Dr James Barry: A Woman ahead of Her Time 
by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield.
Oneworld, 479 pp., £16.99, August 2016, 978 1 78074 831 3
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In the category​ of premeditated deceit, imposture is for the real gamblers because it demands the broadest array of accomplices or dupes. If you’re pretending to be someone else, you can’t just fool your spouse or your child or your creditors. You have either to fool all of the people all of the time, or persuade them to collude with you. Bram Stoker, who made a literary career out of the intersection of the far-fetched and the eerily credible, thought that impostors exposed the true magnitude of the public’s gullibility. Stoker’s Famous Impostors (1910) included chapters on royal pretenders, pages of wild speculation that Queen Elizabeth I was in fact a boy from the town of Bisley, and a chapter on women who masqueraded as men, including a subset whom Stoker deemed the most implausible impostors of all: women who masqueraded as military men.

The tyrannical army surgeon Dr James Barry – prone to picking quarrels and partial to red-heeled, thigh-high boots paired with an outsized dress sword – doesn’t figure in Stoker’s parade. It’s a strange omission – Barry’s story was well known to Edwardians – but Stoker had plenty of other cross-dressing buccaneers to consider, including Hannah Snell, who enlisted in a regiment of marines as James Gray and survived the sieges of Pondicherry and Devicotta undetected before outing herself to the public in 1750. Still, Barry’s was as spectacular a tale of imposture as any novelist of sensation could have dreamed up. It was a case that fascinated the eminent physician Sir William Osler, who compiled his own dossier on Barry, as well as the sexologist Havelock Ellis, who included Barry in his roster of distinguished instances of transvestism. Barry served the British army as a surgeon for 45 years, rising to the position of inspector general of hospitals, the medical man’s equivalent to brigadier general. Only after his death in 1865 was the secret Barry had concealed under his dandified outfits finally revealed. Not only was Dr James Barry a woman but he had given birth to a child.

Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield’s Dr James Barry: A Woman ahead of Her Time is the product of exhaustive archival labours. Du Preez, a retired surgeon who has been on Barry’s trail for more than a decade, and Dronfield, a biographer and novelist, offer a comprehensive account of Barry’s childhood and fill in much else about the surgeon’s career. They attempt to answer the seemingly unanswerable questions the case raises. Why did the young woman who became Dr Barry attempt to pass as a man? How did she do it? And, no less important, who else knew about the fraud?

James Barry arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland in 1809, accompanied by a middle-aged woman, Mary Anne Bulkley, whom he introduced as his aunt. Slight, with reddish blond hair, Barry dressed in a surtout, a sort of overcoat, which he never took off, not even in hot weather. At the University School of Anatomy, where he enrolled on a three-year course, he studied obstetrics and dissection with avidity, kept to himself, and wrote a thesis on a type of hernia that afflicted women. Given how many people came forward after Barry’s death to voice the suspicions they’d always had about him, it’s a testament to the obliviousness of doctors and medical students that, at this stage, no one guessed he was female. What they did notice was that Barry was a prodigy, possibly too young to sit his final exams.

Taken for a youth of 12 or 13, Barry was in fact a woman of 23. Born Margaret Bulkley in 1789 or thereabouts, she had apparently borne a child at an early age, a girl raised by her parents as their own. How Margaret got pregnant is another mystery. What is certain is that she and her mother appeared in London in 1806 to claim a share of the estate of James Barry, a once famous painter and Royal Academician. Barry was an eccentric, seen ‘in his worst (that is to say, his maddest) days’, according to Robert Southey, in a dirt and paint-encrusted green baize coat with a tired old wig. But a bequest was the best hope for the two women, whose other male relatives had proven unreliable. Margaret’s brother, John, apprenticed to a Dublin lawyer, had already squandered the family property.

