Playing the breeches part: Rewriting transgender lives in biographical and fictional accounts of the life of James Miranda Barry

10 January 2018
Public event:
4.00PM - 6.00PM
Booking required:
Contact information

Name: Leanne Graham
T: 01642 342801

Abstract - In a founding essay in the field of transgender studies, Jack Halberstam described transgender history as a 'paradoxical project' in that it 'represents the desire to narrate lives that may wilfully defy narrative' (Telling Tales: Brandon Teena, Billy Tipton, and Transgender Biography, 2000).

Historical records indicate that James Miranda Barry (c.1799-1865) lived much of his youth and all of his adult life as a man, from his enrolment as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh in 1809, through a notable colonial career as a military surgeon (during which he performed the first successful caesarean operation) to his death in London.

However, Barry’s public memory was irrevocably changed when reports that his body had been discovered to be female on his deathbed were published in the Irish and British press.

Barry’s life presents a range of narrative possibilities for the biographer, historian or novelist engaged in the project of imagining his life history. However, the narrative most commonly adopted in historical reconstructions of his life, especially in feminist contexts, is one which depicts Barry as a woman strategically cross-dressing as a man, an interpretation which arguably forecloses the 'transgender capacity' (David J. Getsy, 2014) which this life narrative represents. This paper will explore the issues at stake in the rewriting of historical transgender lives, through comparative analysis of biographical and fictional accounts of Barry’s life, including Patricia Duncker’s 1999 novel James Miranda Barry.

Researcher - Dr Rachel Carroll is Reader in English at Teesside University, UK. She is the author of Rereading Heterosexuality: Feminism, Queer Theory and Contemporary Fiction (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) and editor of Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities (Continuum, 2009) and Litpop: Writing and Popular Music (with Adam Hansen, Ashgate, 2014). Her book Transgender and the Literary Imagination: Changing Gender in Twentieth Century Writing is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press in 2018.

Please meet in the foyer of the School of Social Sciences, Business & Law (first floor, Clarendon) at 3.45pm for tea and coffee.

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