“I have tried to use memory and invention together, like two hands engaged in the same muddy work of digging up the past,” explains the Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue in the foreword to a collection of her short stories, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002). She quotes approvingly from Monique Wittig’s feminist novel Les Guérillères, published in 1969, the year Donoghue was born. “You say that you have lost memory. Remember. Try to remember, or, failing that, invent,” Wittig advised. Donoghue’s new novel, The Wonder, is her ninth; her first, Stir Fry, was published in 1994. For twenty-three years she has been excavating the boundaries between fact and fiction, purposefully muddying the historical record.
The Wonder is set in 1859: an annus mirabilis for literature, when George Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede, and A Tale of Two Cities was serialized in Charles Dickens’s new weekly journal All the Year Round. These are the texts Donoghue’s main character Elizabeth (Lib) Wright reads, as she keeps her vigil over a fasting girl in a village at “the dead center” of Ireland. Lib, trained as a nurse by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, arrives from England to help determine whether eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell’s claim to have eaten nothing for four months is genuine or a hoax.
While the plot turns on a tense question of medical truth, questions of literary authenticity also arise as Donoghue exposes her own pastiche. Lib is first described journeying in an uncomfortable coach toward her new employment in passages that recall Jane Eyre. A few pages later, after being told that her only duty will be to watch Anna, Lib thinks of “that awful nurse in Jane Eyre, charged with keeping the lunatic hidden away in the attic.” There is homage here to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s feminist classic The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979). Donoghue’s first book, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801 (1993), was a work of straight academic literary criticism. Without abandoning her enthusiasm for research and obscure archives, she has given priority to writing fiction—novels, short stories, and plays—ever since.
Historical fiction is not a uniform genre, and contemporary practitioners—Peter Carey, Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, and Sarah Waters, among many and various others—do not aspire toward the same ends. The ugly 1960s neologism “faction,” meaning a blend of fact and fiction in which real events are used as a basis for fictional narrative or dramatization, is a blunt, unhelpful word for capturing the interest here. In Donoghue’s case the point of combining fact and invention is profoundly subversive. The Wonder is a narrative vortex within which the old authority of religion and the new authority of science are simultaneously shattered.
Donoghue’s novel draws on historic case studies of fasting girls, Victorian and earlier. In 1869 an unsigned skeptical article, “Fasting Girls,” appeared in All the Year Round. “Fasting women and girls have made more noise in the world than fasting men, and there has been more suspicion of trickery in the cases recorded.” The article’s author (who might be Dickens) notes that “the eighteenth century produced many instances with which journalists were busy.” There was the French girl Christina Michelot, who “took nothing but water from November, 1751, to July, 1755, a period of more than three years and a half, without any solid food whatever.” There was the German woman Maria Matcheteria, who took no food or water for a year, but “swallowed a bit of the consecrated wafer once a week at the Eucharist.”
English examples include Anne Walsh, aged twelve, from Harrogate, who lived off “one-third of a pint of wine-and-water daily” for eighteen months beginning in 1762, and Ann Moore, the “Fasting Woman of Tutbury.” Moore was in her late fifties when she claimed to have lived off water and tea from February 1807 until November 1808. A few “scientific men in the neighborhood determined to sift the matter to the bottom,” set up a stringent watch, and exposed Moore as a fraud. She had been receiving small amounts of food from her daughter’s mouth, surreptitiously exchanged through a kiss. When she recovered her strength, after nearly starving to death, Moore signed a confession:
I, Ann Moore, of Tutbury, humbly asking pardon of all persons whom I have attempted to deceive and impose upon, and, above all, with the most unfeigned sorrow and contrition imploring the Divine mercy and forgiveness of that God whom I have so greatly offended, do most solemnly declare that I have occasionally taken sustenance during the last six years.
The most recent case in 1869 was Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl, aged thirteen, from the village of Llethernoyadduccha in the parish of Llanfihangelarath. The author of “Fasting Girls” cannot resist the wry comment, “how great a gift it must be to be able to pronounce Welsh.” He notes that the investigating surgeon became suspicious because the girl’s parents were placing her on display and profiting from presents brought by her visitors. He concludes that Jacob’s case was one of “simulative hysteria in a young girl having the propensity to deceive very strongly developed.” The article ends with the eminent surgeon’s words:
Being made an object of curiosity, sympathy, and profit, is not only antagonistic to the girl’s recovery, but also renders it extremely difficult for a medical man to determine how much of the symptoms is the result of a morbid perversion of will, and how much is the product of intentional deceit.
