I had the good fortune of meeting E.J. Levy almost a decade ago. I was coming to give a reading at the Colorado State University MFA program, where E.J. has taught for years, and my own debut novel was just weeks away from being published. Levy was fiercely intelligent and exceedingly kind, and while we were in the middle of an intense conversation about the exhilaration of encountering Marilynne Robinson’s lyricism, I got a text from my publicist that I’d been invited to talk with Terry Gross about my book. Levy did me the great generosity of playing Terry, while I played me. She was a very convincing Terry; I always get stuck playing me.
So it was with great interest that I read a galley of her debut novel, The Cape Doctor (Little Brown). Levy masterfully gives voice and new life to the historical case of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the famed nineteenth-century physician who was assigned female at birth but lived and practiced their entire professional and private life as a man. The history itself presents a useful mirror of our time, and Levy’s treatment of them is always rife with insight. The Cape Doctor is a “historical novel” in the way Colm Tóibín’s depiction of Henry James, or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is a “historical novel”—it is not hemmed in by the conventions of genre, and always bursting with beautiful language, exhaustive research, and precision. I had the good luck of getting to play Terry Gross to E.J. Levy’s E.J. Levy this time though, just after finishing reading her beautiful book.
Daniel Torday It has been a total pleasure, and a revelation, to read The Cape Doctor. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, already knowing your stories and essays, but what I got was so much more than the sum of its parts— James/Margaret is such a capacious and fascinating character, and narrator, and the way you’ve crafted their voice is so controlled, stylistically rich, and beautiful. I’ll have a lot of questions later about gender, medicine, and the turn of the nineteenth century.
But my first question is just one of approach, of influence. I got resonances of so many books I love—your approach made me think of how damn good and slim Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is, how full Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian is. But it also made me think of a lot of folk songs, like the Scottish ballad “Jack-a-Row,” that mythologize lives like Dr. Barry’s. What aesthetic sources helped you find this voice?
E.J. Levy I’m so honored that you read the book! I love your work—and I love that you mention folk-ballads, that’s so fitting for this character, who’s become mythic.
Initially my approach to the book was dictated by the voice in my head. For the first—and likely only—time in my life a narrator spoke to me; shortly after I learned of Dr. Barry while traveling in Cape Town in late 2011, I heard a voice in my head as we traveled around the Cape, commenting on places and plants, and the novel opens with that voice. But I learned quickly what anyone writing a novel knows, which is that—like fate—a novel is a built thing. So, I went looking for models, especially models of how to build a world from the past that feels (I hope) present tense in some ways. Also, I wanted a tone that recalled Barry’s time, the early 1800s.
So I went back to Austen, Mary Shelley, and Dickens, among others. I also read a lot of work from the period: Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, an analysis of the political ideas of the English Romantics, Coleridge, and the rest, and of course medical texts that Barry likely read. Again, for the rhythm and the diction. I looked at historical novels that I admire: I did go back and reread Yourcenar’s Hadrian (good ear!); I also read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which does such a pitch-perfect job of speaking from the nineteenth century, and Lily King’s Euphoria, with its wonderful quasi-polyphony (the wonderful first-person/third-person POV shifts), and Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude, about painter Tamara de Lempicka in Paris between the World Wars (the book that made me want to try historical fiction); Ellis makes the body so sensually present, whether seated for a painting or supine upon a table on which food is set.
I hope that the books that I reread obsessively inform the narrative aesthetic—without my thinking of them as informing this project in particular: Randall Kenan’s incantatory collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which is a kind of seance of a book, masterfully traversing centuries, continents, literary forms, sex, gender, race, class, the living and the dead; Silko’s Ceremony; Baldwin’s essays and novels, as well as Agee’s fiction and nonfiction, and Woolf’s The Waves, Ishiguro’s early novels, Graham Greene, Calvino, Coetzee, but I don’t know how or if those show up here. They’re just bedrock aesthetic coordinates; I’d love to think they echo here, if faintly.
