Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Fasting Girl A True Victorian Medical Mystery by Michelle Stacey

This book explores the Victorian phenomena known as “fasting girls” an anomaly slightly above the sordid fringes of the sideshows in which proper, respectable Victorian girls baffled society and the medical and scientific communities by seeming to exist only on air, miraculously taking little or no nourishment for years. Several cases and all the various theories, including fraud, hysteria, eating disorders such as anorexia, are fully explored as are and social conventions about the feminine appetite, the fashionable Victorian complaints of dyspepsia and neurasthenia, and the Cult of the Invalid, as typified by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alice James, the clash between the titans of religion and science, the heyday of spiritualism and the infancy of psychology and the birth of neurology. But the primary focus of the book is Mollie Fancher, the most famous of all the fasting girls.

In 1865, eighteen-year-old Mollie was injured when her hoop skirt caught upon a hook as she descended from a horse-drawn street car. She was dragged about a block before she was rescued and carried to her home in Brooklyn, New York. She never left her bed again. She began to exhibit a bewildering array of symptoms—paralysis, seizures, blindness, clairvoyance, multiple personalities, trances of varying duration in which she lay like one dead, and an inability to retain nourishment. Apart from a few miniscule sips of milk punch, beef tea, and bits of banana and bites of crackers, not enough to keep a body alive, she ate nothing at all for many years. While the invalid stoically endured her suffering, the newspapers took up the story and her symptoms, rather real or fake, were hotly debated until her death in 1916 shortly after celebrating the 50th anniversary of her becoming an invalid.

Don’t be daunted by the fact that this book covers such a wide spectrum of psychology, sociology, and science; it is not too complex or scholarly for the general reader. I found it fascinating from start to end and learned many new things. For instance, I always thought anorexia was a modern condition and was surprised to learn that even in the Victorian era which considered full hips fashionable, the thinness and pallor of consumptives and invalids was considered an ethereal and virtuous form of beauty, almost saintly. And if you are interested in the Victorian era, this book offers a peek behind the prim and proper lace curtains of the invalid’s bedchamber and the doctor’s office that readers rarely encounter. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy reading historical non-fiction and books about medicine and psychology that are not over the general reader’s head.

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