A couple of weeks ago, a prize-winning author named E. J. Levy announced that her novel about Dr. James Barry, a nineteenth-century British surgeon, was going to be published by Little, Brown. We of course know little about the content of this book, and as a scholar of nineteenth century Britain I look forward to reading it, probably. One thing we do know, however, is that Levy has decided to refer to Barry - a doctor who spent his personal and public life as “James Barry,” but who had been christened “Margaret Ann Bulkley,” and, as we would say now, ‘assigned female at birth’ (AFAB) - with the feminine pronouns “she” and “her,” and as a “heroine for our times.” (For a deeper account of Barry’s life and its relevance to the controversy, see Jack Doyle’s excellent account here.) It’s a transphobic position she has taken - it’s historically wrong and it’s insulting to trans people. Before explaining why, I want to offer a quick disclaimer: Levy has written a novel, not a work of scholarship - I don’t think the novel should be censored, though if I were an upcoming trans historical novelist I probably wouldn’t sign a deal with Little, Brown any time soon. I’m mostly interested in Levy’s public statements about the subject of her novel - which are non-fiction statements offered as objective claims about the past. By all means write poems describing Shakespeare as the Earl of Oxford, or Elseworlds comics in which Joseph Addison was the Scarlet Pimpernel - those opinions are illiterate and stupid, but follow your bliss. The only things that I’m engaging here are the truth-claims Levy has made in public, which I’ll get to in due course. These statements circulate around a pair of questions that interest me profoundly: what do we want from the past, and what do we do when other people want other things from it?
There are plenty in the field of Victorian Studies who would argue that any conversation about whether Barry was “really” a man or “really” trans would be obscurantist and pointless. All that would really matter, such scholars would hold, would be the political use to which the story of James Barry is being put in our present moment. This kind of analysis gets called “strategic presentism,” and it tends to be presented as a politically responsive form of scholarly work - though I think the number of scholars working on Victorian transness, with or without a presentist method, is still, shall we say, “growing.” I respect the presentist position, but it isn’t my own. I think contesting the nature and meaning of past objects and people is important, so I’d argue on those grounds that James Barry’s experience was a kind of trans experience (e.g., he lived as a surgeon in an age when surgeons were men); that the desire he recorded for the historical archive was a kind of trans desire (e.g., he did not wish for his body to be inspected after death); and that that experience and that desire were continuous with those of trans people today. I wouldn’t say, exactly, “James Barry was a trans man,” because that was not vocabulary he could have used. I think that difference is important because attending to its historical specificity keeps faith with the activist work that created and nourishes our trans discourses and spaces. But really, that’s splitting hairs. If anyone is a candidate for “trans man avant la lettre,” it is James Barry. From a scholarly perspective, the masculine pronoun is an easy call.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t places where this kind of question can be usefully posed. A trickier case is George Eliot, the novelist I’ve been writing about so much for the last couple of years. Eliot, also assigned female at birth, wrote under a masculine pseudonym, as of course did a number of other Victorian novelists. But whereas Charlotte Brontë, for example, made no attempt to be thought of as masculine in her private life, Eliot - at least in the first few years after adopting the pseudonym - relished being thought of as male, and was disappointed when people thought otherwise. The means by which Victorian readers came to think of Eliot as a woman was a letter written by, of all people, Charles Dickens, in which he declared his belief that Scenes of Clerical Life, Eliot’s first fiction collection, had been written by a woman. Having been outed by the most famous novelist of the time, Eliot gave up trying to persuade people that a man had written the Scenes - attempts that had been, up until that point, both wide-ranging and passionately pursued. I’ve got an article coming out on Eliot and Freud soon in which I explore trans dimensions of their thought, and throughout, I decline to use any gendered pronouns when referring to the former - by which I mean, I don’t use any gendered pronouns at all, not that I use “they.” It’s easier than it sounds - I’ve done it in this paragraph, for example.