Dickens’s subtitle for All the Year Round was “The Story of Our Lives from Year to Year,” a quotation from Act I of Othello:
Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
Questions of deceit and the journalist’s commitment to policing the boundaries between fact and fiction when compiling “the story of our lives” were central to the social criticism featured in All the Year Round. The truth-seeking article “Fasting Girls” appeared alongside Veronica, a serialized novel by Frances Eleanor Trollope, but reportage, based on memory, observation, or anecdote, was clearly separated from narrative invention.
Donoghue’s decision to invent an Irish fasting girl in 1859 allows her to evoke a religious and spiritual culture within which extreme fasting could still be viewed as wondrous rather than pathological. In her book Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (1988), Joan Jacobs Brumberg draws a sharp contrast between anorexia mirabilis, a holy abstinence from food associated with sainthood, and anorexia nervosa, a medical condition that can result in death. Brumberg argues that anorexia mirabilis no longer exists, not because individual motives for self-starvation have necessarily changed, but because social understanding of this behavior has irrevocably shifted. The term “anorexia nervosa” was established in 1873 by Queen Victoria’s physician, Sir William Gull. In choosing to set The Wonder before this date, Donoghue brings religious authority and motivation back into question.
When Lib first arrives in Anna O’Donnell’s home she struggles to understand “the Dorothy Prayer” that her charge keeps whispering: “Roman Catholics were always begging various intermediaries to take up their petty causes with God. Was there a Saint Dorothy?”
“Come now, Anna, aren’t we to be friends?”
Lib regretted her choice of word at once, because the round face lit up. “I’d like that.”
“Then tell me about this prayer I hear you muttering on and off.”
“That one, ’tis…not for talking about,” said Anna.
“Ah. A secret prayer.”
“Private,” she corrected Lib.
Later Lib realizes she has misheard “adore thee” and “adorned by” as “Dorothy.” Instead what Anna has been reciting is:
I adore thee, O most precious cross, adorned by the tender, delicate and venerable members of Jesus my Saviour, sprinkled and stained with his precious blood. I adore thee, O my God, nailed to the cross for love of me.
Donoghue establishes intellectual equality between Lib and Anna, bridging their difference in age and the gulf between nurse and patient. Their friendship develops through wordplay and clever puns. There is no tension between Anna’s evident intelligence and her unquestioning acceptance of the religious rituals that structure her family’s day. While Lib passes the time reading “a not-uninteresting article on fungus in All the Year Round,” Anna’s books are the Bible, The Imitation of Christ, The Garden of the Soul, and A Missal for the Use of the Laity. When asked what she lives on, Anna replies, “I live on manna from heaven.”
Lib begins to search for verbal clues to Anna’s abstinence from food in religious texts. She notices the strange complicity of Anna’s mother, Rosaleen, who assures her daughter: “You’re storing up riches in heaven.” Lib and a taciturn nun divide the watch over Anna between them so the fasting girl is never alone with her parents. Her only sibling, an older brother, died before he was fifteen: “Mammy and Dadda think he’s in heaven,” Anna confides in Lib, “Only, you see, we can’t be sure of that. Never despair, but never presume, they’re the two unforgiveable sins against the Holy Ghost.”
Donoghue brilliantly characterizes the disturbing spectacle of a clever, trusting young girl trying to make sense of Roman Catholic doctrine and to do what is right according to the intricate rules of “the Faith.” Anna is startled by Lib’s admission that she no longer prays or attends the Protestant church she was brought up in. “I never found it did much good,” Lib explains with embarrassment, “I had no sense of getting a reply.”
Donoghue excels at dialogue. In The Wonder passages of direct speech are connected by an economical and sly third-person narrator:
Nurse and charge settled into a sort of rhythm on this second day. They read—Lib caught up on Madame Defarge’s nefarious doings in All the Year Round—and chatted a little. The girl was charming, in her unworldly way. Lib found it hard to keep in mind that Anna was a trickster, a great liar in a country famous for them.
