The first anorexic

A Wonderful Little Girl: the true story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh fasting girl

Sian Busby <em>Shor

Sarah Jacob was the first recognised anorexic - a distinction for which she worked extremely hard and paid with her life. As the term "anorexia nervosa" did not exist until 1873, four years after Sarah's death, a number of less scientific explanations were given for how Sarah had seemed to live on air alone. Was she a miraculous fasting girl, a hysterical nutcase (the diagnostic catch-all for most female disorders), or a manipulative fraud?

At a time when religion was being challenged by empiricism, Sarah came to represent the contest between faith and science. Saint or sinner, symbol of national pride or Welsh credulity, wonderful little girl or conniving madam, Sarah Jacob transfixed and divided Victorian England - in itself no small feat for a 12-year-old from remote Lletherneuadd-uchaf.

Born into a peasant family, Sarah was pretty, precocious and pious. Some time in 1867, this previously healthy ten-year-old came home complaining of stomach ache. She never returned to school. After six weeks on the brink of death (most probably suffering from viral encephalitis), the very mention of food sent her into violent convulsions. Her well-meaning parents made a pact never to offer her food against her wishes again. The improvement was immediate - she began to recover and even, some said, to thrive. Sarah allegedly never ate nor drank again.

Visitors flocked to see this "gift from God" and hear her read from the Welsh Bible or recite religious poems in return for a few pennies. She convinced not just her parents, but also her better-educated doctor and the local vicar, who became one of her most loyal defenders. The little minx was somehow able to secrete crumbs and water about her person and room with a deviousness to test the resolve of Hans Blix. What a scam! She makes Peter Foster look like Peter Pan. A team of doctors and nurses was sent to keep 24-hour watch over her and find where she kept her hidden arsenal of snacks. Unmiraculously, she soon starved to death.

The book can be read as an allegory of a way of life that had stayed the same for centuries, but was now declining almost as rapidly as the starving child herself. Busby offers a vivid portrait of late 19th-century rural Wales, a society where the women were kept busy in a grim round of laundry, baking and churning. All Sarah had to look forward to was an "escape from her father's home into a domestic servitude of her own devising". A career as an anorexic mirabilis - lying in bed and receiving gifts and adoration - must have seemed worth the occasional hunger pang or two.

A Wonderful Little Girl is stuffed with details of charming Celtic customs, such as "carw-ar-y-gwely" (quaintly termed "courting in bed"); the more cosy-sounding "bundling" (the only time the girls had any fun, it would seem); and the superstitious practice of never letting the hearth fires go out. Such traditions only confirmed the cold-hearted Brits in their opinion of their neighbours as a bunch of loose-living heathens.

A number of other slim books on the subject of skinniness have appeared recently. Many, such as Kate Chisholm's Hungry Hell (also published by Short Books), are real-life testimonies of anorexia sufferers, and inevitably make gruelling reading. But equally indigestible at times is the swelling genre of quirky quasi-biographies or historical fiction, books which are frequently too flabby for the slight frames on which they rest. A Wonderful Little Girl, by comparison, is the perfect size.

Busby, herself from the Valleys, has a questioning, sceptical yet sympathetic style. She rarely presumes to imagine her characters' thoughts or feelings. Her choice of subject matter recalls Muriel Spark's Aiding and Abetting, which drew on the reputation of a false stigmatic, and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, the fictionalised life of a disturbed servant girl charged with murder. What might those novelists have done with such material? Busby succeeds in investing a true story with all the magic and tension of good fiction. After 130 years, the Welsh fasting girl remains as unknowable as ever.

Lisa Allardice is arts editor of the NS

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, What now?