By the way, don’t try to tell me that Barry’s decision to live as a man, or Eliot’s to write as one, was purely opportunistic, and therefore couldn’t have expressed anything that was subjectively cherished or intimately held, beyond a desire to succeed in a man’s world. For one thing, bollocks was it, as I’ve said elsewhere. People sometimes assume Victorian female novelists were not read or not taken seriously, which just isn’t true. That’s of course not to deny the overwhelming structural misogyny in which Victorian women lived, it’s to strengthen our understanding of it. The Victorian hatred of women did not lead men discredit female novelists, but to discredit novels in general (with a few exceptions) because they were often written and read by women. But more importantly, so what if someone’s trans expression was, in part, socially determined? Categories like “man” and “woman” are meaningless outside the social conditions that reproduce them in each historical setting, so sexuality and gender presentations are always, to at least that extent, situational. If one lived in a time when, for example, a category like “doctor” entailed the defining predicate “male,” could we not reasonably refer to an AFAB person’s desire to be a doctor as, in part, a trans desire? Embarking on a hunt for a pure and saintly trans, entirely free from worldly concerns, is going to prove just as fruitless in 2019 as in the 1810s - we’re talking about a complex arrangement of desire, identification, and politics; how could any transition be entirely devoid of a sense of priorities and practicalities? The search is honestly slightly distasteful.
But the really objectionable part of Levy’s position - and it’s a gross rhetorical trick that transphobia has adopted as its signature device - is her framing of the question in terms of complexity and simplicity. “You trans people, always trying to flatten out historical ambiguity! It was far more complex than you make out!” It sounds superficially convincing - I think transphobic people convince themselves - because it sounds like it affirms historical difference, like it respects the difference between the past and the present. But in fact, the claim invariably functions to press a conservative account of the past into the service of a claim about the present. Nothing could have given the game away more completely than this tweet from E. J. Levy:
So much to unpack in such a short encyclical! The attribution to Barry of a posthumous refusal (“e’en in death, I refuse,” intones the mordant voice of a Victorian ghost, rattling the manacles he formed in life); Levy’s apparent but underdetermined identification with Barry. More importantly, note Levy’s framing of this Victorian doctor not merely as someone to whom contemporary “categories” could not apply, but someone who would find our categories “facile” – ie, as someone who has a kind of ahistorical view on gender, who judges us from the standpoint of eternity. Far from respecting a difference between past and present, Levy presents this version past as a moral authority on the present: Barry refused facile gender categories in his day, and so I must refuse facile gender categories in mine. But another way of putting this, with a little more specificity and honesty, would have been “Barry lived as a man in his day, so I must resist those who do the same in my own.” And then lastly, what appears as a plea for complexity is entirely sundered by the fact that Levy does indeed use a gendered pronoun - “she” - rather than avoid them (which, as I say, isn’t as hard one would think). As though the word “she” were intrinsically less facile than “he.” It is as inadequate a piece of reasoning as one could contrive on the subject.
There is no reason to think that scholarly or activist attention to historical transness should be, in principle, any more or less facile than attending to historical femaleness, or lesbianism, or queerness, or masculinity. These categories all inhabit the past in strange ways, and each requires some form of historical desire in order to caress them into meaningfulness - even if just the desire to spend one’s time looking for them. But all of these categories nonetheless manifestly existed in some form in the Britain in the nineteenth century, as did transness. If you wish to abolish all these “gender categories,” well, you’re going to have a hard time writing a historical novel – as a first step you’re going to have to stop using gendered pronouns altogether (which are, precisely, gender categorizations). Barry couldn’t be a “she” any more than a “he.” And using “they” won’t fly, either - neutral is, in linguistic terms, a gender category. Language forces us to make such choices when we refer to things, alas.
Work on trans history is being done all around us - it is smart, it is thorough, and you guys are the ones that look facile. Once you accept that trans people are actually real - that we have a history, and a distinctive and collective set of interests, needs, practices, and desires - you can see the past in a far more nuanced way. It is easy enough to avoid these kinds of errors, once one gives up trying to prove that The Past always thought about gender and sexuality with more nuance than Kids These Days. People make themselves stupider than need to in order to defend versions of that squalid proposition. It sometimes passes for leftist critique, even - though more usually, as in this case, it adopts the tropes of the conservative, the respectable, the cultured. But we didn’t just make this up a couple of years ago because we wanted to start some fights about toilets. We’ve always been here, we’re not going anywhere, and James Barry was one of us.