The reader well versed in Victorian classics knows that Madame Defarge is a fictional tricoteuse, watching and gossiping at the foot of the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. There is a sinister resonance between Madame Defarge’s mawkish vigil and Lib’s. Lib’s indirectly evoked prejudices against her patient and Ireland in general make her an unappealing outsider at first. But despite her determination to remain detached and skeptical she soon grows fond of Anna and hopes to save her.
The committee of “important men” that has employed Lib and set up the watch over Anna remains mysterious but authoritative. It is possible that the local priest, Mr. Thaddeus, is part of it. “Should it be Father Thaddeus?” Lib asks, as confused by the priest’s prefix as by his layman’s clothes:
It was hard to imagine this amiable fellow as the confessor of the village, the holder of secrets. “You don’t wear a clerical collar, or—” Lib gestured at his chest, not knowing the name of the buttoned black robe.
“I’ve got all the gear in my trunk for holy days, of course,” said Mr. Thaddeus with a smile.
Another possible committee member is the local doctor, Dr. McBrearty, waistcoated and whiskered, who greets Lib as “A Nightingale!” Anna is under his sole care and he has written an attention-grabbing article about her for the Irish Times. In response to Lib’s matter-of-fact assertion, “Doctor, science tells us that to live without food is impossible,” he reveals his own professional ambition: “From Archimedes to Newton, all the greats have achieved their breakthroughs by examining the evidence of their senses without prejudice.” Lib is mortified by his fantasy of inserting his name into a list of “the greats” at the expense of a little girl at the center of a conspiracy. She is even more horrified when he sends one of his distinguished colleagues, Dr. Standish, chief of medicine at a Dublin hospital, to examine Anna. Dr. Standish strips Anna naked, prods her with instruments, and concludes that hers is “a simple case of hysteria.” He tells Lib with pride that “if a patient of mine refuses a second meal, my nurses have standing orders to use a rubber tube, above or below.”
Donoghue has written before about the brutality and misogyny of the medical profession, most memorably in “Cured,” a short story about the London surgeon Isaac Baker Brown, who performed clitoridectomies on women and girls as young as ten years old in 1859. In her story Donoghue quotes directly from Baker Brown’s On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females (1866):
Often a great disposition for novelties is exhibited, the patient desiring to escape from home. She will be fanciful in her food, sometimes express even a distaste for it, and apparently (as her friends will say) live upon nothing.
Baker Brown was expelled from the Obstetrical Society after the publication of his book. In her notes to “Cured,” Donoghue explains that in British medical practice, clitoridectomy was replaced by ovariotomy, another operation Baker Brown had pioneered in the 1850s. But in America, clitoridectomy was “widely performed until the early twentieth century.” In The Wonder, Lib is determined to protect Anna from brutal interventions by “men of science,” but she herself knows no greater magic than science. As she grows fonder of her patient and comes to feel more like a bodyguard than a jailer, she is forced to admit that she is failing: Anna’s hair and teeth are falling out, her face and scalp are covered in sores, her breath is rank, and her body is collapsing. William Byrne, a truth-telling journalist from Dublin, is the first to make Lib face the obvious fact that Anna is “a delightful dying child.”
In opposing doctors who have “decades of study and experience” that she lacks, Lib draws on her memories of Florence Nightingale at Scutari. As a result, Nightingale is a ghostly presence in The Wonder, recalling Lytton Strachey’s portrait of her in Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey argued that behind the familiar image of the Lady with the Lamp “gliding through the horrors of the hospital at Scutari, and consecrating with the radiance of her goodness the dying soldier’s couch” there was a more uncomfortable truth. “A Demon possessed her. Now demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest.”
One of Lib’s reforms is to insist on a light in Anna’s room overnight. She is warned to watch out for drafts, lest the lamp “shoot soot through the room like a black rain.” A line of Miss Nightingale’s at Scutari comes back to her: “We must be scavengers in a time of calamity.” Consulting her signed copy of Notes on Nursing (1859), Lib lets it fall open and puts her finger on a random passage: “Women, she read, were often more exact and careful than the stronger sex, which enabled them to avoid mistakes of inadvertence.” Mindful of the fact that Miss N. cautioned against too much note-taking, in case it blunt the nurse’s power of recall, Lib nevertheless starts to keep obsessive notes on Anna’s physical deterioration. The willpower of Florence Nightingale, channeled through Lib, clashes with Anna’s anorexic determination.
