Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 47 (2016)
My first historical novel - James Miranda Barry (1999) was not born a Neo-Victorian novel, but became one. And it had a very personal link to my own life. Barry was a nineteenth-century colonial doctor and medical reformer, who had a very successful and colourful career in remote parts of the Empire. He spent an important period of his life in Jamaica, then a British colony, during the 1830s, taking care of the army garrison stationed on the island to protect the interests of the Crown and put down the numerous slave revolts. The British maintained a regiment there until the island's independence on 6 August 1962. I come from Jamaica: my father was Jamaican and my mother is English. Our house in the Blue Mountains near Greenwich, where the army barracks was situated, had been built by my father on the foundations of the old colonial barracks constructed by Dr James Barry to acclimatize the troops, so that they did not all die from yellow fever upon their arrival on the island. But I didn’t know that when I began my work on Barry. What interested me was the rumour that leaked out when Barry died in the early 1870s, that he was in fact, a woman. But was he?
No one knows what sex Barry actually was. His recent biographer, Rachel Holmes, argues that he was a hermaphrodite.' We would now perhaps describe him as a transgender individual, but we cannot ever know for certain. Whatever he was, he certainly gave a command performance. So my theme was the dramatic interrogation of gender and identity. I decided to create a character that was neither man nor woman, but drew on both roles, sometimes of necessity and sometimes for his own pleasure. I wanted to create someone who was isolated, secretive, trapped inside his own head, and yet absolutely at liberty to be whoever he chose to be. The impulse behind this re-imagining of Dr James Miranda Barry came from my own unease at the roles being offered to me as a woman.