Regional book review: “The Cape Doctor” historical fiction at its best

“The Cape Doctor” by E.J. Levy (Little, Brown and Co.)

The Cape Doctor by E.J. Levy (Little, Brown and Co.)

“She died so I might live,” begins the strange tale of Dr. Jonathan Perry.

No, this is not about a woman dying in childbirth. Instead, it is the story of Margaret Brackley, who in 1809, at age 14, dons the clothes and persona of young Jonathan Perry in order to attend medical school.  And she lives the rest of her life as a male.

With the approval and support of her wealthy benefactor, Perry is accepted into the University of Edinburgh medical school, which, of course, was closed to women. Had she been discovered, she would have been thrown out.  In fact, later, as a military doctor, she could have been hanged for impersonating a man.

“The Cape Doctor” is based on the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry, born Margaret Anne Bulkley in 1795 in Cork, Ireland.  A prominent physician and surgeon who performed the first successful cesarian operation, Barry was discovered to be a woman only after he died. He had left instructions that he was not to be undressed before burial, but the order was ignored.  Some claimed the body showed Barry had had a child.

Not much is known about Barry, which is just as well, because that allows author E.J. Levy, a Colorado State University professor, the freedom to create an irrepressible character in Perry.  He is portrayed as witty and outspoken. He is a dandy and such an outrageous flirt that he is challenged to duels by the husbands of women attracted to him. He goes to great lengths to disengage himself from a young woman who falls in love with him and hopes for marriage.

“Do you never think of marriage?” the woman’s father, the powerful Lord Somerton, asks.

“Of course … I have the good sense not to act on it,” Perry replies.

Hear the author

Author E.J. Levy will take part in a live-streamed conversation with writer Adrienne Brodeur at 5 p.m. on June 16 via the Tattered Cover Bookstore. Register for the free event at tatteredcover.com.

Following his training, Perry is sent to Cape Town, where he becomes part of the family of Lord Somerton, the area’s governor. The two become confidants, traveling together to a remote part of Africa. Perry is unafraid to speak his mind or to enlist Somerton in his efforts to improve hospital conditions and set standards for medical care.

The doctor enrages local apothecary owners by trying to regulate them. In fact, Perry creates so many enemies that when rumors of a homosexual relationship between the diminutive doctor with the high-pitched voice and the governor surface, they spread quickly.

Then the inevitable happens, and Perry disappears for months. He returns to find Somerton cold, distant and married.

The story is a good one, but it is the exquisite writing and the portrayal of women in the first half of the 19th century that make “The Cape Doctor” such an intriguing book.  As Margaret slowly takes on the role of Perry, she comes to understand the freedom that men have. Women must please men, she realizes, but as a man, she can do and say as she wants.

Although he has the rights conferred on men, Perry is a feminist, espousing women’s advancement, to the amusement of his male friends.

“The claim of rights for women would wrong the women it claims to aid,” Lord Somerton says. “It would deny them their privileged status.”

“Is it a privilege to be denied an education, to be denied the liberty to walk freely in the street, to earn one’s way? Is it a privilege that denies them vote and rights? … We disguise all manner of harm in the name of protection — it’s always someone else’s best interests we’re looking out for, when we are looking to our own.”

Was the charade worth it? In a time of great sadness, when he knows love and marriage are lost to him, Perry considers his situation. “What are we after all:  The accumulation of our works. … I am what I have made myself, what I have done, no more, no less.”

In real life, Barry made significant contributions to medicine. “The Cape Doctor” is a literary contribution that will enthrall readers with clever writing and a sympathetic story.

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