Hungry for attention

16th July 2004 at 01:00
The tale of how a 12-year-old anorexic became a Victorian media celebrity is stark. Victoria Neumark reads the short life of Sarah Jacobs

A Wonderful Little Girl By Sian Busby Short Books pound;5.99

In 1869, Sarah Jacobs was a bright, pretty, precocious 12-year-old. For her station, that of the middle daughter of a hardworking Welsh farmer, she was learned. She could read in Welsh and English, was beloved by her parents and siblings and was, strangely, a source of income for the inhabitants of Llanfihangel, the remote Cardiganshire hamlet in which she lived. What was her unique selling point? It's a ghastly story, and one with resonances for today's body-conscious, anorexia-haunted adolescents.

From as far away as London, experts and the curious trooped to see the "Welsh fasting girl", sometimes dropping money on the blanket of her scrupulously clean bed, sometimes tipping those who showed them the steep, muddy route from the station at Pencader Junction. Sarah was a national phenomenon, discussed in the correspondence columns of the press: a blooming young girl who had gone two years without eating.

No one believed more fervently in Sarah's miraculous survival than her parents. Hannah and Evan Jacob had been alarmed when Sarah had suffered a violent infection, possibly encephalitis, after which she refused food and became hysterical when coaxed or coerced into eating. As soon as they decided to refrain from pressing her, however, her mood rapidly improved.

So impressed were they with her return to form - she even put on weight when no longer eating with the family, or, it seemed, eating at all - that they took a solemn oath never to ask her to eat.

Like many others, then and maybe today, they were convinced that people could live on air. Of course, they can't, and nor could Sarah. Like more recent famous fasters, who claim to live on air and the odd mouthful of chocolate ("just for the taste"), she must have been sneaking food, perhaps at night, perhaps from the kisses she exchanged with her siblings, perhaps from cloths dipped in fluids. At any event, once the experts from Guy's Hospital heard of this "miracle" and decided to send a team of doctors and nurses to Llanfihangel to test Sarah's famed abstinence under strict observation, she wasted away and died. It took only two weeks. Then, horrifically, her parents were tried and condemned for "feloniously killing" her.

Once the Guy's observation began, she wet herself repeatedly for the first few days. On the last night, her hot water bottle flooded the bed; a strange bruise on her big toe led many to conclude that, desperate with thirst, she had tried to ease out the stopper on the metal bottle with her toe, to get something to drink.

Yes, with the very best of intentions in those standing by, with the kindest of nurses to whom Sarah was attached, with her parents unable it seems to break their vow, she starved to death (or died from lack of fluids) rather than confess that she needed food to live. Was she very different from our perfectionist girls with their peculiar food habits, convictions about "good" and "bad" foods, and constant worry about body shape?

Most particularly, Mr and Mrs Jacob's denial of their role in Sarah's predicament and their hapless sticking to their ridiculous vow, bespeaks the kind of dominance anorexics often exercise over their parents. The only difference is cultural: no value was placed on thinness in 19th-century Wales, as hunger was all too present a possibility. But then, Sarah was not thin: her face was plump, before the dreadful final fortnight.

For two years, Sarah had lain in her exquisitely made bed, her clothes washed by her mother, her sisters around her, her every comment regarded as wonderful. The postmortem examination showed a strange hollow in her left armpit, and a glass bottle was discovered in the room where she lay. Welsh farmhouse kitchens had pots boiling over fires; it would have been easy to grab mouthfuls here and there. She also must have been sneaking out at night to empty her bowels and bladder.

Adults have to face facts when children construct fantasy worlds. It's a tough lesson, but the alternative is stark. In the case of Sarah Jacobs, the alternative was a 12-year-old in the ground with a stone reading "Thy will be done" and elderly parents living in scorned isolation on a barren hillside. For the rest of us, daily saturation of images of stick-thin celebrities side by side with adverts for sinful ice cream.

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