An Origin for “The Woman” in Sherlock Holmes’s Life?

In the second Guy Ritchie Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the early scene featuring Holmes dressed as a woman gave us all a laugh, with Holmes in a dress, wig, and makeup. Those scenes came to mind again while I was reading E. J. Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes. In her chapter called “Disguise and the Detective,” one of the end notes tells the story of Dr. James Barry, a noteworthy physician (b. 1789; d.1865). Barry’s life and career may well predate Doyle’s era (b. 1859: d. 1930), but I have to wonder if the writer wasn’t aware of Barry.
James Barry had a distinguished medical career with extensive military experience as well, Wagner tells us in her brief note, adding that Barry was known to be “touchy” and “easily angered,” even to the point of fighting a duel with another officer. Having earned a medical degree from Edinburgh University at the age of fifteen, Barry certainly seemed to be a powerful, energetic spirit, one whose expertise later earned a position as the inspector of hospitals. Barry’s characteristics seem a natural fit for Doyle’s world, matching some of the qualities of his Dr. Watson, though Barry was no one’s “Boswell.”
However, in the postmortem done on Barry in 1865, it was found that Barry was a woman.
Perhaps Doyle knew of Barry’s career and life-long disguise and simply did use her situation in any story because of Victorian sensibilities about gender and sexuality. Perhaps Barry was just too scandalous a topic for full discussion because she fooled so many people so well. For a contemporary writer, though, Barry’s life in disguise is an idea with which to conjure a Holmesian plot.
The Victorian age, as a time wherein women first saw a growth in opportunities, was also a time of trial. More feminine voices were raised in print than ever before during that period, like Mary Wollstonecraft and her powerful Vindications of the Rights of Women (1792), which served as a counter blast to Edmund Burke’s quite conservative Vindications of the Rights of Man (1790). His was a response to aspects of revolution in France and the need to put down such notions in England. However, Barry’s life, evolving from the same time period, was one that must be seen as working out of revolutionary ideas in action. Perhaps that, alone, made Barry’s situation too sensitive for Doyle to take up or even mention directly. Doyle, though, must have known about Barry’s story.
Her family, most notably her uncle, James Barry RA, a well-known Irish artist, was part of the conspiracy to get her medical education, starting in 1809, which was a time in which few if any institutes of higher education admitted women. By the end of the Victorian Age, such institutions numbered three. Further research indicates that in her official capacities in military and civilian life, Barry was responsible for many improvements in medical and sanitary conditions for all those she treated. There is some speculation that Barry even bore a child at a very young age. As an accomplished surgeon, Barry is also credited with one of the first successful ‘caesarean sections,’ in which both mother and child survived.
In any case, Dr. James Barry, born Margaret Ann Bulkley, in Ireland, is a story worth telling, and I cannot help but think that Doyle must have been toying with the idea of her life in disguise when, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he had Irene Adler, disguised as a “slim youth in an Ulster,” take Holmes by surprise, telling him, “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.” Holmes stated that he had “heard that voice before,” though even he could not see through the simple masculine disguise. And later, in a letter from Adler, she states that she often used “male costume” in order to “take advantage of the freedom which it gives.” Taken with the reality of the freedoms that Barry won, it seems that such a search for as well as the ability to carry it out, even through subterfuge, might have made Adler “the woman,” for Holmes, a woman whose talents and intellect rivaled the nearly superhuman Holmes. I must, then, wonder about Barry’s struggle to maintain a male identity in that time period and the story that it would make. Clearly, some few people knew all along, but it seems a sad tale, though decidedly adventurous and worthy of further development. I will have to see about that!

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