A child of a beautiful, talented woman and ambiguous paternity craves learning. Adopted by a Spanish officer and an "uncle" who is a painter, s/he is sent off to Edinburgh as a pedagogic experiment to become James Barry, a male medical student. Barry adores the vivacious Alice, an illiterate but intelligent servant, whom he teaches to read.

Later as a doctor and medical officer, he travels the world to the Crimea, to the Caribbean, to South Africa and America, a scion of society and a good scientist. By happy fortune, he lives in retirement with Alice, who has become a famous actress. The book ends with the scandalous revelation of Barry's femininity when his body is laid to rest.


Based on the life of James Miranda Barry (1795-1865) who, disguised as a man, was the first woman to practice medicine in many parts of the world. Many of the characters are fictitious, in particular Alice. But the author's research into the period and the existing sources about Barry allow her to construct a plausible, as well as readable tale around this most intriguing but shadowy of history's doctors.

The opening is written in the first person with no gendered pronouns; the remainder, in the third person. Important themes in this medico-historical novel, gender and sexuality are handled obliquely in a deft, sultry manner reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's Orlando.


Serpent's Tail

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