Changing Sex in Victorian England November 22, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Disaster in the Beachcombing household tonight. Little Miss B – at least that is who Beachcombing is blaming – left on the car reading light, allowing the battery to run down. The family is thus stranded in the middle of the Italian countryside in monsoon weather wondering whether a car that doesn’t start will serve as a way out of their various work engagements tomorrow. Beachcombing has already decided to get up at 5.00 and do something heroic with the public transport system. Leaky buses, damp seats and a driver who thinks he’s riding a stallion…
Now the mystery of James Barry that has been cracking away at Beachcombing’s skull like a woodpecker.
Let Beachcombing start at the beginning.
James Barry (obit 1865) was one of Victorian England’s finest surgeons. He graduated at Edinburgh in 1812 and then worked his way through the ranks of honour being bumped up and down by a quixotic combination of brilliance and temper. He travelled to all corners of the Empire including Canada and the Mediterranean, fought at least two duels and – surely his greatest achievement – shouted the loathsome Florence Nightingale down when they met in the Crimea. Barry sensibly stayed on horseback as he harangued the nasty old shrew.
An interesting life, certainly, but where is the mystery? Well, quite simply this manly, energetic individual was a woman.
The news leaked out when Barry was being prepared for burial and the British newspapers went wild with it.
Here was, after all, a news story that ticked all the boxes. There was the apparent contradiction that a woman could perform – against all the orthodoxies of the time – the role of a doctor to the point of excellence. There was the frisson of sexual and illicit excitement so dear to the Victorians – a bit of ‘tickle my knee’. And there was perhaps too the vicarious affection for someone – from whatever gender or background – who had managed to get one over on ‘the nobs’.
Rachel Holmes in her biography of James Barry – Scanty Particulars – describe Barry as an ‘unsung hero’ for his defence of the weak – women, slaves, soldier grunts etc – sensibly stressing this over the question of his disputed sex.
Beachcombing is usually suspicious when the words ‘unsung hero’ are employed not least because they are typically a sign that later ages find in said ‘hero’ the virtues of their own age often against those of the past. However, there is the combination of the gruff and the decent in all our descriptions of Barry that make him attractive. In practical terms this meant a fiery character – perhaps made to seem worse by a shrill voice – mixed with an excellent bedside manner and an extraordinary dedication to the sick of all classes.
Beachcombing would certainly have given his bottom sovereign to have Barry as his md and Beachcombing hates doctors.
Holmes makes a strong case that James Barry was not, in fact, a man or woman. Brought up as Margaret Bulkley in Ireland, Barry likely had an intersex condition: testicular feminization syndrome is often mentioned in the literature in relation to him.
Today, of course, the tiny intersexual percentage of the population are given one gender by their parents – often tentatively – and are then encouraged to choose a possibly definite gender at the end of their teenage years, in part, on the basis of hormonal and physical changes.
What is remarkable about Barry is that, in an age when gender was firmly set in infancy – he rebelled against the role that had been chosen for him and became a man, opening up vistas that nineteenth-century women could not even dream of. All the signs are that the change over was sudden, planned and plotted for and that interestingly his mother aided and abbetted him.
In other nineteenth-century cases, intersexuals tended to retreat into the gender they had grown up with: the only other example of a changeover known to Beachcombing was Gottlieb Göttlich (obit 1863) – born Marie Rosine Göttlich – who turned himself into a circus freak (for doctors) and lived off the proceeds.
Talk about a room of his/her own: Beachcombing can’t help but thinking that Virginia Woolf should have done research on JB instead of wasting her afternoons on Orlando.
The picture above is an afterthought: Barry, naturally – his Irish face quite striking.
Beachcombing was wondering idly whether other men and women have hidden their gender for decades at a time or whether intersex individuals made dramatic changes in pre-modern times: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. There must be examples – escaping princes in skirts and male terrorists in hibabs don’t count – but the only one that came to Beachcombing’s mind was the fairy tale of the transsexual Irish abbot visited not so long ago on this blog.
Back to the car – it seems a neighbour may have some charging wires…
Dec 1, 2010: On women who hid their identity as men Paul R. put Beachcombing onto the story of Frank Woodhull ‘found out’ by American customs, while Steve W. introduced Beachcombing to Billy Tipton, jazz musician, whose children only learnt her true sex while she lay dying! Immense thanks to Frank and Steve
Nov 23 2013: not the same thing but some historical transvestites that we’ll visit sooner or later from Lucifer’s own:I would like to mention one overlooked historical transvestie…crossdresser edward hyde 1st govenor of new jersey 3rd earl of claredon and his antics which are 100% documented and hillarious as well his potrait as well does its uttmost to dispel any attempts absolve him let alone a alibi as well as kin to the 2nd earl of rodchester …possible relation to our libertine 3rd earl of rodchester? and his infamous shennaigans second to none even to the marquis de sade….shurely no one will let this infamous transvestite pass into history without a blog post! There’s one more i forgot to mention the chivalier d’eon the cross dressing spy who managed to out livethe french revolution … Thanks Lucifer!
14 mar 2015: Chris S writes in ‘After reading Changing Sex in Victorian England, I did a cursory Google search for some character who was a man pretending to be a woman in Middlesex, England twixt the (IIRC) 16th and 18th centuries. Searches only returned “women who pretended to be men to fight as soldiers”. A sign of our times? Ignoring those, I did find one character without a military background. Marinus, a.k.a. Marina the Monk. Her father disguised her as a boy, and both entered a monastery. While staying at an inn, an innkeeper’s daughter lusted after Marinus who wasn’t interested. The daughter claims Marinus knocked her up, he refused to prove her innocence lest he jeopardize his monastic lifestyle. Sadly, Marinus was kicked out of the monastery, forced to adopt the child, (what?) and living in poverty as a single parent ’til his/her death. No one was the wiser ’til Marinus’s death. On the bright side, she was granted sainthood. Further back in time are the gallae, priests who severed their genitals in ecstatic states, dressing and acting as women for Cybele.’ Thanks Chris!