Some girls want out

Hilary Mantel

  • The Voices of Gemma Galgani: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint by Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni
    Chicago, 320 pp, £21.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 226 04196 4
  • Saint Thérèse of Lisieux by Kathryn Harrison
    Weidenfeld, 160 pp, £14.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 297 84728 7
  • The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty by Helen King
    Routledge, 196 pp, £50.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 415 22662 7
  • A Wonderful Little Girl: The True Story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl by Siân Busby
    Short Books, 157 pp, £5.99, June 2004, ISBN 1 904095 70 4

We are living through a great era of saint-making. Under John Paul II an industrial revolution has overtaken the Vatican, an age of mass production. Saints are fast-tracked to the top, and there are beatifications by the bucket-load. It seems a shame to have all the virtues required for beatification, but not to get your full name in the Catholic Almanac Online. When the blessed are turned out at such a rate, the most they can hope for is a listing by nationality. In the current listings there are 103 Korean martyrs, 96 Vietnamese martyrs, 122 left over from the Spanish Civil War (with another batch of 45 in their wake), and a hundred-plus who have been hanging around since the French Revolution. And for the canonised, the site lists nine full saints for 2002 alone, though this is a considerable fall-back from the glory days of 1988, when more than a hundred came marching in.

Under previous popes, they dawdled along, at the rate of one or two a year. Gemma Galgani became a saint in 1940, in the reign of Pius XII. It was a rapid promotion, by the standard of those days. After a miserable life, Gemma died of TB in 1903, when she was 25. She is an old-fashioned saint, Italian, passive, repressed, yet given to displays of flamboyant suffering – to public and extreme fasting and self-denial, to the exhibition of torn and bleeding flesh. Her behaviour recalled the gruesome penitential practices of her medieval foremothers and resembled that of the ‘hysterics’ of her own day, whose case histories promoted the careers of Charcot, Janet, Breuer and Freud. But we can’t quite consign Gemma to history, to the dustbin of outmoded signs and symptoms or the waste-tip of an age of faith. When we think of young adults in the West, driven by secular demons of unknown provenance to starve and purge themselves, and to pierce and slash their flesh, we wonder uneasily if she is our sister under the skin.

Gemma is far less famous than her contemporary Thérèse of Lisieux, whose remains a short while ago went on a four-month US tour. Thérèse also died of TB, in 1897, just short of her 25th birthday. Her illness was excruciating and prolonged. But popular piety preserved the romantic lie about the wasting consumptive and her gentle death; the sordid realities of vomiting and bedsores were suppressed, and her convent’s policy of denying Thérèse pain relief was elevated into suffering gladly embraced. Kathryn Harrison’s short life of Thérèse complements Monica Furlong’s 1987 study, and is in many ways more sympathetic. Neither biographer found the saint easy to like. Despite her sobriquet of the ‘Little Flower’, Thérèse was tough when her saintly interests were at stake. She wanted to enter the Carmelite order at the age of 14, and when the local convent told her to wait she took advantage of a pilgrimage to Rome to harangue Leo XIII, clinging to his knees until attendants carried her off.

Gemma never got near the pope, never managed to get admitted to a convent at any age. They regarded her as too strange and too sick. ‘They don’t want me living,’ she said, ‘but they’ll have me when I’m dead.’ Both Gemma and Thérèse were quite sure they were saints. Thérèse had a fantastic imagination, suffused by fantasies of being flayed alive and boiled in oil, but the spiritual path known as the ‘Little Way’, expounded in her writing, is about the unheroic journey that awaits smaller souls. Thérèse lived within the convent rule, which discouraged displays of zeal, or at least kept news of them behind the grille until the would-be saint’s CV had been worked over.

