A superabundance of paternity

James Miranda Barry by Patricia Duncker Serpent's Tail pounds 10.99
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When the American academic Marjorie Garber published Vested Interests, her study of cross-dressing, it anticipated what would soon become a trend. As well as a new book on drag kings, some of the people Garber cited as successful gender-benders have since become the subject of full-length texts, including a recent biography of the band leader Billy Tipton. Now Patricia Duncker offers a novel based on the life of James Miranda Barry, a Victorian army surgeon who was "revealed", at the time of his death, to be a woman.

I put the verb in quotes for two reasons. First, there were quite a few people who claimed, after Barry's death, that they had always realised "he" was a woman; others even claimed Barry was a hermaphrodite. Second, Duncker's novel recognises Barry's biological sex from the outset and constructs circumstances in which the masquerade might have come about. Duncker's Barry is a small woman, about five feet tall, whose entire life, after entering medical school at the age of 10 in 1809, was lived as a male.

This, like other successful instances of life-long cross-dressing, raises fascinating questions. If Barry's contemporaries for the most part accepted his assertion of masculinity, as they seem to have done, "he" would have experienced life as a man. Was that sufficient to override his physical gender, or did he exist in some kind of half-world? The obvious historical explanation for the imposture is that Barry, as a woman, could never have aspired to a career as a doctor. But Duncker suggests a more complex concatenation of events, including a question about Barry's paternity which creates, in the novel at least, a superabundance of paternity.

Three men - an English aristocrat, a Venezuelan general and a celebrated Irish painter who is also the child's maternal uncle - accept that they are all equally likely candidates. In an unusual collaboration, they agree to the mother's bold proposition that the child's future can most easily be secured by educating "him" as a boy. In the novel, this follows the child's own inclination, which already includes a marked preference for wear- ing breeches.

Like Duncker's debut novel, the prize-winning Hallucinating Foucault, her new fiction is an interrogation of the very idea of gender. It gradually becomes apparent that the extraordinary decision on the part of James's mother is inspired by her own acute, perhaps even tragic, realisation of the drawbacks of feminine identity. At the heart of the novel is the distorting effect of traditional gender assumptions on the female character, and the suggestion that Barry's imposture is only a more dramatic version of one experienced in some degree by every woman.

Duncker dramatises this conflict by inventing an entirely fictional character, a maid who becomes an actress. The career of Alice Jones, with her fierce appreciation of material wealth, is another species of masquerade, while her knowledge of Barry's cross-dressing allows him a rare respite from secrecy. But Alice's presence in the novel is problematic in a way that goes to the heart of this project: she is a strikingly modern and unconvincing invention, while her function as Barry's conveniently unavailable love-object ducks the question of his sexuality.

Duncker is an ambitious, even a lyrical writer, and some of the book's most affecting passages are descriptions of the English countryside - contrasted, later, with tropical climates. Using a real person as the starting-point for a work of fiction presents a challenge which she accepts boldly, altering the dates of events when they do not meet the requirements of her narrative. Yet the book is, in the end, neither one thing nor the other: definitely not a biography but not quite a novel either.