Review: Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead Of Her Time, Michael du Preez & Jeremy Dronfield

Like Pope Joan, so has faded the life of Dr James Barry.  He achieved huge things with his life, travelled far and wide, was the first person in the British Empire to perform a caesarean which resulted in the survival of both mother and baby and rose to the rank of Inspector General of hospitals.  He fought a duel, he shouted at Florence Nightingale in public, he weathered multiple arrest attempts and official army inquiries.  Yet all his life’s achievements have been forgotten in favour of the secret discovered only upon his death – there was no such person as Dr James Barry.  All his life, he had been in disguise.  The doctor was a woman.  This myth of the impostor female physician has grown huge, all the more because Dr Barry’s corpse also showed clear signs that she had given birth, most likely at a young age.  In A Woman Ahead Of Her Time, Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield finally grant a voice not just to one of the medical pioneers of the Victorian age but also his forgotten earlier self, finally providing hard evidence that before there was James, there was Margaret.

A Woman Ahead Of Her Time takes a novelistic approach, opening in 1865 with the moment of death, with the old gentleman slipping from life with the strange feeling that he had forgotten something.  During previous illnesses, James Barry had left strict instructions that his corpse should be buried without being examined.  This time, he did not.  The momentous discovery is made, the secret kept for over half a century is out and so the question rises – if this woman was not – could not have been – James Barry, who was she?  From there, Dronfield and du Preez skip back to 1790s Cork and one Margaret Bulkley, daughter to a spendthrift grocer.  Trying to track down the life story of someone who went out of their way to obliterate their own history is no easy thing and it is a testament to the decade of research which Michael du Preez undertook that such a compelling case has been put together.

One of the biggest mysteries is surely when James Barry would have become a mother.  Du Preez suggests that it must have been when Margaret was at most fourteen years old, when her parents suddenly welcomed a third child into the family, despite having had none since Margaret and her elder brother.  Eyebrows would have been raised but since the contemporary law stated that the child was the legal offspring of the people who claimed it, young Juliana Bulkley was Margaret’s sister.  At around this time, Margaret’s uncle Redmond Barry was forced out of Cork by Margaret’s parents, an event which, especially given that 90% of child sexual abused happens within the family, is unlikely to be unconnected with Juliana’s birth.  I found myself wondering – was it this horrific trauma that made Margaret decide she did not want to be a woman?  Or did it come later?

Life did not get any easier for Margaret after this – anti-Catholic legislation and her father’s own mismanagement blighted the family’s finances and ultimate split them in two.  Margaret’s mother tried to mount a legal challenge against the way Margaret’s father disposed of family property and ultimately travelled to England to send her daughter on a mercy mission to beg charity from her brother James Barry, now a celebrated artist.  Of course, the old man had become eccentric, bearing the dubious honour of being the only person to ever be kicked out of the Royal Academy.  He did not help.  Matters became worse when Margaret’s father pledged the remaining family money to raise funds to allow her brother to marry an heiress – in effect, Mr Bulkley was betting his last cent on his son coming good for them.  From their reactions, it is clear that Margaret and her mother knew that this was never going to work.  Upon the death of Uncle James Barry, Mrs Bulkley and Margaret gained a small legacy and an introduction into the artist’s circle of progressive friends.  With many of them holding liberal views on female education, new horizons opened up for Margaret.

I imagined Margaret here at a crossroads.  She was finally being educated, albeit with the intention of becoming a governess.  But, as du Preez points out, good governess positions are hard to come by and besides, maybe Margaret wants more than a life as a drudge, living from month to month and never finding security.  Maybe she already disliked the idea of marriage – was she perhaps frightened?  Or worried about having to show herself to a husband who would see the marks of childbearing and want to know her secret?  Had she seen the precarious position of women in society and just decided that she wanted no part of it?  At around this time, Mrs Bulkley received a letter from her son, who had indeed squandered the money given to him and who was now in dire straits having joined the army.  His mother ignored his pleas for aid but Margaret wrote to him bitterly chastising him for wasting the opportunity given him by his gender.  Considering how her life turned out, her words,  ‘Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier’ are full of meaning.

