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In My Good Books

James Miranda Barry

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published 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 unhappiness?

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.

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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 has notes.

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 16.


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