mystical, miraculous, transcendent angels or mermaids. There are only real, live children with bodies that need nourishment, acceptance and love.

 

Engraving of Appollonia Schreier after her fast of 11 months taken from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.