Jan Morris’s Conundrum – a period piece?

The 2001 edition of this 1974 memoir by legendary journalist and travel writer Jan Morris on her male to female sex transition starts with the modest disclaimer that the book has aged, and it is “a period piece.” Perhaps it is but in what sense?

Source: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/30/jan-morris-conundrum/

Surely, it is an enjoyable read: just like its author, charming and gracious at 93, the book has aged very well. The story is relatable, it is told in highly readable style, with humour and frankness and gave a rounded picture of Morris the human being. There remains some mystery about the causes of her condition – this is one interpretation of the title. The book also leaves at least this reader uncertain whether the rigid binary of male and female is tenable or desirable. Ultimately this is neither a scientific book, queer theory tract or a political manifesto, rather a personal memoir written from the inside. It is the story of how Morris, through some inner turmoil and many external hurdles achieves what she wants (although want is perhaps not the right word): first as a small boy crouching under the piano, feeling an obscure existential unease, then ever more clearly realising its source, and finally, in her early fourties, after a lengthy process of psychological, hormonal and surgical treatment, and a legal recognition of the change, she feels to have become a woman, body, mind and soul. Morris emphasises the spiritual aspect of this change but does not get bogged down in metaphysical, religious or theoretical speculation about the natural or social aspects of sex and gender, or more specifically, what it “really” means to be a woman – a highly topical issue in current public discourse.

Of the 19 chapters of this short book (some 150 pages), at least half is about her family and professional life. And he has reason to be proud of his achievements in the military, as a journalist reporting on the conquest of the Mount Everest, numerous travel books and best-selling historical synthesis (3 volumes about the last hundred years of the British Empire, the first two written as James, the last as Jan).

What we get from this book is a rounded self-portrait of a complex personality – she is proud of being Welsh and English, she likes adventure and also gains some first-hand experience of world events such as WWII and the Suez conflict. She observes close-up the decline of the British Empire and paints memorable portraits of some of his professional contacts. These “career” chapters gently convey her conservative convictions as well. Her coservatism is more political for instance in her comparison of her work at the Times (a mixture of admiration and bemusement) and the Guardian (with a more satirical look at left radicalism). More attitudinal in the more lyrical passages about her house, village and the Welsh countryside.

However, probably most readers focus on the conundrum at the core and raison d’etre of this slight volume. Certainly, when it was first published, what most readers wanted to hear about the subjective experience of a famous transgender person but were also curious about the sensationalist aspects: what happens to the genitalia. After all, back in 1974 when the book was published, sex reassignment or transition was exceptionally rare, also somewhat dangerous medically. Especially under the circumstances it happened in Casablanca, it was a veritable adventure. And Morris provides the reader sufficient medical detail. Surely, tastes differ as to what is too much, too little or just enough. At any rate the book manages to be candid without requiring parental guidance if it comes into a young person’s hands.

To be sure, the book is a period piece in the sense that the way things happened could not have happened 10 or 20 years earlier or later. In a sense, Morris was growing up at the right time. In the 1950s she struggled but finally managed to find a psychiatrist who understood her situation. In the 1960s she struggled but finally managed to find a surgeon – true, not in Europe or America but in Morocco. While the history of gender dysphoria is long, its social and legal recognition, at least in the West has a much shorter timeline.  

These social aspects are also noteworthy. Probably the fact that the social acceptance of her new gender was relatively smooth has to do not only with traditional British middle- and upper-class tolerance towards eccentricity and respect for privacy but also with the transition being from the more privileged to the less privileged gender. Morris was well aware that in the 1970s, her transition meant giving up significant male privilege. Not only had she to leave all-male clubs or be only allowed in different rooms, but in most professional circles and public arenas, as a woman her voice was suddenly given less weight than previously. While she clearly perceives and records this, she does not pause to analyse potential political implications of this gender equality. Surely, another writer with a different character, like Edouard Louis in his The End of Eddy, would have made much more of the political implications of this personal experience. Nearly 50 years later, feminism having achieved much and since the 2010s transgender equality movements being much stronger and its conflicts with feminism more in the spotlight, male to female transition generates political controversy of a different sort, concerning, for instance, all-female protected places and public toilets. So, paradoxically, some of the relative ease of moving from the more privileged to the less privileged gender has disappeared.

Morris locates femininity not in the anatomy but spiritually. Is she ultimately committed to a sort of essentialism or pioneering something more radical? While for the most part, the book assumes the biological, social and spiritual reality of the dichotomy, there are hints that she finds the binary constricting. Although coming to this realisation probably has taken longer. The title of a much later interview say it well: “I am both“. In this sense, the book reflects an earlier phase: it does not yet speak with a clear and articulate non-binary voice.

In retrospect one could be forgiven for thinking that she benefitted from the best of both worlds, first having a heterosexual family: a loving wife and several children, then the enormous luck of her family remaining together after the transition. However lucky she has been, and she gratefully acknowledges this, it is perhaps best seen not as two successful lives. Rather, Morris, in the first half of his life, mdae the best of a miserable condition of being in the wrong body; then in the second half, lived out her life as a woman but with some important compromises. 

One topic that comes short in the book and is to some extent torn between contradictions, concerns these compromises, namely sexuality and desire. Before transition, Morris is very clearly not defining himself as homosexual or same-sex attracted: even though he has some close male relationships, apparently they do not become physical. One young man once said to Morris that he could love him if he were a woman. The torment of this then-apparent impossibility is recorded bu not much emphasised. Instead, Morris suggests that he had luck with a relatively low libido. He surely had some physical attraction to his wife Elisabeth, generating five children does not seem to have been just performing some marital duty. Surely, more could be said about the feelings and thoughts of Elisabeth, with whom Morris is now civil partner. The paucity on this topic may indicate the traditional masculine attitude and/or selfishness. But to be fair, the topic of the family is not entirely neglected but rather discussed with tact. After all, it is Morris’s perspective.

Equally, one wonders how Morris’s sexual life continued after the transition. There are some innocent anecdotes, such as one about an infatuated older taxi driver. Later, jokingly, she fantasises about an afterlife affair with Jacky Fisher, the First Sea Lord during the First World War, “the most handsome man ever”. Yet the most important passages on this are on page 136 where the language convey longing and physical desire…

One might continue guessing whether and how those desires have been fulfilled or whether indeed the familial bond turned out to be stronger than any other passion. But this is a private matter which is justifiably left undisclosed. After all, she is in control, she can choose what to reveal and in what detail. And being a seasoned journalist also helps her.

There is some reticence in the book in other respects too: a lot is described but not explained, certainly not through “deep psychology” or self-analysis. Perhaps it is not just the era and social class that set limits to what is discussed in public and how; Morris’s character is less prone to self-reflection. But what a character it is!

At the end, one cannot stop wondering about the sources of her admirable energy, resilience, good humour and overall life success. Her cheerfulness and extroversion may actually be one ingredient of her survival and mental balance – along with the supportive family, both in her childhood and after marriage, a circle of friends, and the somewhat privileged social or class position she enjoyed all her life.


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