Rudolph Bell’s book Holy Anorexia (1985) concentrates on Italian saints, and is especially rewarding for connoisseurs of the spiritually lurid. St Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi lay naked on thorns. Saint Catherine of Siena drank pus from a cancerous sore. One confessor ordered Veronica Giuliani to kneel while a novice of the order kicked her in the mouth. Another ordered her to clean the walls and floor of her cell with her tongue; when she swallowed the spiders and their webs, even he thought it was going too far. Scourges, chains and hair shirts were the must-have accessories in these women’s lives. Eustochia of Messina stretched her arms on a DIY rack she had constructed. St Margaret of Cortona bought herself a razor and was narrowly dissuaded from slicing through her nostrils and upper lip. St Angela of Foligno drank water contaminated by the putrefying flesh of a leper. And what St Francesca Romana did, I find I am not able to write down.

Starvation was a constant in these women’s lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross. What does this holy anorexia mean? Can we find any imaginative connection with a woman like Gemma Galgani? Like her medieval predecessors, she received the stigmata, the mark of Christ’s wounds. Like them, she was beaten up by devils. Like them, she performed miracles of healing after her death. When you look at her strange life, you wonder what kind of language you can use to talk about her – through which discipline will you approach her?

Born in 1878, Gemma Galgani spent almost her whole life in the Tuscan city of Lucca. She was the first daughter in her family, after four sons. Her father was a pharmacist. (This explains why she is the patron saint of Catholic pharmacists. She is also the patron of parachutists – it is hard to work out why, and whether she protects all parachutists, or only Catholic ones.) Her family were financially secure at the time of her birth, though they became poor in her late teens, after her father died. Gemma’s mother gave birth to three more children, but died of TB when Gemma was seven. In losing her mother early in life, Gemma was again like Thérèse of Lisieux. But whereas Thérèse was brought up in an atmosphere of stifling religiosity, the Galgani family seem to have been only conventionally pious, and sometimes barely that; when the young Gemma entered one of her ‘ecstasies’, her sister Angelina brought her schoolfriends home to laugh at her, and later, when she manifested wounds on her head, body, hands and feet, her aunt Elisa complained about having to scrub bloodstains from the floor of her room.

News of Gemma’s florid and discomfiting style soon leaked out, and no convent would admit her. So her agonies couldn’t be concealed behind convent walls; she remained a citizen of Lucca, with a semi-public career. After her family became almost destitute, another Lucca family took her in, and when she fell into ecstasy, instead of jeering, they took notes. The priests who surrounded her in her later years, members of the Passionist order, had little regard for her privacy once they made up their minds that she was saint material. And yet much we would like to know remains hidden; and so much we need to know is hidden in the footnotes of Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni’s book. There is a certain scattiness, as well as scruple, in the authors’ methods, and you wish that, for part of the book at least, they would adopt Harrison’s straightforward and conventional narrative manner. Harrison recognises that the subject-matter is strange enough, that it’s pointless to add to the reader’s dislocation. At the centre of Bell and Mazzoni’s book is Gemma’s own account of her childhood and selections from her diary and her letters, but without close guidance from the authors – and we do want to know what they think – it is difficult to fill in the gaps or to make sense of Gemma’s petulant and flirtatious relationship with her guardian angel.

The authors do not give us a sequential account of Gemma’s life and death. They have both written about Gemma before – the historian Bell in his book on Italian mystics, and Mazzoni, the literary scholar, in her book Saint Hysteria (1996), in which she tried to cast light on the relationship between the typical female manifestations of sanctity and the concept of hysteria, as it was understood at the turn of the 20th century – that is, around the time of Gemma’s death. Here, Bell contributes the note on historical context with which the book begins, and writes on Gemma’s ‘afterlife’ – the process of hagiography and canonisation. Mazzoni ends the book with a ‘Saint’s Alphabet’, looking at Gemma’s career through the eyes of feminist theology, cutting up the issues under headings. F is for Food, P is for Passion and X is for Extasy. The authors’ intention seems to be that we construct the story for ourselves, rather than receive it ready-made from them. They want to explain Gemma without explaining her away. The danger is that her meaning slips between the lines. Gemma is the mistress of ellipsis, her sentences often petering out after a conjunction; her ‘but’ and ‘because’ conjoin us to nothing but guesswork. Q is for Question, and the reader has many.

