The Cape Doctor (review)

Note: This review originally appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, January-February 2022


Inspired by the real life story of Dr. James Miranda Barry – a doctor who, after living his adult life as a man, was discovered after death to have actually been a woman – this historical novel tells a wildly improbable tale. Yet, before one assumes this is territory previously covered in movies like Yentl, rest assured that The Cape Doctor (which also would make a great film) tells a surprisingly rich and convincing story.


Born circa 1795 in Cork, Ireland and into a world in which “wit is rarely mistaken for virtue in a girl,” young Margaret and her mother try to navigate the twin misfortunes of not being able to inherit, as well as the view that education for women was typically seen as unnecessary beyond a certain point. Yet, when her uncle’s friend takes note of her unusual intelligence and curiosity, a ruse is concocted for her to impersonate a missing nephew and attend medical school in Edinburgh to become a doctor.


Author E. J. Levy, who holds a history degree from Yale, is especially good at detailing the particulars associated with that world and period. Mostly, this research is illuminating, as when the narrator explains that Barry could not have attended Oxford or Cambridge nor held public office because the Test Act barred Catholics. Occasionally, however, it runs the risk of seeming showy or gratuitous, as when the narrator rushes to inform us that a certain event had never before happened, and wouldn’t happen again for more than 200 years. Such flashes forward (of which the author is a bit too fond, especially early in the novel) have a tendency to take us out of the narrative and flatten the reality of the main character, reducing her to the status of a stick figure in a historical narrative, rather than a living, breathing human being.

The Cape Doctor overall, though, is far from flat or pedantic, and is, in fact, compelling and even provocative. The little details Margaret mentions as characteristics of maleness, for instance – that very condition she is striving so hard to mimic – are sharply observed, and have the ring of truth. Men’s greatest liberty, Margaret notes, is “not to have to please.” In arguments and debate, they use their words “like cards thrown down in whist.” They settle into their bodies “as one might into a comfortable chair.” In taking on her new, male role, Margaret (now Jonathan) “walked as if the world were my inheritance, as if I were a fortunate son.”


While one might perceive this as a subtle form of male-bashing, Levy’s intent is larger, as when she has the nascent Jonathan speculate: “When we look at a man or a woman, what is it that we see? We make too much of the difference: having been both, I can say the distinctions are both greater and less than they appear.”


This is not to say that Margaret’s decision to become Jonathan comes without cost. Even early on, Margaret realizes that, though the life of a man seems largely free, hers will be more than usually constrained, especially in the affairs of the heart. Indeed, when Jonathan, now a doctor in South Africa, falls in love with Lord Somerton, the Cape Governor, their affair risks them being accused of homosexual relations -- at that time a capital offence. Sadly, Jonathan realizes he cannot risk it – that “For me, the heart would be just another organ.”


All of which begs the question: for someone whose entire life necessitates continuous hiding and subterfuge, is it worth it? As Levy imagines it, Margaret/Jonathan simply has no choice: if they are to live the life they desire, the path Jonathan chooses is the only one available. And, when one considers that Barry apparently performed the first successful Caesarean section in Africa and discovered a cure for syphilis, the evidence seems fairly compelling. Ultimately, then, The Cape Doctor entertainingly and convincingly shows that “a life can be forged by will, that we can invent ourselves and our histories and shape history itself to our vision.”

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