Du Preez and Dronfield interpret the motivation behind Bulkley’s decision to take on the persona of James Barry much as Stoker would have. Writing of Hannah Snell and her ilk, Stoker saw such imposture as a product of thwarted ambition: this was the avenue open to a woman who wanted to make something of herself. Du Preez and Dronfield argue that posing as a man allowed Bulkley the education she wanted. They give much of the credit for devising the scheme to two friends of Uncle James: a doctor called Edward Fryer, and the Venezuelan revolutionary General Don Francisco de Miranda, who as a veteran of the American and French revolutions, as well as the Spanish-American wars of independence, certainly possessed the derring-do to hatch such a plot. They speculate that the original plan was for her to disguise herself only during her training, then to travel to a newly liberated Venezuela under the rule of Miranda, where she could practise medicine as a woman. A deception intended to be temporary became permanent after Miranda was imprisoned in a Spanish jail and died there. She was now stuck: she had to continue as James Barry, or abandon her plan to work as a doctor.

Given the audacity and steeliness Bulkley demonstrated in her long impersonation, it’s equally plausible that the idea of disguising herself as a man was her own and that it was her decision to join the army. As Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol demonstrated in The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (1989), women like her could call on precedents recounted in books such as The Female Soldier (about Snell) or the 1804 memoirs of Mary Ann Talbot, who claimed to have served in the navy during the French revolutionary wars. Among Bulkley’s few surviving letters is one to her wastrel brother John, written as he was shipping out with a penal regiment bound for the West Indies. She chided him for his faint-heartedness. It was an honour to die for his country, she reminded him: ‘Was I not a girl I would be a Soldier!’ If the idea of becoming a man was indeed her own, the fact that Barry enlisted as an army surgeon in 1813 was evidence not of a plan gone awry but of a plan well executed.

For James Barry, as for other ambitious outsiders, the empire was a place to make a name. As he moved up through the ranks, Barry’s resolve, his skill as a doctor and his daunting industry, combined with his sympathy for the underdog, yielded far-reaching reforms. Stationed in the Cape Colony, he campaigned doggedly to improve the care of lepers and to reform conditions in the stinking Tronk prison. In the West Indies, he implemented a successful immunisation programme for native troops against smallpox and tuberculosis, and in Canada he advocated separate accommodation for married couples to protect soldiers’ wives from the degrading conditions of the barracks. (And, perhaps sensing an adversary of his own sort, in the Crimea he tangled with Florence Nightingale, scolding her in front of a crowd of onlookers for going outside without a cap.)

In the far reaches of empire, people like Barry could hide in plain sight. But imperial outposts, where the European population was small and rumours rife, were also places where secrets could come undone. Defying exposure, Barry constantly called attention to himself. He was a flirt and a ladies’ man, who always directed his attention, a contemporary noted, to ‘the best-looking woman in the room’. His appearance was eccentric, even by the flamboyant standards of the dandy. In addition to the high boots and dress sword, Barry favoured tight breeches, satin waistcoats and a bright red wig. Trailed by an animal entourage that included a parrot and a monkey he picked up on his travels, he always had a dog by his side, always named Psyche.

Barry’s career came closest to unravelling as a consequence of his friendship with Lord Charles Somerset, governor of the Cape Colony. A handsome roué in his late forties, Somerset took the young Barry under his wing soon after he arrived in Cape Town. After Barry cured Somerset’s daughter, the governor appointed him physician to his household, installed him in a grace-and-favour residence at Government House, and took him on official trips around the colony. On the morning of 1 June 1824 a placard was found tacked up on the side of a bridge on Cape Town’s main street accusing Somerset of ‘buggering Dr Barry’, adding that the governor’s new young wife ‘had her suspicions, or saw something that led her to suspicion, which had caused a general quarrel’.

Like Barry’s previous biographers, du Preez and Dronfield suspect there was an amorous liaison between the governor and Barry. The charges against Barry and Somerset would eventually become enmeshed in an official inquiry in Parliament into the governance of the Cape Colony. Somerset was cleared and the placard declared a libel, but in the meantime, he and his wife made ritualistic public appearances with Dr Barry and the governor began to distance himself from the doctor. When Barry caused another ruckus by antagonising the official responsible for law enforcement in the Cape Colony, Somerset declined to protect his protégé. Barry was dismissed as colonial medical inspector, relieved of his grace-and-favour residence, and returned to his original job as an assistant surgeon. It was at this moment of disgrace that Barry redeemed his fortunes by performing the first recorded successful Caesarean section in Africa.