We can understand when Gemma says that her first memory is of praying beside her dying mother. It is the kind of first memory permitted to saints, like Thérèse’s sickly assertion that the first word she could read without help was ‘heaven’. But we don’t know how to understand a passing mention, in Gemma’s autobiographical notes, of a household servant who ‘used to take me into a closed room and undress me’. We don’t know much about Gemma’s education; her teachers’ recollections of her were muddled and scanty. So we can’t tell how much she had read; how far she was an original, and how far she was conscious of modelling herself on earlier saints. Her writing style was childlike, but it is possible that her mind was not. Like Thérèse, she presents a model of arrested development. Like Thérèse, she expressed herself simply, but didn’t have simple thoughts.

Sometimes we can trace Gemma’s efforts to fit herself into a tradition. At around eight years old, she heard in a sermon of the Venerable Bartolomea Capitanio (d.1833) who combined the role of mystic with that of teacher, and who was known, Bell says, ‘for absolutely never striking her students’ – which is a good deal to say, in the context of Catholic education. Like her medieval predecessors, Bartolomea was keen on licking floors, but with this piquant variation of self-abasement: she licked the floor in a pattern of crosses, until her tongue bled. With such a role model to contemplate, it’s maybe not surprising that Gemma’s first confession, made at the age of nine, stretched over three days.

What did she have to confess? Like Thérèse, she describes herself as a little girl who would cry if she didn’t get what she wanted; if she didn’t cry, she didn’t get. (But what she wanted, usually, was to spend more time hanging around with nuns, or to be allowed to give money to the poor.) She was, she says (displaying the streak of melodrama she and Thérèse share), ‘a bad example to my companions and a scandal to all’. She liked to stroll out in pretty dresses. One of her teachers called her ‘Miss Pride’. Behind the formulaic accusation is a bereft, needy little girl. Whereas Thérèse proudly promenaded on her father’s arm, his ‘little queen’, Gemma pushed her father away as he tried to hug her. No one was to touch her, she said; and one thinks of the nefarious servant, in the locked room. When her one pious brother, a seminarian, died of TB, she took to wearing his clothes; and when her father died of throat cancer, she slept in the bed his corpse had vacated. There is something desperately sad about these gestures. They are quasi-suicidal, for sure, for she hoped to ‘catch’ their illness – she had very little investment in life – but there is also something thwarted about them, a bungled attempt at both closeness and control. Living, she won’t let them touch her; when they are dead, she touches them. She tries on a man’s life, a priest’s life; she tries to follow her father, who had abandoned her just as her mother had done years before. Nuns at their clothing ceremonies dress as brides, so Thérèse had her wreath of orange blossom, and veil of Alençon lace: Gemma had a sheet with the sweat of death on it.

Thérèse had been the adored baby of her family, instructed every day by two elder sisters who proceeded her into the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. Gemma had to beg for instruction. If she got high marks in class, a teacher rewarded her by spending an hour explaining some aspect of Christ’s passion and death. After one of these sessions, at the age of eight or nine, she fell into a high fever, the first of many such illnesses. Sometimes paralysed, sometimes corpse-like, sometimes bleeding and almost always starving, Gemma, in her ecstasies, talked intimately with Christ and with his mother.

What did her ecstasies look like? They were not like the ecstasy of Teresa of Avila, sculpted by Bernini: that most passionate, fluid artefact, art’s most convincing orgasm. Gemma lived in the era of photography, and her spiritual advisers provided her household with a camera. She looks demure, her hands clasped. Her eyes are raised to heaven, but she isn’t doing anything dramatic, like rolling her pupils up into her lids. Jotted down, her words are broken, repetitive, a string of conventional pieties. Yet she returns from these states of self-hypnosis riven with supernatural pleasure and shot through with natural pain.

Harrison puts it very well: ‘Ecstasies are unforgettable, and they are tyrannical. Those who experience them helplessly shape their lives in order to create the possibility of another encounter with the holy.’ Like all mystics, Gemma is terrified that God will turn his face away. She wants to love God, but is baffled: how do you do it? Her confessor cannot help her. Jesus says to her: ‘See this cross, these thorns, this blood? They are all works of love . . . Do you want to truly love me? First learn to suffer.’

