A Vast Masquerade

Deborah Cohen

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.

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