A fictionalised account (Duncker explains what's invention and what's fact in an afterword -- for example, shifting birth and death dates for General Francisco di Miranda, who'd 'have liked to see more of the 19th century') of the life of Dr James Miranda Barry (1795-1865), a noted military surgeon for over 40 years, who was found after death to be female.
This is the story of a mask that never slips, from the moment that Mary Ann Barry (sister of the painter James Barry, whose self-portrait I had on my wall for years) concocts a plan to ensure that her fatherless daughter's intelligence and drive aren't wasted on a mundane, feminine life. The child -- I don't think she's ever named -- goes willingly: she's already reluctant to assume the demure behaviour and pretty dresses of a little girl, but dresses up as a soldier for a country-house ball, and is androgynous enough to confuse the gypsyish house-maid, Alice Jones. She idolises her de facto stepfather, the General, who tells her tales of distant lands and strange peoples: he calls her 'soldier' and denies her nothing. Together with David Erskine, a Scottish laird who provides mother and daughter with a summer home, and James Barry himself, the General is responsible for getting the new-made 'James Miranda Barry' into medical school in Edinburgh, where 'he' -- I'll omit the quotes from now on, as JMB henceforth self-identifies as male, without the slightest exception, for decades -- proves to have a stronger stomach and a better brain than most of his classmates.
The novel, in six sections, follows Barry's life from childhood to death: postings in the West Indies (during a slave rebellion), and in the Mediterranean (where there are duels and intrigues: Barry is notorious for a hot temper and a certain belligerence. But he never forgets Alice -- last seen on stage in a Greenwich production of The Siege of Troy, having run away to join the theatre and discovered a fondness for breeches roles -- and they meet again, in London, after a separation of many years.
Each section of the novel presents new perspectives on gender and sexuality, from the bored Miss Charlotte Walden (an example, surely, of Barry's life had she lived as a woman) to the death of Mary Ann; we see Barry through other eyes, and see his own perspective change as he becomes more weary of the world. Again and again the unanswered questions surface: parentage, relationship with mother, relationship with the General, relationship with the old painter ... Most of all, throughout, there's loneliness, coupled with a brisk unpitying self-sufficiency.
However far he is from England, Barry's heart belongs to it: "think of the fresh dew on cow parsley, lacing the hedgerows. Think of purple foxgloves on the woodland floor. Imagine the squirrels racing across your lawns. Breathe the smell of cut grass. Remember the candles of the horse chestnuts, pink and white, gaudy and elegant, swaying above the green, this year's green, the new spring green, folded like napkins high above you. Think of that fine soft rain, delicate as a woman's silk sleeve, touching your face. Remember the late white frosts? Just a faint crust of white amongst the daisies. .. Remember those long summer evenings, of blue shadows and thick gold, that long evening sun you only see in the north..."
"Good lord, Barry, you're a poet, not a doctor! But I could certainly do with a drink."
And later, "one single track, wolfed down by green."
Clear, rich writing, a certain dry humour, and a fascinating protagonist: explorations of sex and gender, the life of a military surgeon (I'd have liked more detail here, but it's not really the focus of the novel) and cross-dressing in the theatre and elsewhere. Compelling and beautifully written.