Another Take on It

It always amazes me how differently each writing prompt inspires the writers in our group. Yesterday, I posted the poem I wrote in response to the prompt, ‘Nothing could be heard’. Today’s post is a short story inspired by the same prompt and written by another member of our Writer’s Club, Jane-Louise Blewitt.

Jane explains what else, besides the prompt, inspired this story, “I first read about James Barry in a small book: ‘Famous Scots’ – ironic as he was born in Ireland but was educated at Edinburgh University!  I have a love of history and decided to do some research and my story is a mishmash of facts I’ve read – for example – although I mentioned Florence Nightingale and the comment she made, I believe she actually made it after his death.  The letter I read on Wikipedia but I used other sites for information such as: blogmikerendell.com?p=931, www.sciencemuseum.org, www.newscientist.com; zagriablogspot.com.”

So, this is more than a short story, it is a fictional  dramatisation based on fact. I found it fascinating and very well written. The floor is yours, Jan-Louise.

***

220px-James_Barry_(surgeon)01

Dr James Barry (left) with a servant c. 1862, Jamaica

Nothing Can Be Heard

by

Jane-Louise Blewitt

Sophia stared, shocked beyond measure.  The light seemed to fade and, grasping at the furniture, she sank to the floor.  How long she sat like that she didn’t know.  Time and space seemed to have disappeared.  The room was as silent and still as were her thoughts.  Not a sound was to be heard.  The dead can’t speak, she had been told.  Yet, the body she had been hired to lay out after death spoke its own eloquent tale.  What on earth was she to do?  Who could she go to?  Gathering her wits, Sophia continued her task.  She had to finish washing the body and make it decent if she wanted to be paid; and with mouths to be fed, that had to be her priority. 

“Have you not finished?”

Sophia turned to find John, the manservant, watching her.

“I’ve had quite a shock,” she began.

“That’s natural if you have never seen a body before.”

“Natural, nothing!  I’ve seen plenty of bodies and lain out a few in my time, relatives as well as strangers.  It’s part of the life of the poor, to be on intimate terms with death.” retaliated Sophia.

“And of the army.  I have served my master for fifty years and have travelled most of the world with him; and he and I have seen things you could not even begin to imagine.  He has fought hand to hand combat with death on behalf of others.”  John spoke quietly but with increasing dignity which only irritated Sophia further.

“Oh aye?  Do tell, because unless I’m much mistaken – you are only a servant just like me!”

“My master achieved the rank of Inspector General of Hospitals and was so skilled a surgeon that he carried out the first caesarean section in Cape Town where both mother and child survived, even though it was performed on a kitchen table.  He has served not only in Africa but also in India, the islands of the Caribbean, and other places.  He has done so much for others and deserves to be remembered thus.”

“I wondered why you were condescending enough to talk to me just now?  Do you think your story will make me keep my mouth shut?  I have a tale to tell to all who will listen!  It pays to know things.” mocked Sophia.

“Is that so?  Well, Mrs Bishop, who will the establishment believe, that is the question?  The malicious gossip of a char woman, or respected men of the army and of the medical profession who were his colleagues for many years?  Nothing can be heard from the dead, my master cannot defend himself now.  Why not let sleeping dogs lie?” pleaded John.

“I have ten mouths to feed but if anyone wants to give me a small present to make me forget, then I….”

“Out with you!  You will be paid your wages for your task of laying out the body and nothing more.  Good day, Mrs Bishop.”  John’s face hardened and his eyes glittered as he drew himself to his full height as he held the door open.

Sophia, trying to gather her dignity, was about to sweep out the room when she paused on the threshold and turned to John: “Just one question.  As I said before, we are only servants, so what does it matter to you if I keep my mouth shut or not?”

John looked at her thoughtfully before replying: “I believe in loyalty, Mrs Bishop.  I have served my master faithfully for over fifty years and have known him well.  He could be a difficult man, he would say that was due to his red hair; but I have also seen firsthand his work, his courage and compassion toward others.  You have only seen a shell and personal artefacts but you have never known the man or what he was capable of and yet, you would blacken his name and reputation just to make money!”

“Maybe, but I look after my own!”

“As do I, Mrs Bishop.  Good day.”

