Writer EJ Levy says the opening lines of “The Cape Doctor” — a book that recently won her the Colorado Book Award for historical fiction — came to her verbatim when she read two lines in a guidebook. It was about a 19th century army surgeon who performed the first successful caesarean section on record in Africa.
“And as I circled around Cape Town, I just felt a little bewitched, really spellbound. And [I] took notes on what I thought Dr. Barry might have thought about the plants, the prison, the hospitals, the castle where the soldiers were housed,” said Levy, an associate professor of English at Colorado State University. “And when I got home, I ordered the only biography I know of Rachel Holmes, which had come out in the United States around 2000, and found that many of my fantasies turned out to be eerily accurate. And so I felt emboldened to follow the spell.
The life of Dr James Miranda Barry, born Margaret Anne Bulkley around 1790, inspired Levy on a trip to Cape Town to write the book. “The Cape Doctor” is based on, or rather inspired by, Barry’s life, but it’s not Barry’s name in the book.
In Levy’s novel, Barry becomes Jonathan Perry; Lord Somerset becomes Lord Somerton. Margaret Anne Bulkley becomes Margaret Ley.
“I wanted to keep Margaret’s name because I think hers is a name that should resonate in history,” Levy said.
In the book, Levy addresses the character’s relationship to his previous life.
“She died. So I could live. Marguerite. I owe her my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. Of her. As not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. She died Then I could live. But isn’t that the lot of women to sacrifice as Our Lord would have done. Of course, little speaks of Mary’s sacrifice; which we must suppose was exceptional. Martyring oneself for the other is the expected fate of mothers and daughters. It’s rarer in sons, except in war. So naturally, given the choice, I chose to be a son, given the choice, who doesn’t wouldn’t?”
The subject of what historical fiction is – and who can make it – is spongy. Levy quotes Boulder-based Megan O’Grady to define historical fiction:
“Historical fiction is born from the belief that it is possible to tell stories about a vanishing past, which relate to the immediate present, forged where the archives end and the author’s imagination begins,” Levy quotes O’Grady. “Historical fiction was born out of a desire to hit the pause button to ‘wake the dead and mend what was broken’.” – Walter Benjamin.”
For “The Cape Doctor,” Levy dove into research to immerse himself in the world of the 1810s and 1820s. The research went beyond facts, Levy said, opting instead for “narrative research — re-reading books by Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, political theorists of the day, to get the tone to try to adjust my language”.
The research gave him a good perspective to delve into the thoughts of his characters.
“When I read the accounts of those who, after Barry died, said ‘Barry was an imperfectly formed man’ or ‘I always knew she was a woman,'” Levy said. “When I read these things, I jotted them down, but at the same time, from them came a response in my character’s voice in my head.”
Levy noted the answer in his book:
“I will be dead in less than a month when the debates start over my body. Supporters, taking sides as if I were a bill in parliament, a horse to bet on… They claim to have studied my case, talking about me as if I were a sick person to be healed, authoritatively declaring owner that I was an imperfectly developed man, a man in a female body. Otherwise, how to explain my success. They discuss my corpse as if it were a question, a riddle. Does it matter? Why can’t we overcome the body? Give him a rest. We are measured by our works in the world for better or for worse, the honor we do survives us and survives us, weighs in the scales of time far more heavily than our bones.
For Levy, writing “The Cape Doctor” raised questions about sex and gender – as well as the labels people apply to others and to themselves, the nature of identity and on the price of ambition.
“All of these things came about naturally, not consciously. I think of the story of this remarkable life, I think [it] speaks forcefully of our times, both in terms of the medical work done by Dr Barry, the attention paid to those on the medical margins, the social margins and how this translates into unfair access to health care,” Levy said. “Barry’s life is as important as Margaret’s…. And I hope the book will draw attention to that life, that truly remarkable life and legacy. This pioneer.
Similar characters such as Anne Lister and Francis L. Clayton might be more familiar to many readers than Barry, but Levy hopes this book can help change the current narrative.
“I think there are a lot of people, feminists, members of the trans community, historians, biographers of all kinds who are starting to pay attention to Margaret Anne Bulkley and James Miranda Barry,” Levy said. “And I hope my novel is an addition to that.”