DR. JAMES BARRYMicheael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield
How the niece of the Irish 18c. artist James Barry R.A rose to become an eminent military surgeon and Inspector General of Hospitals – the highest army medical post

He(she) rose to become inspector general of hospitals, the highest army medical posts – and served throughout the British Empire. He was a humane doctor, fervent public health reformer and famous for his peculiarities.  Notoriously irascible he even ticked off Florence Nightingale!  It was only on his death in 1865 was it discovered that ‘he’ was a woman.  One reason she was never found out was that in Victorian Britain no-one would even contemplate that a woman was capable of becoming a top surgeon!

My tour of Kensal Green Cemetery, where I sometimes show people ‘James Barry’s’ grave…led me to want to find out more about her story – hence discovering this biography. Its dual authorship (a surgeon and a novelist) means that it is exceptionally well researched but also a very good read.  It is particularly topical, as Dr. Barry had to face the dilemma of how to deal with an outbreak of cholera in Corfu, whether to ‘go into lock-down’ with the inevitable disastrous consequences for the trade of the island, or to ride it out hoping to isolate cases and control the epidemic.


The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

In 1857 Charles Dickens met a young actress named Ellen Ternan, and so began an affair, conducted in absolute secrecy, that lasted the rest of his life.  From this date on Dickens not only supported Nelly, but her mother and 2 sisters.  The affair was kept secret and denied by the surviving close family members and the Dickens Fellowship until the death in 1933 of his last surviving child, Henry Fielding Dickens.

As with all Claire Tomalin’s biographies – brilliantly researched yet eminently readable.  So much has been written about Dickens but this gave me a whole new perspective on Dickens the man, but did little I am afraid to endear him to me, …in fact quite the opposite.  A great writer and philanthropist but a hypocrite of the first order!


The life of Dora Jordan, actress and mistress of Prince William (later William IV)

Dora Jordan, the daughter of a Dublin milliner was acclaimed as the leading comic actress of the day but had another life as mistress to Prince William, third son of George III (and later to become King William IV) . Unmarried, the pair lived in a villa on the Thames and had ten children together until William, under pressure from royal advisers, abandoned her. The story of how Dora moved between the worlds of the eighteenth-century theatre and happy domesticity, of her fights for her family and her career makes a classic story of royal double-standards and female courage.

Before reading this book, I had imagined Mrs Jordan to be just another of the actress-mistresses of royalty, happy to be brought out of poverty.  But Dora Jordan was an impressive and intelligent woman, and fought the royal establishment when they forced William to abandon her….echoes of Princess Margaret.  A sad but fascinating book about a truly indomitable woman.

I also recommend  SAMUEL PEPYS  – THE UNEQUALLED SELF and DICKENS – A LIFE – also by Claire Tomalin


Stories of the adventurous young women who sailed to India during the Raj in search of husbands

From the late 19th century when the Raj was at its height, many of Britain’s young men went out to India to work as administrators, soldiers and businessmen. With the advent of steam travel and the opening of the Suez Canal, countless young women, suffering at the lack of eligible men in Britain, and some considered too plain, too poor or too old to make a good catch at home, followed in their wake.  With men outnumbering women by roughly four to one, romances were conducted at alarming speed and marriages were frequent. But after the wedding, life often changed dramatically: whisked off to a remote outpost with few other Europeans for company, they found it a far cry from the social whirlwind of their first arrival.  Sadly the few who did not manage to ‘hook a husband’ sailed back to Britain and were cruelly dubbed ‘Returned Empty’!

I loved this book as it gave a most vivid insight into the daily lives of some of the most intrepid women who had to face the many challenges of India.  Many eye-witness accounts and private diaries are quoted, but it never gets overwhelming or too academic!  Some women thrived and some struggled…..some stories were hilarious, some heart-breaking.


Lady Hester Stanhope shocked Victorian Society by travelling alone in the Middle East, taking lovers and eventually being hailed by the Bedouin

Lady Hester Stanhope defied social convention to become a powerful figure in the Middle East.  Following the death of her uncle Sir William Pitt in 1806 she left England as a young woman, choosing the excitement of travel and adventure over the life of a spinster in polite London society. She unashamedly enjoyed a string of lovers and established her own exotic fiefdom in the Lebanese mountains where she died in 1839. As the greatest female traveller of her age, she was the first western woman to cross the Syrian desert, where she was hailed by the Bedouin as their ‘Star of the Morning’.

At first I could not believe this was a biography rather than a novel as Lady Hester’s escapades are hardly to be believed even if she were alive today!.  Given Syria’s recent history this also is a very poignant book as she was the first European woman to enter Palmyra….


