One of the books that shaped my outlook and the person I eventually became was Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugnam. A lot of people list that book as one of those that shaped them, but I have yet to meet a person who was affected by it in the same way I was, and by the same minor character. Indeed, many people don’t even remember the character Fanny Price. But she is the character I remember best…
Then one morning when he was going out, the concierge called out to him that there was a letter. Nobody wrote to him but his Aunt Louisa and sometimes Hayward, and this was a handwriting he did not know. The letter was as follows:
Please come at once when you get this. I couldn’t put up with it any more. Please come yourself. I can’t bear the thought that anyone else should touch me. I want you to have everything.
I have not had anything to eat for three days.
Philip felt on a sudden sick with fear. He hurried to the house in which she lived. He was astonished that she was in Paris at all. He had not seen her for months and imagined she had long since returned to England. When he arrived he asked the concierge whether she was in.
“Yes, I’ve not seen her go out for two days.”
Philip ran upstairs and knocked at the door. There was no reply. He called her name. The door was locked, and on bending down he found the key was in the lock…
“Oh, my God, I hope she hasn’t done something awful,” he cried aloud.
He ran down and told the porter that she was certainly in the room. He had had a letter from her and feared a terrible accident. He suggested breaking open the door. The porter, who had been sullen and disinclined to listen, became alarmed; he could not take the responsibility of breaking into the room; they must go for the commissaire de police. They walked together to the bureau, and then they fetched a locksmith. Philip found that Miss Price had not paid the last quarter’s rent: on New Year’s Day she had not given the concierge the present which old-established custom led him to regard as a right. The four of them went upstairs, and they knocked again at the door. There was no reply. The locksmith set to work, and at last they entered the room. Philip gave a cry and instinctively covered his eyes with his hands. The wretched woman was hanging with a rope round her neck, which she had tied to a hook in the ceiling fixed by some previous tenant to hold up the curtains of the bed. She had moved her own little bed out of the way and had stood on a chair, which had been kicked away. it was lying on its side on the floor. They cut her down. The body was quite cold…
…The story which Philip made out in one way and another was terrible. One of the grievances of the women-students was that Fanny Price would never share their gay meals in restaurants, and the reason was obvious: she had been oppressed by dire poverty. He remembered the luncheon they had eaten together when first he came to Paris and the ghoulish appetite which had disgusted him: he realised now that she ate in that manner because she was ravenous. The concierge told him what her food had consisted of. A bottle of milk was left for her every day and she brought in her own loaf of bread; she ate half the loaf and drank half the milk at mid-day when she came back from the school, and consumed the rest in the evening. It was the same day after day. Philip thought with anguish of what she must have endured. She had never given anyone to understand that she was poorer than the rest, but it was clear that her money had been coming to an end, and at last she could not afford to come any more to the studio. The little room was almost bare of furniture, and there were no other clothes than the shabby brown dress she had always worn. Philip searched among her things for the address of some friend with whom he could communicate. He found a piece of paper on which his own name was written a score of times. It gave him a peculiar shock. He supposed it was true that she had loved him; he thought of the emaciated body, in the brown dress, hanging from the nail in the ceiling; and he shuddered. But if she had cared for him why did she not let him help her? He would so gladly have done all he could. He felt remorseful because he had refused to see that she looked upon him with any particular feeling, and now these words in her letter were infinitely pathetic: I can’t bear the thought that anyone else should touch me. She had died of starvation.
That scene from that book haunted me when I read it the first time at about 13 or 14, and it never stopped haunting me. Because Somerset Maugham painted that image in my young mind all those years ago, I have never stopped living by the dictum “feed the hungry.” So far as I am concerned, that is a commandment that must not be broken.
Hunger is not a motivator. Hunger is a scourge. A scourge for which there is no excuse in this country. When I read in today’s New York Times, while reaching for a second Biscotti, that hunger in the United States is at the highest point it has been since the Department of Agriculture started indexing the food security of Americans in 1995, according to a report released today.
The number of Americans who lacked reliable access to sufficient food shot up last year to its highest point since the government began surveying in 1995, the Agriculture Department reported on Monday.
In its annual report on hunger, the department said that 17 million American households, or 14.6 percent of the total, “had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year.” That was an increase from 13 million households, or 11.1 percent, the previous year.
The results provided a more human sense of the costs of a recession that has officially ended but continues to take a daily toll on households; it describes the plight not of a faceless General Motors or A.I.G. but of families with too little food on their children’s plates.
Indeed, while children are usually shielded from the worst effects of deprivation, many more were affected last year than the year before. The number of households in which both adults and children experienced “very low food security” rose by more than half, to 506,000 in 2008 from 323,000 in 2007, according to the report.
Overall, one-third of all the families that are affected by hunger, or 6.7 million households, were classified as having very low food security, meaning that members of the household had too little to eat or saw their eating habits disrupted during 2008. That was 2 million households more than in 2007.
There is something deeply, fundamentally wrong when so many people in this, the richest nation in the world, have so little security in the knowledge of where their next meal is coming from.
Crossposted from They Gave Us a Republic