One of Margaret’s uncle’s friends was General Francisco Miranda, who had a long-term wish to liberate Venezuela and who planned to set up a liberated republic with greater opportunities for women.  In later life, Dr James Barry would claim the middle name of Miranda – it does not feel too much of a stretch to suppose that this man was instrumental in helping Margaret take on her new identity.  The writers suggest that the persona of James Barry was initially only a temporary disguise, intended to be discarded in Venezuela, but General Miranda’s plan never did quite come together, perhaps leaving Margaret stranded in James.  However it came to be, Margaret Bulkley suddenly vanished and newly arrived ‘nephew’ James Barry traveled up to study medicine in Edinburgh, with his ‘aunt’ Mrs Bulkley going with him.  Another eccentric, Lord Buchan, acted as patron and young James passed with flying colours at every opportunity – until of course the rumour spread that the reason why he lived with an aunt and had no facial hair was that he was in fact a mere child, possibly as young as twelve.  The university refused to allow a boy to graduate, until Buchan intervened.  Margaret was by now in her twenties, but she would generally have to subtract around a decade from her actual age to explain her apparent youthfulness.  Rather than a woman, James was a child prodigy.

As he got older, since the beard never did quite come in, Dr James Barry would hint at complications in his birth, that his mother had died in childbirth and that he had been very premature – the strange thing is that for someone who passed as a man all his life, he never seems to have been very convincing.  In Edinburgh, young James was known for his habit of always wearing an overcoat, no matter the weather.  Having joined the army and living in Capetown, the local children referred to him in their local language as ‘the kapok maiden’ due to his habit of packing his clothes with that substance.  At one point in his career, he wrote to protest when a ship he was aboard was quarantined and all his personal belongings lost, demanding compensation in particular for several valuable pillows which he needed due to a physical problem.  Maintaining his pretence was a daily battle, particularly given that James Barry was not the type of character to fade into the background.

James seems to have been someone who inspired affection in those who grew close to him – he had a number of wealthy and influential patrons who got him out of the worst of his scrapes and he was well-known for his bedside manner.  His patients were very loyal.  But yet he was also vengeful towards those who crossed him, ready to hold grudges and a stickler for points of protocol even when he knew he was getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble.  While stationed in the Cape, James rose to the rank of Chief Medical Officer and then was dethroned – but then the council convened to replace him found that even as a combined force they could not match his work output.  It is not hard to imagine that Margaret felt that she had a lot to prove, that she had to be twice as good as everyone else.

It is striking too when reading James’ recommendations that he was a curiously forward-thinking physician.  Long before germ theory was an accepted concepts, James was known his insistence on cleanliness.  He seems to have had an understanding of mental health, writing sensitively about a patient incarcerated for drunkenness and later writing – as an objective outsider of course – of the strain on military wives as females in the hyper-male atmosphere of the barracks.  Indeed, as the writers pointed out, when Barry was stationed in Corfu, his clear up rate surpassed that of Florence Nightingale – although she also provided her patients with prayer books.

The encounter  between James Barry and Florence Nightingale was one of a number of set-pieces within the life story of James Barry that would fit in well in a film.  The writers speculate about possible class conflict between the two – Florence Nightingale had got where she was on the basis of her genteel status and turned up her nose at the concept of a salary.  For the perennially cash-strapped Barry, she must have just seemed like someone playing at medicine, sweeping majestically into a field which Barry had had to claw her way into.  Of course, although James was a figure of fun for his squeaky voice and short stature, at least he did still carry the authority of being a man – Florence Nightingale too had had her own battles to fight.  Still, even when she learnt Barry’s secret, Nightingale was not disposed to be sympathetic.

