Review by Amy Blakemore
At the center of Varley O’Connor’s novel The Welsh Fasting Girl is a single, horrifying question: what happens when an idea becomes more important than a person—and what happens when that person is a girl? Set in 19th-century Wales, four years before the establishment of the term “anorexia nervosa” by Sir William Gull in 1873, The Welsh Fasting Girl investigates and expands upon the true story of Sarah Jacob: a celebrity “fasting girl” of the time period who many believed could subsist without food or drink.
When I set out to read this novel, I prepared myself for content about starvation, about compulsion, and about hunger. As a recovering anorexic, how could I not brave Sarah’s story—how could I not try to understand her refusal to eat, her ability to survive on so little? But O’Connor reminds us that Sarah’s story should, ultimately, not so easily be reduced to a story of proto-anorexia. Nor should our desire to read her narrative stem from a morbid or even well-intentioned impulse to diagnose yet another girl with any specific subset of “madness.”
What O’Connor presents instead is a searing critique of the endless ways that Sarah’s parents, vicar, neighbors, town elders, medical professionals, and—last but certainly not least—the press were complicit in encouraging one girl’s coping mechanism to the point of her death. In The Welsh Fasting Girl,Sarah dies not from anorexia nervosa, hysteria, epilepsy, or any other nervous disorder, but from the simple fact that Wales, and the world, cared more about a symbol than a girl.
In presenting Sarah’s story as historical fiction, O’Connor consciously stays close to history. She interjects her novel with key observations on Wales’s sociopolitical climate, details that help us understand how a young girl in the countryside could become a matter of national pride in the midst of an ongoing battle between the miraculous and religious and the scientific and secular. For readers without previous knowledge of this story, The Welsh Fasting Girl might read as nonfiction; O’Connor crafts letters and press announcements and extensive scenes of the trial of both of her parents for her manslaughter (a trial which would ultimately lead to their conviction). But then—despite its consistent peppering of historical knowledge, The Welsh Fasting Girl also takes pains to ensure that it doesn’t replicate the same offenses that wounded Sarah. O’Connor tells us her story through multiple perspectives: all female and all employing creative strategies to survive. Sarah’s sister, Margaret, becomes her protector and opens the story; an invented character, a journalist named Christine Thomas, becomes our guide into the world of Wales. Like readers, Christine desperately tries to pull a story out of Sarah—she wants to help; she wants to understand. In this fictional space, it is balm that she is able to, even if after Sarah’s death. It is one of the only places I have been reassured, in literature or otherwise, that when our morbid wonder towards eating problems ends, our understanding of the individual’s pain might begin.
At 342 pages, The Welsh Fasting Girl isn’t a quick read, and the oft-dense prose and long list of characters may have benefited from a tighter edit. But instances of poetry break through in critical moments of the text, demanding the reader’s attention. In a pivotal turn near the middle, we finally hear the forgotten voice: Sarah’s. In this Beloved-like moment, O’Connor provides her fictional thesis for Sarah’s pain—the answer to why she was starving herself—in curious, mournful words. She gives Sarah, whose life and whose story died prematurely, and opportunity to grieve. “People said I was beautiful,” Sarah says; “what did that mean? Mountains were beautiful, food was delicious, rainstorms were ecstasy, wind spoke, and I listened and felt and ate and saw.” Sarah was once a child full of wonder, of longing, O’Connor reminds us. Her articulation of an etiology for Sarah’s starvation provides closure for an otherwise open-ended tragedy. As she writes in her postscript, “not a single doctor asked Sarah, ‘Why do you not eat?’” By writing from Sarah’s perspective, O’Connor works to correct our ongoing worship of women and girls—a worship that turns them into realm of the theoretical and away from that of flesh and blood, a realm that includes pain.
O’Connor’s work should not be read narrowly from an eating disordered lens, but The Welsh Fasting Girl does indeed speak to and contribute to an increasing canon that seeks to complicate our understanding of how women use their bodies to reject, rewrite, and negotiate their pain. As readers will agree by the end of the novel, Sarah was not “hysterical,” as some characters diagnose her in the text (and in her life); rather, she was responding in a morbidly logical way to deep and incomprehensible abuse. Becky W. Thompson argues in A Hunger So Wide and So Deep thatmany women and girls “come to see their bodies as liabilities” from the sheer trauma of sexism and all its permutations, and develop stringent and unique practices surrounding food to mitigate that “liability.” Liz Eckerman describes in Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/Ordersthat self-starvation should be considered “a complex practice of embodied communication and active identity construction,” not simply something “deviant” or “sick.” As Sarah’s character simply puts in her monologue: “I wanted to tell you that I tried to live, I could not; forgive me.”
Reading The Welsh Fasting Girl at times made me angry: how could a whole community—a whole country—believe starvation to be mystical? How could adults so willingly overlook Sarah’s agony? But then I remember: I lost a quarter of my body weight in our modern world, with official medical designations for a pain like mine, and even then, I was never formally diagnosed.
Sarah’s original story is as surreal as it is tragic: she died in 1869, at the age of 12, after her parents agreed that she could be observed, around the clock, by medical professionals—a demand from scientific authorities who (accurately) believed she must have been sneaking food in order to survive. O’Connor’s novelization of Sarah’s life and early death reminds us that this infamous story is, ultimately, a story of abuse: her refusal to eat was encouraged, even blessed, by the town vicar, councilmen, her parents, and the countless strangers who made pilgrimage to her bedside to lay coins on her chest as a kind of penance, a religious offering.
And still—as opposed to making The Welsh Fasting Girla story of the seemingly endless list of people who were responsible for Sarah’s abusive life and early death, O’Connor uses the novel form to tell a story simply about the methods that women and girls employ simply to survive. And as a former fasting girl, I understand. “There may be other realities beyond what we see with our eyes,” Sarah says to the reporter, Christine. As in: are you looking at my body, or are you looking at me? Where does one start and the other begin?
I still ask myself the same things.
Amy Blakemore writes about the body. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Wigleaf, The Indiana Review, and elsewhere, and she has received support from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, WritingxWriters, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. She is at work on her first novel, a horror story about girlhood, and a collection of essays on eating disorders, queerness, and television.