- Warning: Major spoilers for “The Wonder,” which premiered on Netflix on November 16.
- Florence Pugh plays a nurse investigating a young girl’s miraculous fast in 19th-century Ireland.
- The film is based on a novel by Emma Donoghue but has also been inspired by some real-life events.
In “The Wonder,” Oscar-nominated actor Florence Pugh plays Lib Wright, an English nurse who is called upon to observe a young girl who has seemingly survived without food for months.
“The girl has lived miraculously without food since her 11th birthday,” Lib is told when she arrives in a remote Irish village where Anna O’Donnell’s (Kíla Lord Cassidy) fast has left everybody, from her parents to the priest, completely awestruck.
Instead of food, Anna says she subsists solely on “manna from heaven” — divinely supplied spiritual nourishment. Lib is skeptical but discovers that the young girl is healthy when she, along with a medically trained nun, commences a two-week, round-the-clock observation.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio, the film is based on a 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue, who said that while the story is entirely fictional, she was inspired by the “fasting girls” phenomenon, which first began in the 16th century but was perhaps most prominent in the Victorian era (1837–1901).
The fasting girls phenomenon explained
In the Victorian era, fasting girls captured the public’s imagination by not eating, as seen in “The Wonder.”
Essentially, a fasting girl was someone who claimed to be able to go impossibly long periods of time without consuming any food or other nourishment. These girls were often preadolescent teenagers and devout Catholics who cited their loss of appetite as being God’s will.
As a result, the condition was termed anorexia mirabilis, which comes from Latin and means “miraculously inspired loss of appetite.”
Many of the girls achieved local renown as people became fascinated by them, traveling great distances just to lay eyes on the supposed miracle of their survival, according to History Extra.
Author Emma Donoghue’s inspiration for ‘The Wonder’
Donoghue says that in her research for the book, she came across many instances of fasting girls.
She writes on her website: “I was instantly intrigued by these cases, which seemed to echo medieval saints starving as an act of penance, and also modern anorexics, but weren’t exactly the same as either.
“It seemed to say a lot about what it’s meant to be a girl — in many Western countries, from the sixteenth century right through to the twentieth — that these girls became celebrities by not eating.”
However, the author adds that she “never found one real case that rang that little bell in me, telling me this was the story I had to tell in a novel.”
Donoghue went on to say she decided to set the story in 1860s Ireland not only because it is her homeland but to juxtapose the decision to starve with the reality of the Irish famine, which had ravaged the country’s population just 20 years earlier.
The Welsh Fasting Girl
“The Wonder” most closely resembles the case of Sarah Jacob, known as the Welsh Fasting Girl, who was just 10 when she stopped eating.
In the late 1860s, people from across Britain flocked to a tiny village in Carmarthenshire, Wales, to see a girl named Sarah Jacob, who claimed that she had not eaten since she turned 10 years old.
Like Anna’s family in “The Wonder,” her parents didn’t mind the publicity, and they welcomed the numerous gifts and donations for the “Welsh Fasting Girl,” as the newspapers at the time dubbed her.
They also agreed to have the girl’s claims of miraculous survival without food tested by medical professionals during a two-week study. Under strict supervision by nurses from Guy’s Hospital, Sarah grew weaker and began to show clear signs of starvation.
Sarah passed away after her parents refused to send the nurses away. It was thought that Sarah had been surreptitiously consuming small amounts of food for the two years that she captured public attention and would resume doing so when the nurses left her.
Her parents, Evan and Hannah Jacob, were convicted of manslaughter, and an 1870 report of their trial may have been where Donaghue found inspiration for her story’s title.
“By-and-by it was boldly stated that vigilance committees had been appointed to test her powers of abstinence, and that the child had been proved to possess the wonderful faculty of existing without food,” it reads.
“And when, in the early part of last year, it was fearlessly asserted that for two years no food whatever had passed her lips, the credulous stopped to inquire, and went forth to see the living wonder.”
“The Wonder” is available on Netflix.