John sighed as he closed the door.  Walking to the end of the room, he stood by the bed of his master.  Everything John had said was true.  Yet, there was so much more he could have said.  How his master had fought tirelessly against unsanitary medical practices and overcrowding in hospitals.  He had even got into a fight with Florence Nightingale as he was so shocked at the conditions in her hospital.  John smiled at the memory and the retort that Miss Nightingale had flung at his master, “as being the most hardened creature she had ever met.”  His master’s response had been far more eloquent.  His hospital had the best survival rate of the Crimea War.  No one could be more compassionate or have a more tender bedside manner.  His master has revolutionised medicine, as in the case of leprosy and tropical diseases.  He fought for the welfare of prisoners, lepers and the unfortunates of the lunatic asylum.  John shook his head sorrowfully as he recalled an old Scottish proverb his master had once told him: “People will believe anything that is whispered.”  John had done all he could to protect his master while alive and even in death, but he could not trust Mrs Bishop to keep her thoughts to herself.

Outside, Sophia walked briskly away from 14 Margaret Street.  She would never forget today! Never!  Tuesday, 25th July 1865.  Her thoughts raced and made her dizzy.  She had not liked the way John had looked at her, as if she were no better than dirt!  Who was he to judge her?  So, he had been a faithful servant?  And was well fed and dressed far better than she was by the look of it!  It was alright for him to look down at her, but he didn’t have nine children to feed and clothe as well as a husband who chose to be around when it suited!  Well, she would show the dead some consideration.  She would wait until after the funeral before opening her mouth.  She would approach the doctor who had signed the death certificate.  She was no fool, whatever John or any other person might insinuate and if she could make an honest copper or two by pointing out the mistake, then so much the better!

A few weeks after the funeral, Dr McKinnon sat behind his desk perusing a letter he had received that day.  That infernal woman!  He thought he had dealt with her and given her sharp shrift when she had the audacity to approach him for money.  He had explained that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead and that the great secret she believed she had discovered was nothing to do with him.  But Mrs Bishop had not kept her mouth shut and the gossip had circulated far and wide.  The British Army had dealt with matters in their own way by sealing all records for 100 years but that was not enough to stem the tide of gossip.  The letter he held in his hand was from George Graham of the General Register Office and was concise and to the point.  It read:

Sir,
It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother?
Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.
Your faithful servant
George Graham

***

I found this story of Jane’s so intrigueing that I just had to check out her research and I thought I’d share some of it here with you, though I can recommend that you do look up some more for yourself. It’s so interesting and only goes to show how well Jane did dramatising it for us.

***

Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, it is believed that at birth he was identified or assigned as female and named Margaret Ann Bulkley, raised as a girl,and that he chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and be able to pursue his chosen career as a surgeon. Thus Barry would be the first Briton raised as female to become a qualified medical doctor.

 Evidence collected by Hercules Michael du Preez indicates that Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland in 1789, the second child of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley, the sister of James Barry, a celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London’s RoyalAcademy.

 Letters refer to a conspiracy between Mrs. Bulkley and some of her brother’s influential, liberal-minded friends (as Francisco de Miranda, the famous Venezuelan revolutionary) to get the teenager – then still known as Bulkley’s daughter Margaret – into medical school. A financial record from the family solicitor indicates that Mary-Ann and Margaret Bulkley travelled to Edinburgh by sea at the end of November 1809. A letter to the same solicitor, sent on 14 December, in which ‘James Barry’ asks for any letters for him to be forwarded to Mrs. Bulkley, mentions that ‘…it was very usefull for Mrs. Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country…’, apparently indicating that the younger traveller had assumed this male identity upon embarking on the voyage.

 He died from dysentery on 25 July 1865. Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who took care of the body, discovered his female anatomy and revealed this information after the funeral. The situation came to light after an exchange of letters between George Graham of the General Register Office, and Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor and the person who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male.

Afterward many people claimed to have “known it all along”. The British Army sealed all records for 100 years. Historian Isobel Rae gained access to the army records in the 1950s, and concluded that Barry was a niece of James Barry the painter. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery under the name James Barry and his full rank.

***

 

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. korimiller
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 01:46:02

    Reblogged this on Kori Miller Writes and commented:
    This is well-written and intriguing.

    Like

    Reply

  2. sharonscorde
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 07:39:46

    I agree – exceptionally well written, and built up to a real ‘wow’ at the end!

    Like

    Reply

  3. jorobinson176
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 12:25:03

    What talent – what a beautifully written story. Thanks for sharing it Christine. I love your posts!

    Like

    Reply

  4. cicampbell2013
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 20:26:06

    Thank you, Jo.
    Yes, I thought Jane’s story was well done too. It was my pleasure to share it.

    Like

    Reply

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