The remarkable life of Gertrude Bell, who helped found modern Iraq

Archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author, poet, photographer, mountaineer and nation builder, Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 to a world of privilege and plenty. She travelled extensively in Europe and was an accomplished mountaineer – achieving the first ascent of a peak in Switzerland  – the Gertrudspitze, named after her!  She developed a passion for archaeology and languages and became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German, and also spoke Italian and Ottoman languages. She turned her back on her early life for a passion for an Arab people, becoming the architect of the independent kingdom of Iraq and seeing its first King Faisal onto the throne in 1921.

I was amazed when I read this book of the sheer courage and enterprise of Gertrude Bell.  Those who know me well know I love travelling, especially off the beaten track and also have a love of languages….and one of the countries high on my list to visit is Iraq, having been astonished, impressed and delighted by Iran, which I visited a couple of years ago.  So Gertrude Bell is a particular heroine of mine!


LOVE AMONG THE BUTTERFLIESthe diaries of Margaret Fountaine
The diaries of a wayward, determined and passionate Victorian Lady.
( *only available second-hand on-line, as far as I can discover)

A country clergyman’s daughter born in 1862, rejecting her conventional upbringing and in possession of a modest private income, she set out on a wild and fearless life that took her all over the world. To quote a review…’She went her own way with such charm and gusto that men fell like skittles so that in addition to her fabulous butterfly collection she ‘netted’ amongst others, an Egyptian ship’s officer, an aristocratic Hungarian, a Sicilian butterfly hunter and a married Syrian dragoman, with whom she spent 28 happy years’.

This book consists of diary extracts, so is quite dense and fragmented to read, but it is very well edited and annotated so worth the effort, as the first-hand accounts of her escapades and of the diverse places she visited are fascinating and full of life.  Her butterfly collection was donated to the Norwich Castle Museum….one of the many things on my ‘must-visit-after-this-is-all-over’ list!


The life of one of the most powerful and influential women in Elizabeth I’s reign

Bess, born into a relatively minor gentry family was married at 15 and widowed at 16 and went on to marry a further 3 times, accumulating much wealth in the process. Her fourth marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1567 elevated her to the rank of ‘countess’, and following the earl’s death in November 1590, Bess became one of the richest women in the kingdom and one of the most important women at Elizabeth I’s court. Her shrewd business acumen was a byword, and she was said to have ‘a masculine understanding’, in an age when women had little education and few legal rights.

This is quite a detailed and academic biography, but is still an absorbing read as Bess was such ‘a modern woman in a man’s world’….to quote the Independent’s review..’The Tudor subject of Mary Lovell’s utterly absorbing new biography was far more adventurous with her jackpot winnings than our sheepish modern Brit would ever dare to be with his.’  She did not fight shy of conspicuous consumption in building Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire – which is just self-promotion in bricks and mortar.


The life of Queen Caroline of Brunswick – wife (briefly!) of George IV

This biography charts the nine turbulent years of the marriage of Caroline of Brunswick to the Prince Regent – later to be George IV.  A bitter mismatch, forced on the Prince Regent by his father and Parliament, in exchange for the write-off of  his monumental gambling debts (£650,000), led to the couple separating within the first year of their marriage.  Excluded and isolated from the court, society and her daughter, Caroline eventually fled to the Continent travelling extensively and scandalizing many with, amongst other ‘outrages’ her alleged affair with an Italian footman Pergami.  The final humiliation was her exclusion from George IV’s coronation, left literally ‘in the cold’ outside the Abbey and Westminster Hall.

This is a long and detailed biography as one would expect of Flora Fraser (daughter of Antonia Fraser). If you get somewhat bogged-down in the the machinations of the Regency court, it is worth skimming those to learn of the scandalous behaviour of the Prince Regent, and the hilarious activities of Caroline on her Continental travels. I think nevertheless she warrants inclusion in ‘Indomitable Women’ as she fought a long, lonely and courageous fight to see justice done in the face of overbearing masculine authority.

Also by Flora Fraser – BELOVED EMMAThe life of Emma Lady Hamilton


The shocking and upsetting story of a South African Khoikhoi woman ‘displayed’ on stage as a curiosity at the time of the Abolitionist Movement

In 1810 Saartjie Baartman was London’s most famous curiosity.  She had been brought to England from South Africa by her employer, a free black man (a Cape designation for someone of slave descent) and by an English doctor who worked at the Cape slave lodge. Dubbed ‘the Hottentot Venus ‘ – ‘hottentot’ being the derogatory term used by the Dutch settlers to describe Khoikhoi and San peoples, – they sought to show her for money on the London stage. Famed for her striking physique – in particular her large buttocks -  she was stared at, stripped, pinched, painted (portrait), and ridiculed.  Early on her treatment on the Piccadilly stage caught the attention of British abolitionists, who argued that her performance was indecent and that she was being forced to perform against her will.  But she also became a symbol for them of evils of exploitation and colonialism at a point in history when the British slave trade had been abolished but not slavery itself.

In the light of the ‘black lives matter’ movement, this book has become particularly topical.  It is a distressing book to read, but vividly demonstrates the then attitude of colonial Europeans to ‘people of colour’.

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