A novel inspired by the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry follows a penniless Irish girl who adopts the identity of a boy in order to enter medical school, and embracing the freedom of living life as a man, becomes one of the most well-respected physicians in nineteenth-century Cape Town.
Though it's a compelling story of one particular transformation, this wise, emotionally resonant novel makes an intelligent, heartfelt plea for compassion as it sifts through the wrongheaded assumptions we make about identity ... What's most striking about the novel is Levy's fearless depiction of Margaret/Jonathan, her authentic rendering of this voice, her fleshing out of a little-known historical character full of complications ... ultimately a love story, but not only in the traditional sense. It's about loving the freedom to be your real self.
The Cape Doctor is based on the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry, born Margaret Anne Bulkley in 1795 in Cork, Ireland. A prominent physician and surgeon who performed the first successful cesarian operation, Barry was discovered to be a woman only after he died. He had left instructions that he was not to be undressed before burial, but the order was ignored. Some claimed the body showed Barry had had a child. Not much is known about Barry, which is just as well, because that allows author E.J. Levy, a Colorado State University professor, the freedom to create an irrepressible character in Perry ... The story is a good one, but it is the exquisite writing and the portrayal of women in the first half of the 19th century that make The Cape Doctor such an intriguing book.
The real James Barry’s ruse was discovered only during a deathbed post-mortem, and debates about the choices that ruse involved are still being waged. How should Barry be considered? Trans? Male? Female? Levy opts for the last, adopting that perspective so her narrator can explore — sometimes painfully, sometimes wittily, always persuasively — the differences between a woman’s experience of Georgian and Victorian society and the masculine freedom to be found when those social constrictions are eased.