THE CAPE DOCTOR
by E. J. Levy
Little, Brown and Company. 352 pages. $28.
INSPIRED BY the real life story of Dr. James Miranda Barry—a doctor who, after living his adult life as a man, was discovered after death to have been a biological woman—this historical novel tells a wildly improbable tale. But before one assumes that this is territory previously covered in stories like Yentl, rest assured that The Cape Doctor (which also would make a great film) tells a surprisingly lively and convincing story.
Born around 1795 in Cork, Ireland, into a world in which “wit is rarely mistaken for virtue in a girl,” young Margaret and her mother try to navigate the twin misfortunes of not being able to inherit property and not being able to receive an education beyond a certain point. But when her uncle’s friend takes note of her unusual intelligence and curiosity, a ruse is concocted for her to impersonate a missing nephew and attend medical school in Edinburgh to become a doctor.
Author E. J. Levy, who holds a history degree from Yale, is especially good at detailing the particulars associated with that world and period. This research is often illuminating, as when the narrator explains that Barry could have neither attended Oxford or Cambridge nor held public office, because the Test Act barred Catholics from doing so.