Other Writing: Short Stories and Essays

Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction 

(Palgrave Studies in Life Writing) 1st ed. 2022 Edition Julia Novak (Editor), Caitríona Ní Dhúill (Editor)

Featuring “A Way Out of the Prison of Gender”: Interview with Novelist Patricia Duncker 

Patricia Duncker’s second novel, James Miranda Barry (1999), has become a classic among biofictions of gender. The novel imagines the life and career of a distinguished British military surgeon of the nineteenth century, whose sex was reportedly revealed after his death to be female. Resurrected as an icon of gender resistance in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Barry has been claimed as both a transgressive feminist heroine – a woman who dared enter the masculine public sphere in disguise and thereby demonstrated the instability and arbitrariness of conventional gendered divisions – and as a transgender man who succeeded in living his true identity. Recently, historians have also advanced the theory that Barry may have been intersex. Subtly refusing to take sides in this ongoing debate, Duncker’s James Miranda Barry reworks the biographical data into a compelling portrait of a taciturn, determined protagonist whose identity remains elusive. The novel has been lauded for its critical focus on “the frustrated desire to know the self and the past in terms of gender binaries and static sexual identity categories”, and for demonstrating “how the past can resist the desire to understand others and ourselves in terms of limiting gender norms” (Funke 216).

Duncker’s more recent historical novel Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (2015) is no less concerned with questions of gender. A “clever comedy of Victorian manners” (Merritt), it hinges on the discrepancy between eminent novelist George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans’s) own personal life, which was no stranger to scandal, and the conventional plots and

fates that she metes out to her female characters. Duncker’s original treatment of the neo- Victorian “work vs life” topos, beloved of biographers, pits the figure of the historical author against that of a young (fictional) heroine and ardent Eliot reader, Sophie. Through their confrontation, Duncker investigates the life choices open to Victorian women in what she herself describes as an “echo chamber of nineteenth-century writing and discourses” (Duncker interview).

In this interview, begun at the “Herstory Re-Imagined” conference at King's College, London on 16 December 2019, Duncker reflects on her choice of subjects, her strategies for representing gender in biofiction, and on the pleasures and risks of writing about historical characters from a twenty-first century standpoint. 

More about the Book - Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction

This volume addresses the current boom in biographical fictions across the globe, examining the ways in which gendered lives of the past become re-imagined as gendered narratives in fiction. Building on this research, this book is the first to address questions of gender in a sustained and systematic manner that is also sensitive to cultural and historical differences in both raw material and fictional reworking. It develops a critical lens through which to approach biofictions as ‘fictions of gender’, drawing on theories of biofiction and historical fiction, life-writing studies, feminist criticism, queer feminist readings, postcolonial studies, feminist art history, and trans studies. Attentive to various approaches to fictionalisation that reclaim, appropriate or re-invent their ‘raw material’, the volume assesses the critical, revisionist and deconstructive potential of biographical fictions while acknowledging the effects of cliché, gender norms and established narratives in many of the texts under investigation.

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