James Miranda Barry, by Patricia Duncker, 22.09.16
History has few transgender stories of reliable information, with as much myth as there is fact. Might this be due to the influence of religion on the written word before the twentieth century? Historical accounts have little to say about pregnant popes and cross-dressing royalty, not just in relation to their daily lives, but to their ultimate motivations too. In Patricia Duncker's novel about a female-to-male historical figure, we get a great deal of self-confessed artistic license, though even here, what we see of the protagonist's inner-life is minimal. This is a story as much about gender apartheid in the early nineteenth century as it is about an individual's inner-conflict with their gender identity. We get no impression that James Miranda Barry (JMB) is a figure who would rather be male than female. It's a mystery that is left largely unsaid.
What we do get in James Miranda Barry are the historical bare bones available to us, and a series of interesting fictional characters surrounding the protagonist. We get the focus on the Edinburgh-based doctor, JMB, and his relationship with his beautiful mother, his glamorous Hispanic uncle, and the protagonist's closest friend and contemporary, a girl named Alice, whose life runs parallel to his.
The restrictions on women in this nineteenth-century setting are what define the characters in this story, including JMB, and this partly explains the significance of JMB's friendship with the slightly older Alice. Over the course of the story, both biological females make a success of themselves professionally, though at different costs to themselves; when they enter old age, they are wealthy and independent but are also alone, with ambitions of marriage and family having been sacrificed. Meanwhile, we learn of the decisions made by JMB's mother to raise her daughter as a boy; it is she who has prompted this 'joke against the world', not the men of the story who financed the duplicity. The mother's motivation becomes clear at the story's end, her own frustrations laid bare, as a mistress who has to depend on her beauty for a decent life.
So we get JMB at a young age more interested in being interesting than in belonging to any particular gender. The biological sex is inferred, with the gentlest suggestion of hermaphroditism. At 10 years old, JMB is packed off to Edinburgh University to train as a doctor. Later JMB becomes recognized as an outstanding practitioner, who works for important officials out in South Africa.
The construction of gender identities is regularly apparent and often very funny. A youthful JMB is encouraged to smoke cigars and drink port in the attempt to socialize him better. Perhaps the funniest scene involves a duel, in which JMB is challenged by a close acquaintance over a woman's hand in marriage. Such is JMB's formidable reputation as a 'man', in terms of his ability to use dueling pistols, that the opponent and a mentor quickly become horrified at their fate and try desperately to extricate themselves from the commitment. JMB's steadfast commitment to a masculine system of honour allows the opponent no way out, until JMB's gesture of forgiveness in the duel itself. It is as if JMB has learned to play the male game better than any male, and will allow for no compromise or flexibility with it, to the frustration of the adversaries. There is a discernible tragedy to JMB nevertheless. He is terrified of sex and avoids physical intimacy; he sleeps with a pistol at the ready, and his doors are always locked, such is his need for privacy. Through the fear of being found out, he trusts no one except his friend Alice. He is seen as cold and temperamental by everyone, and for the lack of close companionship, he keeps a series of poodles, all passing on the same name after death, in order to provide him with a sense of stability. At the story's end, his feelings about the life that's been constructed for him are ambiguous. It is neither clear that he resents what he became, nor that he appreciates the opportunities it gave him. "I had a public life," he says in one of his final conversations with Alice. "But what else did I have? I had nothing at the end of the day. I didn't have you."
To conclude, this is transgender fiction but more of a social and economic kind. How JMB managed the act is little explored; there is nothing of the battles with menstruation and breast-binding, and we see almost as little of JMB's internal condition as those around him. In this world of gender apartheid, the crushing pressures of survival are what matter most.