Dr. James Miranda Barry was born in 1789 in Cork, Ireland.
Dr. James Miranda Barry was born female, and named Margaret. But Margaret was tutored by family friends and she had shown to have a brilliant mind. But what can a woman in 18th Century Ireland do? To pursue an education, Margaret begins to change her identity to become James. She attends Edinburgh University (forbidden to women) to earn a medical degree. Although she has practiced how to walk, stand, and talk as a male, and she binds her chest, she still gets some unwanted attention from others because her small frame. Despite her intellect, her teachers, and later those she works with, think s/he is too young to be as accomplished as s/he is.
Despite her small frame and the secret she hides, Dr. Barry is not one to back down from an argument or from attempting to right wrongs. Her biggest concern is the (lack of) treatment and medical care for slaves. She gets a station as physician in Cape Town where she is befriended by the governor.
Dr. Barry and the governor (who learns her true identity) become romantically involved, but despite their best attempts to keep it a secret, rumors begin to fly, and those rumors are of a homosexual relationship. Their lives get even more complicated when Dr. Barry is pregnant and must make some difficult decisions.
This is the second historical fiction novel of a woman doctor having to hide her identity or skills that I’ve read in the past few months. The similarities are obvious – strong, smart women who are driven to study and practice medicine but must hide either their skills or their identity to succeed.
But what is different with The Cape Doctor is that Dr. Barry constantly flirts with danger by her aggressive personality. Rather than blending in and quietly working away in the background, Dr. Barry challenges and pushes the men in power.
She is not genteel and I must admit to a male reader bias – I was looking for ‘signs’ of feminine behavior (personality – not biology). I did not find her ‘likeable’ and I frankly don’t know if it’s because she didn’t conform to an expectation, or if she was just not a likeable person.
But while I didn’t care for the character of Dr. Barry, I did find the journey fascinating and engaging, and that this is based on an actual person and events is both sad (that women have been [and still are] treated this way, and empowering that some have been determined enough to find ways to work with their skills and knowledge despite the obstacles in their path.
Looking for a good book? The Cape Doctor by E.J. Levy is a historical fiction novel based on true events of a woman who becomes a doctor in the late 18th/early 19th century. It is very well written and provides an intriguing story, though we never feel as though we get ‘close’ to the protagonist.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Cape Doctor
author: E.J. Levy
publisher: Little, Brown and Company
hardcover, 352 pages