I was self-consciously aping the language of Jane Austen and Elena Ferrante in certain sections of the novel to put my book in conversation with theirs and with other bildungsroman. While I think of Margaret and James as transiting gender—complicating any binary we might impose, refusing neat categorization—their educations seem crucial to the story, so I wanted to foreground the narrative of an education and how it’s inflected by a student’s sex and gender. The trials differ, as do the rites of passage and the risks and the performance, and what we learn.
DT I love hearing how deep and broad and idiosyncratic your reading was in getting there. And that sense of voice is so present from the start—those opening sentences, “She died, so I might live. Margaret. I owe her my life,” feel so iconic. Mythic as you say. Like cracking open Joan Didion more than what you might expect from “historical fiction.” I felt that too, midway through when we get this epic trip to find a Xhosa king in South Africa, when the narrator says, “If this were a novel, our journey to the Xhosa king should consume a sprawling chapter”—and then cleverly it does.
But, of course, a novel of this kind requires such a heavy lift to bring off early nineteenth-century London, South Africa, more. Will you talk a little about just what it must have taken to bring this all across so seamlessly?
EJL It’s kind of you to call it seamless. Writing it often didn’t feel that way. I’ve spent some time in South Africa and in London, and that informs this, but I worked mostly from historical documents and others’ impressive research to evoke those places 200 years ago.
I gotta say that rereading your brilliant historical novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West—which is set in Prague, Rotterdam, and London in the lead up to and during the war, with vivid portrayals of London during the blitz—put me to shame. It’s so richly documentary, so immersive—and full of wonders, like that massive cave east of London in which civilians sought shelter. Whether you’re describing the process of leather tanning along the Elbe or the kind of planes battling in the air over Hamburg or the devastation in London and Rotterdam where a row house across a street could be obliterated while one’s own home stood firm, to the smells, the sounds, the particular jobs on the ground, the instruments in a cockpit, the nomenclature and details are so precise—it’s more than richly detailed; it’s more vivid than being there, it’s being aware of being there in a way few who were present in London or flying for the RAF could have been. It’s stunning. How in the world did you do it? I know family history informs the novel a bit perhaps, and I recall that you conducted interviews with pilots, is that right? But still the translation is amazing. It’s dazzling.
The vivid evocation of place really is the heavy lift in historical fiction. You do it masterfully. In my case, I spent a lot of time looking at images and objects—paintings, photographs, medical instruments, drawings, clothes, buildings, to try to translate a certain physicality. I’m immensely grateful to the brilliant work of historians of medicine, biographers, newspaper accounts from the time, even pop histories of the Georgian era for contributing to the texture of my book. (Maybe due to Jane Austen enthusiasts, there’s a large body of material on the norms of the early 1800s, wonderful works that gloss table manners, dress, home decor, food, etcetera.)
There was also delightfully weird stuff that was fun to find and include—like an account of musical performance at Rainbow Balls from an arcane academic work on early modern song culture; newspaper accounts of the leper colony at Hemel-en-Aarde; a contemporaneous description of Margaret Bulkley’s uncle’s house in London, as recounted by an abashed visitor, appalled by the animal bones and other projectiles scattered about. So it’s a mashup, of sorts, a narrative mixtape. But fiction often feels that way to me; it’s a magpie art.
DT I’m flattered by this generous read. I honestly had no idea what I was doing in the almost decade it took to do that novel, and my process was basically: read everything I could on the subject, and then visit the places. But as you say—then it just requires you turn it into a relatively boundless act of imagination. Maybe the best example for me was trying to reconstruct pre-war Rotterdam. That city was so devastated by Nazi bombing and made a conscious decision to build back with more and more modern architecture, not to reconstruct old buildings like Dresden did. So, I would just stand on streets for hours, trying to imagine what it looked like, trying to strip the big wild buildings there now away. And remembering: we’re all humans, and we all have the same limited capacious experience of the world.