What should Jesus want her to suffer? To talk about female masochism seems reductive and unhelpful. You have to look the saints in the face; say how the facts of their lives revolt and frighten you, but when you have got over being satirical and atheistical, and saying how silly it all is, the only productive way is the one the psychologist Pierre Janet recommended, early in the 20th century: first, you must respect the beliefs that underlie the phenomena. Both Gemma and Thérèse believed suffering had an effect that was not limited in time or space. They could, just for a while, share the pain of crucifixion. They could offer up their pain to buy time out for the souls suffering in purgatory. Their suffering could be an expiation for the sins of others, it could be a restitution, a substitution. Margaret of Cortona said: ‘I want to die of starvation to satiate the poor.’ Behind the ecstasy is a ferocious moral drive, a purpose – and no doubt a sexual drive, too. Simone Weil believed that ‘sexual energy constitutes the physiological foundation’ of mystical experience. Why must this be true? Because, Weil said, ‘we haven’t anything else with which to love.’

Such loving isn’t easy. Thérèse, dying, bleeding from her intestines and unable to keep down water, was tormented by the thought of banquets. Gemma, too, dreamed of food; would it be all right, she asked her confessor, to ask Jesus to take away her sense of taste? Permission was granted. She arranged with Jesus that she should begin to expiate, through her own suffering, all the sins committed by priests: after this bargain was struck, for 60 days she vomited whenever she tried to eat. Her guardian angel was her constant attendant and is addressed in the language of the playground and the kitchen. Sometimes he brought her coffee, and when she was weak he helped her into bed. Once he manifested in the kitchen, while the servant was making meatballs. The devil showed himself, too. He was ‘a . . . little man, black, very black, little, very little . . . a tiny, tiny man . . . all covered in black hair’. He would grimace and threaten at the foot of her bed; he would jump on the bed and pummel her; when she called on Jesus, he rolled around the floor, cursing. Once he came in the form of a great black dog, and put his paws on her shoulders. Gemma had the bruises to show, and the charred paper where Satan had tried to burn her writings.

In 1899, when Gemma was approaching her 21st birthday, she became paralysed and remained paralysed for some months. She was so ill she received the last rites. In prayer she appealed to the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, who two centuries earlier had been confined to bed for four years by paralysis, and who had made a vow to become a nun if she was healed. The cure was instantaneous and Margaret Mary began a career of spectacular saintliness. During the long nights when Gemma prayed she was visited by a strange presence, someone who touched her with burning hands and prayed with her. After nine nights she was out of pain and able to rise from her bed.

She recovered from her paralysis in February 1899. In May she went into a convent for a retreat. She followed the nuns’ strict timetable for prayer and thought it ‘too easy’. All the same, she wanted to stay with them, but they wouldn’t let her because of her poor health. They demanded ‘four medical certificates’ before she could be considered. Later she would apply to several orders, and be rebuffed. She had no money for the dowry that convents demanded, but she offered herself as a lay sister – that is, one of the nuns who performs all the heavy work of the house. Nobody was keen to take her up on this offer.

Shortly after her rejection by the first convent, Gemma suffered a crisis. In June 1899, on the eve of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the marks of Christ’s wounds appeared on her hands. She put on gloves and went to church as usual. She said nothing to her local confessor. She was in the habit of concealing things from him – though she knew she shouldn’t. This confessor, Monsignor Volpi, the auxiliary bishop of Lucca, never had much time for Gemma. He seemed to regard her as a potential embarrassment. He didn’t accept that her experiences were divine graces and ordered her to terminate her ecstasies as soon as she felt them beginning. Even after the proceedings for her canonisation had opened, Volpi’s opinion was that ‘she was a silly little thing.’

Why such hostility? Volpi was a man deeply involved with church politics. During Gemma’s short lifetime, the era of ‘Catholic intransigence’ was giving way to a tentative accommodation between church and state. The church in Lucca was as beleaguered as in any other city, anxious to give no ammunition to liberals and free thinkers, afraid of being mocked by anti-clerical rationalists. This fear governed the way clerics responded to Gemma. They did not like excess, or passion, or guest appearances by Old Nick himself. It was the church that was most anxious to be reductionist about Gemma’s experiences, to debunk them as ‘hysteria’.

