BOOK REVIEW / Just the juice of a roasted raisin: 'From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls' - Walter Vandereycken & Ron Van Deth, Athlone, 18.95

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IN THE summer of 1773 Marie-Joseph Dahl was working on a farm in the Disonguin region of France when she fell in love. It was pretty hopeless. She was 33 and very poor: he was the boss's son. With one of those casually cruel remarks that scar human history, the farmer promised her his son if she could bring in the harvest alone in three days. Working night and day, she did - but of course the man was only joking. There was to be no marriage for Marie-Joseph, and no hope of happiness.

So the poor woman gave up. For 11 years, she crouched on the ground refusing food, but even then she was thwarted. They insisted on feeding her, and when she wouldn't open her mouth, three teeth were broken off so that watered honey could be poured down her throat.

She was not the first, nor will she be the last, to follow such a desperate path. For hundreds of years people, especially young women, have practised self-starvation, for widely differing motives. It is a strange, potent weapon that has excited veneration as often as consternation - and has sometimes been the only means of protest available. But the sad, privileged anorexics of today who starve themselves for complex reasons to do with self-image are scarcely the descendants of the mystics who fasted in the past.

When Jonah went to warn the people of Nineveh of their imminent destruction, they offered to fast in atonement for their wickedness. Fasting as a means of purifying both soul and body, of stimulating divine compassion and of facilitating intense spiritual reflection has been popular from the earliest times. Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert, and the Christian calendar still stipulates fast days before great feasts. Stories of prodigious fasts have come down to us. The desert fathers were famous for it, though some seem to have been suspiciously competitive. A hermit called Macarius of Alexandria lived on only such food as he could pull from a narrow-mouthed jar, but when he heard of someone living on less, he decided to reduce his own consumption to a few cabbage leaves on Sundays.

In the Middle Ages, fasting saints were revered. There was a problem, though. Showing-off has never been considered noble: good deeds should be done by stealth. Catherine of Siena said that she considered her lack of appetite to be an affliction, not a virtue: she forced herself to eat in public. Besides, there were also plenty of frauds. One apparently holy person lived alone with two bibles and was thought to be very saintly, until one bible proved to be stuffed with food.

But at its best, the quiet voluntary self-denial of fasting was thought to help in the expiation of sin, as the sufferer became identified with the passion of Christ. Even in modern times such phenomena crop up. Alessandra Maria da Costa apparently lived for 13 years until her death in 1955 on no food at all. The Church treats such people with proper scepticism, though they are often revered as popular saints.

The two authors of this book set out to discover whether or not a connection can be made between such people and victims of the current epidemic of anorexia nervosa. They conclude that there is no link, largely because the contemporary anorexic is concerned not to look fat, a notion hardly ever mentioned before the end of the last century. Yet this conclusion is far from proved. Immediately, they except Lord Byron. He seems to have displayed all the obsessive preoccupation with his figure of a modern anorexic as, oddly enough, did J M Barrie. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, too, probably had a touch of anorexia to complicate her tuberculosis.

And then there are all the rest. These two academics have undertaken herculean researches, citing more than 600 sources, to discover examples of people who have refused to eat, from anchorites to suffragettes. There are 'miraculous maidens', like the Derbyshire Demozell who lived for a while on the juice of a roasted raisin in 1667. She charged people to come and marvel at her, and did quite well out of it. There are the decadent 'hunger artists' - mostly men - who sat enclosed in glass cases at the heart of busy restaurants, smoking, but eating nothing. They flourished in the Twenties in Germany: at one time there were six in Berlin alone.

Until quite recently, melancholia, coquetry, green-sickness and demonic possession were all thought to be causes of wilful starvation. Victims were recommended to marry at once or to take a holiday. Other cures included exorcism, blood-letting, distraction, intimidation and 'parentectomy'. It is only in this century that anorexia has been identified as a distinct syndrome. After tossing around several theories, the authors sum up the reason for its appearance as being the result of the emergence of somebody called The New Woman. They become a little distracted themselves at this point, expressing a preference, which they claim to share with all men, for the comfortable maternal figure of The Old Woman.

This is a book full of interest. It is diverting, stimulating and enormously well-informed. It is, however, a crying shame that the Athlone Press couldn't find someone to edit it properly. The book first appeared in 1988 in Dutch: this version sometimes approaches Double Dutch. Obvious howlers such as the mis-spellings of lose and loathe and the misuse of disinterested jostle with uncomfortable neologisms like 'unicity' and 'bodiliness' and 'argumentation'. It is very sad to see such a potentially great work diminished by inattention. It's almost enough to put you off your food.