Thursday, September 25, 2008

Women living as Men

I read in the papers last weekend that a movie is to be made about the life of James Miranda Barry, a woman who successfully masqueraded as a man in order to qualify as a medical doctor in the early part of the nineteenth century, and then served as a surgeon in the British army, eventually rising to be the head of the army medical service. Her gender was not discovered until after she had died when, it is reported, she was found to have a perfect female form, but with stretch marks that suggested she had borne a child.

(You can read the report for yourself here. The stars are to be Natascha McElhone and James Purefoy.)

The film is not going to be as simple as a story of a brave woman triumphing over male prejudice in a career at which she excels. Apparently it will focus on her time in South Africa where she fell in love. Her lover, Lord Somerset, was initially concerned that he was falling in love with a man and would therefore be guilty of the heinous crime of homosexuality. If they were found together, the punishment could be death. When Barry let him into her secret, he decided that he could follow his heart after all. I find that illogical. (Though perhaps love is never logical?) He might know that their affair was heterosexual, but to anyone who discovered what was going on, it would still appear as a homosexual affair. If they were discovered, the only way to save their skins might have been to reveal that Barry was a woman and thus to ruin her.

The movie will, apparently, allow the male lover to make the heroic sacrifice. In order to protect Barry’s identity as a woman, he will be disgraced. She will go on to make a great career in military medicine. As a man.

I dealt with all these themes in His Cavalry Lady where my heroine, like Barry, has made a long military career serving as a man. My hero also worries about his apparent attraction to another man. Plotting the resolution of their dilemmas was quite a challenge, as you may imagine.

No doubt the film will spawn various fictionalised treatments of women successfully pretending to be men. There’s plenty of material. Barry and Nadezhda Durova, the real-life inspiration for my heroine, were not the only women who served in the military. At least I can say that I’m not climbing on to a post-movie bandwagon. My story is in the shops now. I got there first!



Melinda Hammond said...

Congratulations on beating the rush, Joanna. A wonderful premise for a book, too.


Joanna Maitland said...

Thanks, Melinda. Must say that when I read the autobiography of the original Cavalry Lady, I was absolutely hooked and I knew I had to put someone like her in a book. That, of course, was before I began to think through the difficulties of having the hero fall for someone he thinks is a man...


Jan Jones said...

Um, perhaps you should consider auctioning the film rights straight away. I mean, if there's going to be a bandwagon, it'd be rather nice to be up there in pole position.

kate allan said...

The original Cavalry Lady was my original inspiration for The Lady Soldier (Jennifer Lindsay) although we decided to make Jem a lady soldier in disguise in the British Army. There has been talk of a film about James (Miranda) Barry for a while so it would be great if it actually comes off.