|James Miranda Barry
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
26 November 2005
When Inspector-General James Miranda Barry
died in 1865, the Irish charwoman who laid out the body exclaimed:
"The devil, a General. It's a woman. And a woman that has
had a child." According to a report made some weeks later
by a staff surgeon involved, "Among other things she said
Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to
know this and that she would not like to be attended by me.
I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry
was a male or a female and that I thought he might be neither,
viz. an imperfectly developed man."
The charwoman, who seemed to be expecting to
be paid for her silence, responded that the body "was a
perfect female and that there were marks of her having had a
child when very young." She was referring to the striae
gravidarum or stretchmarks. She said: "I am a married
woman and a mother of nine children and I ought to know."
The story has been told many times in almost
every literary medium except the epic poem. There was a beautifully-written
play (not the first) by Sebastian Barry, Whistling Psyche,
and a novel by Patricia Duncker; Rachel Weisz is currently making
a film, and Fiona Shaw wants to do an opera (I'm not sure how
this is supposed to work out) on the subject.
Most recent versions must owe a great deal
to what is now a rare book, The Perfect Gentleman by
June Rose. This is a modest, excellent work of 160 pages published
in 1977 by an author interested in medical history. Barry, who
held various postings in the British Empire, was a pioneer of
good nursing and enlightened medical practice, and the story
holds its own on these terms alone. But there are mysteries,
most notably who could ever have predicted that a girl of ten
could have been enrolled in the medical school at Edinburgh
in 1809 and both succeeded as a student (which Barry certainly
did) and kept her secret posing as a male. What would induce
a parent to put a child at such risk, and through such possible
Reading June Rose's book recently, I wondered
whether it was not something to do with the feminism of Mary
Wollstonecraft. Rose mentions the Earl of Buchan in this context.
A friend of the artist James Barry (who seems to have been the
uncle of James Miranda Barry), he was a long-standing supporter
of education for women, and a patron of the young medical student
early in his career. Maybe he, or someone like him, said to
the child: "My dear, you are clever but with no prospects,
as a woman. But as a man you can qualify as a doctor, and strike
a blow for women everywhere."
Another theory is expounded by a more recent
biography, Scanty Particulars (Viking, 2002) by Rachel
Holmes. This takes seriously the contemporary idea that Barry
was a hermaphrodite in some sense. Holmes, who has discussed
the ramifications with the medical profession, suggests that
the equivalent conversation with the child would have gone,
roughly: "My dear, that's a testicle. You are a freak and
you will never be able to marry. We need to do something for
you sooner rather than later."
The case put by Holmes is highly interesting.
However, the other day I nearly fell off my chair while reading
a review of Lyndall Gordon's Mary Wollstonecraft (Little,
Brown), which features a whole chapter on another Irishwoman,
Margaret King, Lady Mount Cashell, who having left her husband
and children, went in 1806, disguised as a man, to attend medical
lectures at the university of Jena.
This strange coincidence is not noted by any
of the three biographers mentioned, but Lyndall Gordon does
give us a clue. Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Vindication of
the Rights of Woman (1792), does indeed argue that women
"might study the art of healing, and be physicians as well
as nurses." And Lady Mount Cashell was certainly interested
in pursuing that ideal.
The childhood circles of James Miranda Barry
had links with those of Wollstonecraft. James Barry, her uncle,
was friends with William Godwin, Mary's husband. General Francisco
di Miranda (from whom Barry derived her middle name) was involved
with Gilbert Imlay, Mary's lover. Wollstonecraft herself was
dead when the project was hatched to send a clever young girl
(perhaps lying about her age, in order to explain her lack appearance
of prepuberty) to study at Edinburgh. But it is surely her inspiration
that we see at work here, in this reckless and exciting experiment.
The child entered Edinburgh medical school, as June Rose reminds
us, 46 years before Sophia Jex-Blake was refused permission
to study in medical classes with men: a young pioneer, indeed.
The Perfect Gentleman, The remarkable life of Dr.
James Miranda Barry, the woman who served as an officer
in the British Army from 1813 to 1859, by June Rose, London,
Hutchinson, 1977. Seemingly published in a small edition,
this book can cost around $100 in the internet.
Scanty Particulars, by Rachel
Holmes, when published by Random House (2002), had a subtitle
that makes it sound a little foolish: The Scandalous Life
and Astonishing Secret of Queen Victoria's Most Eminent
Military Doctor. But it is this edition, rather than the
English one published by Viking in the same year, that
Whistling Psyche by Sebastian
Barry, London, Faber. The author's uncle believed himself
to be of the same family. The play acknowledges a debt
to June Rose.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A New Genus,
by Lyndall Gordon, London, Little Brown, 2005. See Chapter