Quacks, quirks and dogs called Psyche

Scanty Particulars - Bodies Politic

January 3, 2003

The shockingly premature death of Roy Porter in March left many people with a sense of disbelief. We had all come to expect two or three books, several edited volumes and dozens of book reviews and media appearances from him each year. He seemed indestructible. Now he and his computer have been silenced.

Well, not quite. So prodigious was his output that he left a couple of books in press that will be published in due course. In the past few years, a man always known for his prodigious capacity for work apparently worked overtime. He sometimes spoke of the dubious family medical history (on the male side) that he had inherited. But he had so many other projects on the stocks that he was ordinary in one aspect, at least: the belief that he would last for quite a while yet. He died by his bicycle, returning from his allotment with a bunch of cut daffodils.

Bodies Politic was not the last book Porter lived to see published, but it was unusual in that he worked on it for several years. He was, like most social historians, verbal rather than visual in his approach to the past. His introduction to this volume acknowledges this, and the book itself confirms it. The illustrations - all 137 of them - are well chosen and well reproduced. They are also wonderfully described in the text and their captions. In a sense, they are central to the volume. In another sense, they merely reinforce the analytical messages of the text.

There is material within Porter's official time span of 1650 to 1900, as well as comments on matter before and after. But the core is also the core of Porter's lasting love and fascination: the 18th century. He judged the world, I think, in terms of Enlightenment values. Failings, ancient and modern, were the result of deviations from the standards set by people between two and three centuries ago. He wrote learnedly about Romanticism and its aftermath, was astute about modernism and postmodernism but, at the end of the day, he was most comfortable with the world view of Dr Johnson and his contemporaries, especially that of Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne.

Tristram Shandy , Porter's favourite book, makes many appearances here. So do many of the colourful medical characters that Porter's previous work had brought so vividly to life: the radical doctor Thomas Beddoes, the eccentric quack James Graham, the brothers William and John Hunter, the society physicians Richard Mead and John Radcliffe, and the medical men of letters Tobias Smollett and Bernard Mandeville.

The illustrations also point towards Porter's taste in art. His beloved Hogarth is well represented, as are the caricaturists James Gilray, George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson. About half of the images are caricatures, the aim of which was to expose folly, vanity, greed, incompetence or other darker human attributes. Not surprisingly, Porter appreciated the bittersweet satirical writings of Jonathan Swift, which get ample exposure in the book.

Two early chapters offer grand sweeps of the body loathsome and the body beautiful, originating in the otherworldliness of early Christianity and the ideals of classical antiquity, respectively. The last chapter, appropriately entitled "Victorian developments", makes a perfunctory nod towards the 19th century. The volume's core can be found in six thematic chapters centred on Georgian Britain. They revisit topics that Porter did so much to illuminate: patients, doctors, patient-doctor relationships, quacks, medical fashions, the medical marketplace and the mad. He dissects the moral, religious and political significance of illustrating bodies both repulsive and alluring, and of writing metaphorically about them, as in the bodies politic of his title. Porter had a brilliant eye for telling quotations and this, combined with his omnivorous reading and uniquely racy style of writing, makes for a memorable read, made acutely poignant by his absence. It is a fitting synthesis of the historical terrain he so skilfully mapped.

Like many books, Rachel Holmes's Scanty Particulars carries a Porter puff. It is, the dust jacket tells us, "more than a biography of an extraordinary person: it is an anatomy of Victorian sexuality". As always, Porter was generous in praising others. There is much to admire about this study of James Barry, the Victorian military surgeon and physician who, it seems, was either a woman or a hermaphrodite.

These possibilities came to light only after Barry's death in 1865. They immediately made Barry a cause célèbre , a case rendered even more titillating by the fact that Barry's wish to be buried without an autopsy, or even cursory postmortem examination, was respected. The woman who laid him out blew the cover about this ambiguous body.

Barry had been controversial even during his lifetime, with his diminutive stature, high-pitched voice, obsession with privacy, flamboyant dress code, a constant black servant and a succession of dogs, each named Psyche. He had had a stormy career in the army medical corps, achieving a deserved reputation as an energetic reforming doctor and a shrewd practitioner. He performed the first successful Caesarean section in South Africa, where he was stationed early in his career. He also made many enemies through his cocky high-handedness and intolerance of those who disagreed with him. The rumours that he had had a homosexual affair with the Cape's governor, Lord Charles Somerset, ended Somerset's political career and dented Barry's own. Holmes believes they were lovers.

Holmes follows Barry from his medical days in Edinburgh and London to his postings in South Africa, Mauritius, Jamaica, Canada and elsewhere in the empire. Although much has been written on him, Holmes has uncovered more details, mostly from his official reports, and writes with deep sympathy about this strange human being. Her conclusion, that Barry was probably a hermaphrodite who was raised as a girl until puberty revealed that something was amiss, is convincing, even if necessarily based on circumstantial evidence.

So much energy has been expended on this book that it is a shame there are no footnotes, and the "select" bibliography is bizarrely listed alphabetically by title and includes no archives. Holmes has a tendency to overrate Barry's intellectual contributions. His work on the treatment of venereal disease, for instance, was hardly the pioneering effort she presents. There are also irritating mistakes, especially the confusion of John Hunter (d. 1793) the surgeon with another John Hunter (d. 1809), who wrote an important treatise on the diseases of Jamaica. At one point, she mixes up surgeon John with his brother William.

These and other problems mar a fascinating story. I do not know what Porter meant when he wrote that this is "more than a biography". It could be he thought a more accurate title would be: James Barry: The Nov el.

W. F. Bynum is professor of the history of medicine, Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London.

Scanty Particulars: The Strange Life and Astonishing Secret of Victorian Adventurer and Pioneering Surgeon James Barry

Author - Rachel Holmes
ISBN - 0 670 89099 5
Publisher - Viking
Price - £14.99
Pages - 338

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