On the occasion of her paralysis, several doctors had been sent in. Gemma hated doctors. ‘What distress . . . to have to allow myself to be undressed,’ she says. Having examined her, she goes on, ‘nearly all the doctors said it was spinal meningitis, only one insisted in saying it was hysteria.’ Now, after Gemma had received the stigmata, Volpi brought in a local doctor who said that the wounds on her head and hands were self-inflicted. He saw marks on her skin which were easily wiped away; he saw a sewing needle on the floor by her feet. After this, Volpi told Gemma that when she saw a vision of Jesus she should regard it as diabolically inspired. She should make the horn sign to ward off evil and spit in the apparition’s face. You wonder if this advice would have placated the rationalist opponents of whom the church was so afraid – would they have found the auxiliary bishop even funnier than the would-be saint?

To Gemma it sometimes seemed the local clergy were doing everything they could to obstruct her passage to heaven. At every turn they sought to control and limit her experience. Her heart told her that the local priests were sometimes wrong, and yet she knew she would commit a sin if she was not obedient to the men who were set over her as spiritual authorities. They told her not to trust her imagination; to stop imagining. Yet her imagination was what connected her to Jesus. Her greatest trial was the emptiness she experienced when she didn’t see him face to face. She solved this problem neatly. In one of her ecstasies she dedicated her imagination to the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary accepted it – which meant that from that day onwards heaven would work through Gemma’s imagination. Imagination, in her view, was the essence of reality. Dreams and visions allowed her to see the true nature of events, discern motivation, penetrate disguises. The devil, satirical as always, assumed the form of Monsignor Volpi and followed her through the town. Just so she didn’t miss him, he wore a mitre.

Then to her rescue came a professional saint-maker, Father Germano, a member of the Passionist order – a missionary order, founded in 1741, which shared with Gemma a devotion to the emblem of the Sacred Heart. Germano boasted that he could bring even Garibaldi to ‘the honours of the altar’. He talent-spotted Gemma on a brief visit to Lucca, and asked Volpi if he could take over primary responsibility for her spiritual development. He would publish her biography four years after her death and it was in his interest that during her lifetime she should feed him material by putting on paper as much as he could persuade her to confide about her life and her thoughts. In the same way, Thérèse was ordered to write her life-story – but by her own elder sister, who was at that time superior of her convent. Thérèse took to the business with flair and verve, her mind flooded by recollections of her childhood. Gemma, on the other hand, was not particularly co-operative. Germano asked her to write him a ‘general confession’. ‘All the sins of the world, I have done them all,’ she replied. Yet she began to set down the scant record of her life to date.

When the Passionists looked at Gemma they did not see a hysteric or a fake. Where Volpi’s doctor had seen blood that could be wiped away, and that suspicious sewing needle on the floor, the Passionists saw eloquent wounds. In Julius Caesar, Antony promises to ‘put a tongue in every wound of Caesar’. Father Germano undertook a similar duty for Gemma. Meanwhile, his advice to the people around her was to keep her busy – plenty of manual labour – and away from doctors. Catholic doctors could be just as bad as ‘unbelievers and freemasons’. Gemma continued fainting, convulsing, vomiting blood and showing the stigmata; Germano advised her to pray for the cessation of these physical manifestations and to ask for spiritual graces instead.

Spiritual graces were safer; even Germano didn’t want the girl making a holy show of herself. Bell and Mazzoni demonstrate how potentially subversive Gemma’s physical eloquence was. The saint first affected by the stigmata was Francis of Assisi, but it has afflicted many more women than men. It insists on the likeness of the believer’s body to that of Christ. It argues that the gender of the redemptive body does not matter. It undermines the notion of a masculine God. It shows that Christ can represent women and women can represent Christ – no wonder it makes the church nervous. There is a trap the church has created for itself – it wants Jesus to have a gender but not sexuality. Under the loincloth of the crucified Christ, what would you find? Only a smooth groin of wood or plaster. His ability to love has to centre on some other organ.