The perversity of self-starvation in a setting where the Irish Potato Famine claimed a million lives from 1845 to 1852 is subtly handled by Donoghue. Lib is irritated by “Mr. Eliot’s moralizing” in Adam Bede, and Donoghue avoids any moral comment on her character’s refusal of food in a country so recently blighted by famine. Lib arrives in Ireland in high summer, “the hungry season,” before the potato harvest in the autumn. The journalist William Byrne claims to be the source of the common saying “God may have sent the blight, but the English made the famine.” Through him Donoghue briefly explains the history:
Half the country wouldn’t have died if the landlords hadn’t kept shipping away the corn, seizing cattle, rack-renting, evicting, torching cabins… Or if the government at Westminster hadn’t thought it the most prudent course of action to sit on their arses and let the Irish starve.
Lib sees starving women and children by the roadside. She remembers her own short rations at Scutari and finds herself “incapable of wasting a bite” even though everything she is given—oatcakes, cabbage, some kind of fish—tastes of peat. Instead of moralizing, Donoghue dramatizes the anorexic’s ability to impose an obsession with food on others. Lib feels uncomfortable eating in front of Anna. She starts to imagine there could be sustenance in the mud walls and takes Anna’s room to pieces checking for hiding places where food might be secretly stashed. A holy statue is smashed when Lib prizes it open to check that there is nothing edible inside.
In the presence of Anna’s abstinence, Lib’s own relationship to food deteriorates to the point of madness. She is contemptuous of a superstitious family servant who leaves a saucer of milk out for the fairies at night, but her own behavior is not more rational. There are many references throughout The Wonder to Hamlet, but not, surprisingly, to Hamlet’s mysterious boast: “I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so.”
Donoghue’s most commercially and critically successful novel to date, Room (2010), is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has never been outside the eleven-foot-square underground room in which he and his mother are held captive by a rapist. The Wonder recalls the claustrophobia of Room and is in some respects a more self-consciously literary repetition of its best-selling predecessor. In both novels the characters distract themselves from the horror of their predicaments with words, affectionately, playfully, and sometimes angrily exchanged. In both novels books are invaluable. Jack and his mother read their small number of books—Dylan the Digger, Pop-up Airport, The Da Vinci Code—over and over again. The books in The Wonder are much more sophisticated, but still limited in number and important for furthering relations between characters in a confined space.
Food is central to both novels. In Room Jack’s mother is still breastfeeding him. When they finally escape, soon after his fifth birthday, a female journalist comments on this. Jack’s mother is scathing: “In this whole story, that’s the shocking detail?” While they are imprisoned, with limited access to food, Jack’s mother has to find ways to construct meals and arrange mealtimes as markers of her own civilized humanity in contrast to her captor’s inhumanity. Adapting to the outside world, in which there is seemingly limitless access to food, and therefore enormous waste, is one of Jack’s first challenges after their escape. In The Wonder, Lib fights to retain her enjoyment of food, as a source of nourishment and means of dividing the day into regular sections, despite the proximity of Anna’s anorexia and the wider situation of Ireland’s troubled relationship with hunger.
Room was inspired by the Josef Fritzel kidnapping case in Austria, in which a father held his daughter hostage for twenty-four years, repeatedly raped her, and fathered seven children, but as Donoghue commented when the book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize:
To say Room is based on the Fritzl case is too strong. I’d say it was triggered by it. The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl, aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.
Similarly, in The Wonder, Donoghue is captivated by fasting girls and brings to the subject her academic rigor and powerful imagination. Both novels are extreme thought experiments, probing the pared-down resources of human character. Both are ultimately redemption narratives offering an escape from the tomb-like confined settings in which Donoghue’s fiction thrives, and we are not surprised when Anna can no longer go on with her fast. The end of Room is: “I look back one more time. It’s like a crater, a hole where something happened. Then we go out the door.” The Wonder ends similarly with a forward-looking question: “Shall we begin?”