Levy (Love, in Theory) delivers an elegant and provocative spin on the life of trans icon James Miranda Barry. Jonathan Mirandus Perry, born Margaret Brackley in Cork, Ireland, in 1795, attends medical school, serves in the British Army, and later joins the household of Lord Charles Somerton in South Africa as his personal physician, where the two men become close. After Somerton becomes seriously ill, Perry becomes careless about keeping up his masculine attire and Somerton discovers his secret. They become lovers for a time, and here Levy provides rich insights on the effects of men’s desire (“To be the object of a man’s fierce desire felt intoxicating, bracing and wounding all at once. A power most women know from girlhood, but which I never had, having become a boy before I ever became a woman”). Perry then becomes pregnant and secretly travels to Mauritius to give birth, and the baby is whisked away to adoptive parents. While many trans advocates and allies will take issue with Levy’s feminist framing of Perry’s story (and, indeed, some already have), which involves Perry referring in his narration to his past self “Margaret” as “she,” Perry’s narration brims with fascinating details about medicine and social mores of the time. This beautifully written work will spark much debate. (June)
From the Publisher
"How should Barry be considered? Trans? Male? Female? Levy opts for the last, adopting that perspective so her narrator can explore — sometimes painfully, sometimes wittily, always persuasively — the differences between a woman’s experience of Georgian and Victorian society and the masculine freedom to be found when those social constrictions are eased."—Alida Becker, New York Times Book Review
"Levy’s assured, persuasive debut novel is based on a real-life 19th-century physician, James Miranda Barry, who was born Margaret Anne Bulkley. The book explores the differences between a woman’s experience of Georgian and Victorian society and the masculine freedom to be found when social constrictions are eased.”—New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
“Historical fiction at its best….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….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.”—Denver Post
“Though it's a compelling story of one particular transformation, this wise, emotionally resonant novel makes an intelligent, heartfelt plea for compassion as it sifts through the wrongheaded assumptions we make about identity…. Levy's fearless depiction of Margaret/Jonathan, her authentic rendering of this voice, her fleshing out of a little-known historical character full of complications."—Connie Ogle, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Cape Doctor is a rare achievement: equal parts brains and heart, a page-turner and a deeply moving exploration of precisely what it means to be human. E. J. Levy breaks open what we think we know about gender, identity, and love and shines a light on the devastating limits of each. I can’t stop thinking about this gorgeous, thoughtful, heartbreaking book.”—Lauren Fox, New York Times bestselling author of Send for Me
“The Cape Doctor does what the best novels do. It invites us to put aside our own lives for a time in order to live someone else’s. And it repays the moral imagination that requires with something like wisdom.”—Richard Russo, author of Chances Are...
"The Cape Doctor is one of those rare wonders of historical fiction: a novel that is so utterly transporting, so fully steeped in its time and place I kept looking up from the page and wondering where I was. And how did E.J. Levy do it? Was she there? The story of its hero Dr. Perry, an Irish woman practicing medicine under cover as a man in nineteenth-century South Africa raises powerful contemporary questions about the nature of border crossings – of gender, of class, and ultimately of love."—Sarah Blake, bestselling author of The Postmistress
“E.J. Levy’s compelling novel The Cape Doctor, born at the intersection of history and imagination, powerfully examines the fluidity and complexity of gender. Levy offers a profound meditation on identity, loneliness, and love. The Cape Doctor provides everything I come to a novel hoping for—graceful prose, first-rate storytelling, and an irresistible protagonist observed with deep compassion. I admired and adored this book.”—Lori Ostlund, author of After the Parade
"A remarkable reimagining of a remarkable life. The narrator of The Cape Doctor – courageous, lonely, vivid – lingers in the mind like a departed friend." —Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
"An elegant and provocative spin on the life of trans icon James Miranda Barry. . . . Perry’s narration brims with fascinating details about medicine and social mores of the time. This beautifully written work will spark much debate."—Publishers Weekly
"Levy has done an absolutely superb job of novelizing Barry’s life while her realization of him as a character is flawless. He is brilliant, impetuous, unafraid (perhaps foolishly) of making enemies in a good cause, an ardent supporter of women’s rights and an equally ardent enemy of slavery. . . . And the book is beautifully written."—Booklist (starred review)
"[A] resplendent debut novel...sure to create lively discussion."—Janet Somerville, Toronto Star
"[A] voyage across genders and the world, a courageous journey from which women and society benefit today — a journey worth reading."—Harriet Zaidman, Winnipeg Free Press
Praise for Love, in Theory
"A brilliant debut . . . Sad, funny, and always wise, Levy's stories reveal truths about how we love and lose, trust and betray, with an intelligence that takes my breath away. I'll be returning to these wonderful stories again and again."Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
"In all the stories in Love, In Theory...[t] here is rarely a word out of place, and each story offers a new meditation, if you will, on the nature of love without giving in to cliché. This is a smart, smart book."Roxane Gay, author of Hunger
"Levy is a genuine talent, a unique and powerful voice, with a gift for the sort of close and subtle observation of the world and its people that characterizes great literature."Lee Martin, Pulitzer-Prize finalist, author of The Bright Forever
Historical fiction from the award-winning author of Love, in Theory (2012).
During his career as a physician with the Royal Army, James Miranda Barry served at various posts throughout the British Empire. He gained renown not only for improving the health care received by soldiers, but also for demanding better living conditions for enslaved people, prisoners, lepers, and the mentally ill. When he died in 1865, it was revealed that he had female genitalia. At the time, Barry was popularly characterized as a woman masquerading as a man or as a hermaphrodite. Contemporary activists and some historians, though, have claimed him as a transgender hero, noting that he lived his entire adult life as a man and took pains to conceal his body from scrutiny upon death. The tension between these two ways of categorizing Barry illustrates why this novel became controversial before anyone had read it, when Levy described her protagonist as “a heroine for our time, for all time.” Levy points out that her work is fiction—in a move that is likely to assuage no one, she has given her character the name Jonathan Mirandus Perry—but she also insists that she “read and researched [Barry] for years,” according to The Guardian, and rejects the idea that we can retroactively apply concepts like transgender to historical figures, which will sound to some like claims of authority. Her Dr. Perry does not come to realize that he’s a man; instead Perry adopts a new name and puts on a boy’s clothes in order to get an education and lives as a man because he refuses to accept the limitations inflicted on women. Perry refuses a marriage proposal from his friend and benefactor—he learns Perry’s secret—and even hides the birth of their child in order to maintain his public persona and continue his work. The relationship between Perry and Lord Somerton takes up a substantial part of the novel; indeed, it often reads like a Regency romance written by a “literary” author. Levy uses language with care, and there are some beautiful scenes here—particularly those that show Perry discovering his vocation. Describing human dissection, he muses, “The body was not…profaned by examination, as if one were cross-examining God, but honored by attention. Love, all love, is attention.”
Artfully written but more likely to attract attention for its subject than its author’s craft.