Throughout her life Gemma suffered from palpitations and pains in her chest. Sometimes the beating of her heart was so violent that everyone around could observe it; at autopsy it was seen (by a devout doctor) to be engorged with fresh blood. For Gemma, the heart is the place her pain is centred, the place where metaphors converge. She calls Jesus ‘the powerful King of Hearts’. Hélène Cixous has pointed out that the heart is the place where male and female metaphors become one. Both sexes agree it is there that love is bred and contained. The heart beats faster when you see your lover, or in the sexual act. It is the place where Gemma’s identity collapses into that of Jesus. She insists that her heart wants to enlarge; she uses an expression that also means, ‘to take comfort’. In Saint Hysteria, Mazzoni shows how the woman mystic pushes language to do what it can, and abandons it when it reaches its limit. When telling is insufficient, she shows.

This was the church’s great problem: men’s language, frozen in liturgy and protocol, and women’s language, plastic, elastic, expressed in the heaving bosom and the arched spine – the flicky tongue of hysteria, juicy with unspoken words. The church had got itself embroiled in competing systems of metaphor, parallel discourses which it was too intellectually cowardly or inept to try to reconcile; it could only shuffle into shady alliances with the kind of science that suited it. We can see, as ‘Catholic neurologists’ of the time did, that Gemma’s symptoms are a representational strategy. They are an art form and a highly successful one; they are also (possibly) the product of mental pain and distress turned into physical symptoms. We must say ‘possibly’ because we don’t know enough about Gemma’s illnesses – at least, Bell and Mazzoni don’t give us enough detail to judge whether they were functional or organic. It seems that her doctors were more interested in ascribing meaning to her illnesses than in recording their physical features. If you want to look at Gemma’s life as Freud and Josef Breuer might have looked at it (Studies in Hysteria was published in 1895) you can collude with the church in describing Gemma as a hysteric. But where does that get us? Holiness and psychopathology can coexist, and perhaps by the time Gemma was making her career you couldn’t have the first without what looked like the second. The state of virginity itself was pathologised, and part of the definition of psychological health was an ability to defer to men and accept penetrative sex. Gemma thought she could be both a hysteric and a saint. She clearly understood that the diagnosis was pejorative, and regarded it as just another of the humiliations that God had lined up for her.

At the heart of Bell and Mazzoni’s endeavour is an understanding that a phenomenon may retain spiritual value, even after its biological and psychological roots have been uncovered. To describe the physical basis of an experience is not to negate the experience, as William James pointed out long ago. But now that neuroscience has such excellent tools for envisaging and describing the brain, we are tempted to accept descriptions of physiological processes as a complete account of experience. We then go further, and make value judgments about certain experiences, and deny their value if they don’t fit a consensus; we medicate the mysterious, and in relieving suffering, take its meaning away. This won’t do; there is always more suffering, and a pain is never generic, but particular and personal. We denigrate the female saints as masochists; noting that anorexic girls have contempt for their own flesh, we hospitalise them and force-feed them, taking away their liberties as if they were criminals or infants, treating them as if they have lost the right to self-determination. But we don’t extend the same contempt to pub brawlers or career soldiers. Men own their bodies, but women’s bodies are owned by the wider society; this observation is far from original, but perhaps bears restatement.

In the ‘Saint’s Alphabet’ which concludes the Bell-Mazzoni book, Cristina Mazzoni works hard at making Gemma’s story one of the triumph of the disempowered. It is true that the reckless intensity of her self-belief, combined with her passionate lack of self-regard, make her seem very modern: a Simone Weil by other means. But very unlike Weil, she speaks in the language of the nursery. She calls her confessor ‘Dad’. She calls him ‘Mum’ as well, if she feels like it. She calls Jesus her brother and her lover and her mother. If she obeys Jesus – deferring to him as to one who has suffered and been humiliated – it can be argued that she took on his pain not in a spirit of masochism or passivity but in a spirit of solidarity.