For you, there’s a kind of heavier lift—I mean, 1803 London, or 1815 Cape Town feels almost impossibly distant from our experience. I’m just stabbing out in the dark asking this, but I would guess that what attracted you to this project—and a big part of what can help us beam back across the centuries— was the complicated gender questions looking back on James/Margaret surfaces. I mean, gender fluidity isn’t hard to find in the best of our literature, from Ovid to Twelfth Night to Joyce’s “new womanly man” Leopold Bloom. But why James/Margaret, specifically?
EJL That’s a great answer regarding Rotterdam! I’d wondered about exactly that, reading Poxl, how you’d managed to so vividly imagine a devastated place pre-devastation, that magic trick. Also how you conjured Leitmeritz, Prague, the factory, that defining river, an almost 19th-century rhythm of evening and life at the start of the twentieth… and that cave. I feel like standing and staring—or in my case, sitting and meditating on photos, sketches, objects—is a crucial part of writing back into time, a kind of literary seance. Which maybe is true of all writing: an effort to capture the moment just past or long gone, to hold it, as Faust tries and fails to do, to make it return and stay (or, as Goethe would have it, “Beautiful moment, do not pass away”).
I appreciate your question about gender, which is central to the novel. It wasn’t the topic of gender fluidity that drew me to James/Margaret; I simply felt captivated, ensorcelled, as my mother liked to say, on first reading a few lines about Barry while traveling to Cape Town. What drew me to the topic—in addition to that voice in my head that I mentioned earlier—was that I identify. When I first read about Barry, I felt like I got it.
After I came out as a lesbian in my mid-twenties, I cut my hair short, defaulted to suit coats and jeans, and was often taken for a man; that was true for about a decade. It didn’t bother me, but it did interest me. I wondered what strangers saw that made them think I was a guy: I think now they saw the confidence that came of dating women. For years I benefitted from what I experienced as a kind of male privilege: I was deferred to, flattered, flirted with (by straight women and queer), I was assumed to have ideas worth listening to, assumed to be brilliant and worthy of support and mentoring. This is not mere speculation: there’s a measurable gender-dividend, as this great article on Jezebel “Homme de Plume” attests. And I know a little of the value of a name change: I first began to write under E.J. because my pitches fared better if I was assumed to be male. Now the name, the mask, has stuck a bit.
So, I was drawn to Barry’s story first by the voice in my head (which I heard as I toured the Cape); second by a sense of identification; third, by the mystery of that life. We know so many things about Dr. Barry and what they accomplished, but really very little of the intimate thoughts of that very interesting person. I wanted to know those thoughts. The book’s about a lot of things—ambition, desire, sex, gender, the pleasures of intellection, injustice, medical equity, what endures—but it’s also about what it costs us to live in disguise. What do our masks and our roles cost us? What defines us—our achievements, knowledge, wealth, friendships, family, love?
Toward the end of the book, Barry wonders what could matter more than love and family. I hope the book makes clear that there’s no easy answer to that question. I mean, we wouldn’t be speaking of Margaret and James now if they’d opted for a quiet family life, so that’s obviously not the only measure of a life. The sacrifice of those intimate bonds is partly what makes this life so compelling.
History is always a Rorschach. To some extent, looking back, we always see ourselves. So I’m interested in what stories about James/Margaret reveal about us, as writers and readers. I’ve noticed that when straight folks write of Barry they often see a damsel in distress (a girl raped, a lovelorn woman joining the military to follow a beloved man); others have supposed Barry intersex; others see a trans icon; I see a brilliant female-born person wanting to live fully as a person, despite societal constraints on women, whatever the cost, wrestling with the weight of ambition, the joy of intellection, the constraints of affection, the necessity of choice.
Which maybe brings us to the book’s controversial final line: I hope both the irony and the admiration there are apparent. I mean, I hope that by the end of the book, the reader’s understanding has shifted a bit, so that our expectations of sex, gender, and heroism have been altered by the very remarkable life of Margaret and James. Mine have been.