From a promising British writer (Monsieur Shoushana’s Lemon Trees, 1998), a fictional interpretation of the life of Dr.
James Miranda Barry, a medical doctor—who was actually a woman’serving with the British Army in the early 1800s.
Duncker has an eye for period detail, and memorably re-creates the settings of real-life James’s strange and lonely existence.
Born in 1799, James was the only child of a beautiful Irish widow, Mary Ann Bulkeley, who often posed for her famous painter
brother James Barry. She was also the mistress of Venezuelan General Francisco Miranda, living in exile in England. James, who
from a young age was dressed by her mother in boy's clothes, was less certain of her paternity: Her father could have been her
uncle, the general, or David Erskine, a noble lover of Mary Ann’s. Spending summers on Erskine's estates, James meets and falls
forever in love with scullery maid Alice Jones, an ambitious young woman whom she taught to read. At ten, James’s three
putative fathers, at her mother's request’she felt her daughter could have a fuller life as a man—tell James that she’ll study
medicine but as a man. This she does. Later, she joins the British Army and serves in South Africa, the Mediterranean, where
she faces a cholera epidemic, and Jamaica, where she witnesses a slave revolt. Though respected for her enlightened ideas and
effective remedies, she is not, of course, what "he" appears to be—which leads to a young woman falling in love with James,
as well as to a plethora of rumors about his gender. Retired, James lives with Alice Jones, now a famous actress, who tries to
console her for her sense of never having had a real identity, by observing that we're all actors making up the lines and the plot
as we go on.
More an abstract exploration of gender and disguise than a perceptive take on a historical figure. Which is disappointing,
because Duncker promises so much more.