When Gemma was canonised, the church made a weaselly accommodation with her career history, recognising the sanctity of her life but not the supernatural manifestations which surrounded her: manifestations which are so dangerously impressive to lay people, who are always looking for a sign they can understand – even an illiterate woman could have read the marks on Gemma’s body. So Gemma got her reward for being downtrodden, humble, abject – not for being a living testimony to Christ’s passion. Her bodily sufferings and her visions were not part of her claim to sainthood. The church recognised that Gemma had actually felt certain pains and sincerely believed that heaven had sent them; but they were consigned to the subjective realm. Within the church, pain can become productive, suffering can be put to work. But outside the church suffering loses its meaning, degenerates into physical squalor. It only has the meaning we ascribe to it; but now we lack a context in which to understand the consent to suffering that the saints gave.

Anorexia nervosa is said to be a modern epidemic. If you skimmed the press in any one week it would be hard to see what is perceived as more threatening to society: the flabby, rolling mass of couch-potato kids, or their teenage sisters with thighs like gnawed chicken-bones, sunken cheeks and putrid breath. Are we threatened by flesh or its opposite? Though the temporarily thin find it easy to preach against the fat, we are much more interested by anorexia than by obesity. We all understand self-indulgence but are afraid that self-denial might be beyond us. We are fascinated by anyone who will embrace it – especially if there’s no money in it for them.

Bell emphasises in his introduction that what Gemma experienced was ‘holy anorexia’ and that it is different from anorexia nervosa. But what may strike the reader of a secular orientation is how similar they are. Starvation, as Bell shows in Holy Anorexia, was not an extension of convent practice, but a defiance of it. A fast is a controlled penitential practice. Most nuns fasted to keep the rule: the anorexics fasted to break it. Most nuns fasted to conform to their community: the starvation artists aimed to be extraordinary, exemplary. The secular slimming diet is also conformist and self-limiting. Dieting is culturally approved, associative behaviour, almost ritualistic. Restaurants adapt their menus to the Dr Atkins faddists; in a thousand church halls every week, less fashionable dieters discuss their ‘points’ and ‘sins’, their little liberties and their permitted lapses. Diets are prescriptive, like convent fasts – so much of this, so little of that. The anorexic, holy or otherwise, makes her own laws. Every normal diet ends when the dieter’s will fails, or the ‘target weight’ is reached, at which point the dieter will celebrate, the deprived body will take its revenge, and the whole cycle will begin again – next Monday, or next Lent. Diets are meant to fail, fasts to end in a feast day. Anorexia succeeds, and ends in death more frequently than any other psychiatric disorder.

Should we be comfortable in regarding it as a psychiatric disorder? Is it not a social construct? If the fashion industry were responsible for modern anorexia, it would be true that we are dealing with a very different condition from holy anorexia. But the phenomenon of starving girls predates any kind of fashion industry. In The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty, Helen King has amassed a huge number of references to a disease entity that was recognised from classical times to the 1920s. Greensick virgins went about looking moony, and didn’t menstruate, possibly because they didn’t weigh enough; in all eras, food refusal was part of the condition. The cure was a good seeing to – within marriage, of course. The snag was that men weren’t keen to marry women of unproven fertility. They must show, by bleeding, how worthy they were. If green-sickness was a protest against fate, it was a horribly conflicted and fraught protest. The cloister is the logical destination for those who protest too much. But in or out of the nunnery, how much should a good girl bleed? Should she settle for the natural orifice, or bleed from novelty ones – palms, eyes?

Sometimes the starving saints broke their fasts, were found at midnight raiding the convent larder. How did their communities accommodate this embarrassment? They simply said that, while Sister X snoozed celestially in her cell, the devil assumed her form and shape, tucked his tail under a habit, crept downstairs and ate all the pies. Starvation can be, must be, sustained by pride. Siân Busby’s book ‘A Wonderful Little Girl’ introduces us to this pride in a secular context. In 1869, a 12-year-old called Sarah Jacob starved to death in a Welsh farmhouse, under the eye of doctors and nurses who were watching her around the clock. Sarah had been a sickly little girl whose parents didn’t want to force food on her. She became a local phenomenon; visitors came to look at her not eating, and left useful donations. It is likely she was fed, minimally and secretly, by her siblings. But when the medical vigil began, this source of supply was cut off, and Sarah was too polite to say she needed anything – even water. Politely, proudly and quietly, she slipped away while the doctors and nurses watched.