Yet still, although Barry seems to have struggled with his male identity, what comes across consistently is how he was saved by the kindness of others.  A number of people seem to have recognised Margaret within him and yet they all appear to have held their counsel.  An unpleasant libel appeared while Barry was in the Cape, suggesting that the Cape governor Charles Somerset had been seen ‘buggering’ James Barry.  The writers put forward fairly compelling evidence that the two were close, that James loved him and that Somerset probably did know his secret.  Is it beyond the realms of possibility that they had an affair?  Seeking Dr Barry in a patient emergency, a nurse blundered in on him and saw he was a woman – no doubt terrified of discovery, Barry ran the poor woman out of the Cape.  Years later, when Barry was seriously ill with yellow fever, two younger officers came in to check on him and saw him for what he was but Margaret’s tearful pleas prompted them both to promise their silence.  The secret leaked, but it not leak far.

There was a side of James though that just seemed unbearably lonely.  One officer remarked that Dr Barry was unmarried ‘and likely to remain so’.  He traveled with his pets and his loyal servant John, he tried to cut a dash and play the ladykiller, flirting with the best looking women in the room.  In common with a lot of military doctors, he refused to charge his private patients, keeping up long correspondences and even standing godfather to the child he safely delivered via caesarean section.  The tragedy with that relationship is that his clear affection for the child was cut short when the boy wrote that his parents thought James looked a lot like a lady.  More strangely, James maintained a decades-long friendship with Cloete, the man he once fought a duel with, an altercation that ended with Cloete being hit in the forehead (saved by his hat) and James being shot in the thigh (surely close to discovery there!).  James always showed fondness towards small children and in his final years even tried to adopt a child – sacrificing the female identity was no small thing.

Du Preez and Dronfield have done an excellent job of following the money, tracking the letters and tracing the footsteps of all those involved, but yet there are still tantalising gaps.  There is a whole year missing when James was in between assignments and during this period, his mother seems to have managed to get out of the Cork workhouse and back over to England to live with Margaret’s brother, an unusual achievement for someone with no ready funds.  Did James assist here?  Did James perhaps briefly become Margaret once more?  More frustrating gaps come from the shipwreck that took place shortly before James’ death, destroying many of his personal papers.  James also had a black box which he had been very particular about having destroyed after his death, but then the day before he passed away his servant John disappeared for several hours and then a footman in livery appeared to take it away.  Would the contents of this box have uncovered the truth of John’s relationship with Charles Somerset?

Having only ever known the bare outline of Dr Barry’s story (man doctor actually woman: scandal!), I found this biography utterly compelling.  The strange thing is though that Dr Barry’s gender has so little to do with what he achieved in his life.  Having studied the history of medicine at school, it was fascinating to discover what an important role Barry had played in how medicine was being revolutionised over the course of the nineteenth century.  When newspapers broke the story about Dr Barry being a woman, the general consensus was that he could not have been a good doctor.  Men airily observed that standards when Barry qualified were not as good, that the woman must have bluffed her way through.  This is demonstrably not the case – James Barry consistently put other medical professionals to shame throughout his career.  He was exceptional.  But yet, I could not help but think of all he had to sacrifice to get there.  Margaret could have lived her life as a governess, perhaps headed home to Cork and set up with her daughter as a dressmaker, but the world as a whole would have been the poorer for it.  But yet there are so very many other women who retained their female identity, retained their sense of self, but the price was their ambition.  It makes it clear how female oppression damages the society structure it claims to protect.

A Woman Ahead Of Her Time reads like a novel – the team of Dronfield and du Preez has put together a biographical masterpiece.  With short, action-packed chapters full of incident and interest, the life of James Barry is an absolute page-turner.  Still, I cannot see James as a trans-icon – Margaret lived her life as James but yet there are too many signs of her beating at the bars of her male persona and longing for release.  Even at the end of her life, when a friend took James Barry’s travelling trunk after he had died, he was puzzled to see that the lid had been plastered with pictures taken from ladies’ fashion magazines.  Such poignance – the man who was second-highest medical officer in the British army, who once earned the personal thanks of the Duke of Wellington himself, he was silently homesick for his feminine identity.  There are few historical figures for whom I have so sincerely wished for peace and eternal rest as I have for James Barry and Margaret Bulkley.  May they now in death be united as one, as they never could be in life.


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone
(Visited 271 times, 1 visits today)
Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez, Jeremy Dronfield
Published by Oneworld on August 25th 2016
Pages: 496

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.