In the year 1878, I was the first woman to take my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and then, disguised as a man, I proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. How shocked and humiliated our army had been, only thirteen years ago, to discover, upon his death, that their celebrated doctor, Inspector-General James Barry, a contentious, fiery man who revolutionized the British army’s medical department, had the body of a woman. As much as Barry inspired my own actions, given how humiliated the army was over his deception, it was a matter of considerable delicacy and stealth for me to then also infiltrate those fraternal ranks. I wouldn’t have succeeded at all if it hadn’t been for a well-placed uncle and my good friend and orderly, Gideon Murray, who kept my secrets well, as I kept his.(A Study In Garnet, chapter 1, by Meredith Rose)
Since it seems people are enjoying my little peeks into the Victorian history you didn’t know, I’m going to continue with some tidbits relating to each chapter of A Study In Garnet. If you have something in particular you’d like me to talk about, let me know!
If this post is the first one you’re reading from me, I am launching a new Victorian femlock series The Ladies of Baker Street. (a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes series, where Holmes and Watson are both queer Victorian women) I’m publishing the first book in serial form on Patreon, and I’m posting the first 10 chapters for free. I’ve also been posting about how Victorian women had more going for them than we usually assume, and how Holmes and Watson could absolutely have been women during the late Victorian period without compromising too much on the original canon. I’ve covered topics such as how a female Watson could have gained her MD from the University of London in 1878, and what Holmes’ education at Girton College (women’s college, part of Cambridge) would have been like, as well as the New Woman movement and women who cross-dressed.
I just posted the first chapter of A Study In Garnet last Saturday, and I’ll be putting up new chapters every Saturday. In this first chapter, Dr. Siân Watson is snowbound in a miserable hotel and occupying herself by journaling. She mentions that she was able to sneak into the army and go to Netley to be trained as an army surgeon by disguising herself as a man.
I debated whether she could have gone into the army as a woman and decided that likely not, since women had only just recently earned the right to become fully credentialed doctors in England within a year of when canon Watson joined the army. So instead, I have her cross-dress as a man and get in that way.
The inspiration for this was Inspector-General James Barry. You may have heard a bit about James Barry before—his story has been widely circulated in recent years. You can read a good summary here on History.com (please note that the article uses she/her pronouns for Barry’s early life and then switches to he/him pronouns when Barry appears to have taken on his male identity.) This Atlas Obscura article is also very good, and it mentions that after Barry’s death, the maid who outed him sold the story to the press and it became a popular topic of news articles, a novel, and even a play.
Eventually, the army was successful in suppressing information about Dr. Barry, and his story was largely forgotten until the middle of the 20th century.
These days, the biggest controversy about James Barry is whether we should view him or refer to him as a woman or a man. Personally, I believe that there is every reason to think that if Barry had been alive today, he may have identified as trans. That’s why I use male pronouns when writing about him (both here and in the book itself), and it’s why I chose the two articles I linked to above—they reference Barry mostly using male pronouns.
But it’s also important to recognize that 1) the way we look at gender today is different than it was 200 years ago, and 2) we don’t have the ability to look into Barry’s heart or mind and know exactly how he identified. What we can do is acknowledge that Barry made it very clear that even after his death, he wanted to be known as a man, and we can honor that in how we refer to him. We don’t have to know what his precise motivations were for that desire in order to respect it.
For the purposes of my story, I reasoned that since Barry died in 1865, when my Siân Watson would have been almost 13 years old, there is every reason to think she would have heard the stories, maybe even read the novel or seen the play.
This could have later inspired her own choices to cross-dress and slip into the army medical department that way, even as she is able to acknowledge that James Barry’s preferred gender identity isn’t the same as her own.
I’ve read that Barry almost certainly had help in maintaining his male identity without discovery. In medical school, he was nearly barred from taking the exam because his smooth face and petite features made the school officials suspect he was too young. Family friend and confidante, Lord Erskine, Earl of Buchan, intervened. When he decided to join the army, he would have again needed some kind of powerful help in order to get the army to either skip the required physical exam or to cover up his biological sex.
In my story, Siân Watson had such help in her uncle Ian, who had an administrative job in the army high enough to allow him to pull strings on her behalf. He also arranges for her to have Gideon Murray assist her as her orderly. It would have taken a lot of behind the scenes work to carry it off, especially after the army was so furious about James Barry.
But I think it would make success just that much sweeter, not just for Watson, but for all involved in making it happen.