It is a grim story of social hypocrisy, deprivation and bone-headed stupidity, but it is also a shadowy story with a meaning that is difficult to penetrate. This is true of the whole phenomenon of anorexia. The anorexics are always, you feel, politely losing the game. When the fashionable and enviable shape was stick-thin, a sly duplicity was at work. One girl, considered photogenic, could earn a living from thinness; another girl, with the same famine proportions but less poster-appeal, would be a suitable case for treatment. The deciding factor seemed to be economic: could she earn a living by anorexia? If so, make her a cover girl; if not, hospitalise her. The case is now altered. The ideal body is attainable only by plastic surgery. The ideal woman has the earning powers of a CEO, breasts like an inflatable doll, no hips at all and the tidy, hairless labia of an unviolated six-year-old. The world gets harder and harder. There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.

The young women who survive anorexia do not like themselves. Their memoirs burn with self-hatred, expressed in terms which often seem anachronistic. In My Hungry Hell, Kate Chisholm says: ‘Pride is the besetting sin of the anorexic: pride in her self-denial, in her thin body, in her superiority.’[*] Survivors are reluctant to admit that anorexia, which in the end leads to invalidity and death, is along the way a path of pleasure and power: it is the power that confers pleasure, however freakish and fragile the gratification may seem. When you are isolated, back to the social wall, control over your own ingestion and excretion is all you have left; this is why professional torturers make sure to remove it. Why would women feel so hounded, when feminism is a done deal? Think about it. What are the choices on offer? First, the promise of equality was extended to educated professional women. You can be like men, occupy the same positions, earn the same salary. Then equal opportunities were extended to uneducated girls; you, too, can get drunk, and fight in the streets on pay-night. You’ll fit in childcare somehow, around the practice of constant self-assertion – a practice now as obligatory as self-abasement used to be. Self-assertion means acting; it means denying your nature; it means embracing superficiality and coarseness. Girls may not be girls; they may be gross and sexually primed, like adolescent boys.

Not every young woman wants to take the world up on this offer. It is possible that there is a certain personality structure which has always been problematical for women, and which is as difficult to live with today as it ever was – a type which is withdrawn, thoughtful, reserved, self-contained and judgmental, naturally more cerebral than emotional. Adolescence is difficult for such people; peer-pressure and hormonal disruption whips them into forced emotion, sends them spinning like that Victorian toy called a whipping-top. Suddenly self-containment becomes difficult. Emotions become labile. Why do some children cut themselves, stud themselves and arrange for bodily modifications that turn passers-by sick in the streets, while others merely dwindle quietly? Is it a class issue? Is it to do with educational level? The subject is complex and intractable. The cutters have chosen a form of display that even the great secular hysterics of the 19th century would have found unsubtle, while the starvers defy all the ingenuities of modern medicine; the bulimics borrow the tricks of both, and are perhaps the true heirs of those spider-swallowers. Anorexia itself seems like mad behaviour, but I don’t think it is madness. It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self, fighting free of sexual and emotional entanglements. It says, like Christ, ‘noli me tangere.’ Touch me not and take yourself off. For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time. Most anorexics do recover, after all: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival. In Holy Anorexia, Bell remarks how often, once recovered, notorious starvers became leaders of their communities, serene young mothers superior who were noticeably wise and moderate in setting the rules for their own convents. Such career opportunities are not available these days. I don’t think holy anorexia is very different from secular anorexia. I wish it were. It ought to be possible to live and thrive, without conforming, complying, giving in, but also without imitating a man, even Christ: it should be possible to live without constant falsification. It should be possible for a woman to live – without feeling that she is starving on the doorstep of plenty – as light, remarkable, strong and free. As an evolved fish: in her element, and without scales.

[*] Short Books, 152 pp., £5.99, September 2002, 1 904095 23 2.