Patricia Duncker The Doctor

ISBN 13: 9780060196011

The Doctor

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9780060196011: The Doctor

At the turn of the 19th century in England, a young, beautiful Mary Ann Bulkeley gives birth to a redheaded baby girl of uncertain paternity. Before the sensitive tomboy turns ten, the family determines she should be raised and schooled as a boy.

So begins The Doctor, a provocative, illuminating novel based on a true story about a brilliant female physician who is compelled to live as a man under the name James Miranda Barry. Patricia Duncker, the author of Hallucinating Foucault, traces Barry's incredible life over the course of five decades and across three continents, from his cross-dressing child genius days to medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland; from his glorious career as a military surgeon to his adventures as a celebrated duelist and social figure known throughout the world.

During his travels around the Empire, Barry challenged the antiquated medical beliefs of the time, fought off outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever, and dueled reluctantly over a young woman's honor. The Doctor tells Barry's story for the first time, and it is filled with an extraordinary and vivid collection of characters. There's the Venezuelan revolutionary general with an enormous moustache and a poetry addiction. The shabbily eccentric English aristocrat and his serpent look-alike sister. And then there's Alice Jones, the ruthless and gorgeous kitchenmaid--all legs, black curls and ambition--who is the object of Barry's enduring affection.

Barry's accomplishments were many, as were the secrets he guarded. When his mysterious origins are finally revealed, we witness The Doctor's intriguing, anguished finale. This richly inventive and entertaining tale of dark family secrets, adultery, and colonial history is a transforming contemplation on the substance of gender, the power of will, and an unforgettable portrait of a brilliant mind.

Patricia Duncker was born in the West Indies and educated at Oxford and Cambridge. Her novel, Hallucinating Foucault, won Britain's 1996 McKitterick Prize for best first novel. She teaches writing, literature, and feminist theory at the University of Wales, and lives in Wales and France.

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Review:

The Doctor is an elegant exploration of the way gender and identity shape a life. The starring role in Patricia Duncker's third novel is given to James Miranda Barry, a historical figure who enrolled as a medical student at Edinburgh during the early 1800s and carved out an illustrious career on three continents. Nothing too strange about that--except that this formidable physician, duelist, and man-about-town was actually a woman. Duncker has created "an imaginative exploration" of the real Barry's life, adjusting facts and adding figures to transform a story of love and adventure into a masque of sexual identity. Here is a ripping good yarn in which the hero is really the leading lady, and the love interest is a kitchen maid turned actress, who relishes "the breeches parts" in Shakespeare's plays. It makes for an enthralling tale, peopled with actors and soldiers, artists and revolutionaries. And the illicit liaisons and family secrets provide an appropriately vertiginous backdrop for Barry's own transformation into someone who was "neither man nor woman but partook of both."

Duncker's literary skills are no less disorienting. Her prose is cool and clean, shot through with lush descriptions of the natural landscape (indeed, she seems to reserve her decadence for the flora and fauna). And she never attempts to simplify her protagonist's existence. "You are who the world says you are," the kitchen maid proclaims to her gender-bending beloved. "And the world says you're a man." For Duncker, however, it's never quite that simple. In The Doctor, Barry plays out this manly charade with a subtle, startling awareness of "his" womanly identity. It makes for a very sophisticated narrative wherein all surfaces are deceptive and all experiences are quite literally subject to double vision. --Eithne Farry

About the Author:

Patricia Duncker teaches writing and nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She is the author of two previous novels, Hallucinating Foucault, which won Dillon's First Fiction Award and the McKitterick Prize for best first novel, and The Doctor, as well as a collection of stories, Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees.

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