For a man presumably eager to avoid detection, Barry remained a gambler. For the rest of his career, he tangled with his superiors and seemed to relish inconvenient truth-telling. Casting in his lot with the British Empire had given him a chance to cut his ties in Britain, but also exposed him to constant peril. It would not be easy, for example, to conceal one’s body in the close confines of a ship or regimental barracks. Even with his clothes on, Barry wasn’t a very plausible man. Unlike Mary Diana Dods, the friend of Mary Shelley’s who in the 1820s managed to pass convincingly in Paris as Walter Sholto Douglas, Barry – barely five feet tall with a squeaky voice, small features and a notable absence of whiskers – strained credulity. As in the case of the Chevalier d’Eon, the 18th-century French diplomat and cross-dresser, Barry’s disguise was notable chiefly for its superficial nature. According to one female patient, his ‘beautiful small white hands were the envy of many a lady’. His insistence that his body not be examined after his death confirmed the impression that he had something to hide.

It requires an ‘overlarge draft on human credulity’, Stoker wrote, to imagine that cross-dressing women in the military went undetected: ‘Human nature is opposed to such a supposition, and experience bears out the shrewdness of nature.’ Most of the depictions of Barry are retrospective, written after his death, when the truth was out. (A rare contemporary impression by the French diplomat Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases describes a ‘boy of 18, with the form, the manners and the voice of a woman’.) The surgeon Edward Bradford who met Barry years later in Jamaica recalled that ‘his appearance and manners were then most singular. He was quite destitute of all the character of manhood. His voice was that of an aged woman.’ At a dinner party in Vienna in 1853, the hostess commented on his ‘ludicrous appearance’: ‘His manner was that of a mincing old maid!’

A number of people discovered his secret – and kept it. Among them were a nurse (whom Barry hounded out of the Cape), two young officers who pulled back the bedsheets when he was ill with malaria, and a laundress who spied on him through a crack in a St Helena bath-house wall. According to an officer who encountered Barry in Trinidad, ‘the impression and general belief were that he was a hermaphrodite, and as such he escaped much comment or observation in places where every one was used to him.’ Dubious himself of the existence of a ‘true human hermaphrodite’, the officer took Barry (whom he befriended) for a woman of sixty.

What is remarkable, in other words, is not that Barry escaped detection, but that so few people seem to have cared enough to try to expose him. At least some of his comrades believed he was either a hermaphrodite, which at the time would have meant a person with ambiguous genitalia or same sex desires, or a cross-dressing woman – and that this was none of their business. The Cape Town fracas was the only time that Barry’s sexuality came to the fore as scandal.

As an 18th-century story, James Barry’s wouldn’t be all that surprising. In an age of near constant warfare, the phenomenon of women dressing as men to join the army or navy was far from unknown: scholars have identified a host of such cases in the British Empire. The Georgians felt delight and sometimes appalled fascination at what the historian Dror Wahrman has called the ‘protean mutability of identity’. If, as Fielding claimed in 1743, society was ‘a vast Masquerade, where the greatest Part appear disguised’, a stunt such as Barry’s wouldn’t appear particularly subversive. The cross-dressing Charlotte Charke (1713-60) reported in her memoirs that few people outside her own family were bothered by her male persona: one bailiff even helped her to improve her disguise by giving her his hat.

But Barry perpetrated his deception in the 19th century after masquerade had plummeted from favour, and transvestite soldiers were viewed as a thing of the past. Victorians ferreted out evidence of illegitimacy and devoted a lot of ink to the God-given differences between men and women. Perhaps Barry’s contemporaries viewed his fraud as a victimless crime. Is it a wonder that James Barry got away with it? Maybe not. The little doctor, it seems, had a society full of conspirators.

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