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A hidden life

James Miranda Barry - Patricia Duncker

A fictionalised account of the life of Dr James Miranda Barry, who is thought to have been a woman - it's certainly told that way here, though the historical note sensitively draws no conclusions about the gender of someone who cannot speak for themselves. Duncker imagines circumstances which might have allowed the boyish daughter of a woman disillusioned by her own wifely life experience to have been given independence and a breadth of opportunity only by living as a man; a harsh critique of the patriarchy of the times in itself. Duncker draws an enchanting character and weaves a tale richly ornamented with exotic locations and noble struggles. 

The counterpoint to Barry is another kind of rebel; one of social class. Alice Jones, the scullery maid who makes good, is only able to do so by her courage, intelligence and unscrupulous enterprise, and with the rudimentary education she demands from Barry. I could not like Alice and felt that her 'vulgarity' was caricatured unnecessarily, but on reflection her character, entirely conceived by Duncker with no historical precedent, completes the radical subtext that makes this beautifully told tale so significant.