I first met Jan Morris in the offices of the publisher Random House in New York in the early 1980s. I was a junior editor there, and was invited to meet someone I considered to be one of the most intriguing writers I had read. This was nothing more than a handshake and an acknowledgement of our shared Britishness in New York. But I was immediately struck by Jan’s warmth and affability, qualities that are key to her genius for talking to people and drawing stories from them. (For while Jan is less of an extrovert in person than in her writings, and indeed in some ways is quite reserved, she nonetheless possesses a remarkable ability, surely learned in the world of journalism, to nose out a story.)
Ten years later I had the privilege of becoming Jan’s literary agent at A. P. Watt, taking over from somebody who had left the firm. I remained in this role until I retired from full-time agenting in 2013. We stayed in touch, however, and our meetings led to my writing a short book about her, Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris.
Her own memoir, Conundrum, had first been published in 1974, just two years after the gender reassignment operation that turned James Morris into Jan, and which had created a sensation. Such operations had been conducted before, but not on anyone whose profile stood as high as James Morris’s. Furthermore, he was in some ways a man’s man, one of the leading journalists of his day, the author of scoops on the Everest expedition of 1953 and the Suez débâcle of 1956. That such a man should choose to become a woman seemed extraordinary. Thousands of letters poured in, as well as invitations to appear on television and radio in Britain and elsewhere. As Jan observes in her memoir, ‘Half a lifetime of diligent craftsmanship had done far less for my reputation than a simple change of sex!’
Conundrum is the nearest thing Jan has written to an autobiography. But as she herself acknowledges, in a sense all her writing is autobiographical. Her books represent conversations between Jan Morris and the places she is writing about. Her approach is wholly subjective, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that she has imposed her personality on the entire world. Yet Conundrum is indeed unique among her books. It is a wise, witty and profoundly moving account of an experience which is surely almost impossible to communicate to those who have not themselves gone through it.
The book begins with the simple statement that Jan was ‘three or four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl’. As this conviction grew, James was ‘not unhappy’ but ‘habitually puzzled’. He went to the Cathedral Choir School at Christ Church in Oxford, and then to Lancing College, having ‘fumbling’ homosexual experiences along the way. But his wish to be female was not about sex, rather about spirit. In the British Army, as James and his friend Otto rode in the back of a truck on a starlit night in the Suez Canal Zone, Otto turned to him and stammered ‘G-g-god . . . I w-wish you were a woman.’ This wish, James’s own fervent wish, became increasingly hard to bear, and in the end he had to do something about it.
In recent years transgendering has become almost fashionable. There are stories about it in newspapers and magazines practically every day. Tom Hooper’s adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne, was a great success (Hooper crediting Conundrum as an important source of inspiration and information, by the way). It is perhaps difficult for us now to appreciate just how momentous a decision this was for James in the 1960s and early 1970s. The sheer bravery of the act is easy to underestimate. James was about to change his ‘form and apparency – my status too, perhaps my place among my peers . . . my reputation, my manner of life, my prospects, my emotions, possibly my abilities’. What would the ultimate consequences be? He couldn’t then know.
The first transgender operations were carried out in Germany in 1930. The word used then was ‘transsexualism’, not ‘transgender’, and it was only towards the end of the twentieth century that the word transgender came into common use. An early case was that of Lili Elbe, the ‘Danish girl’ of the book and film. By the 1960s such operations were if not commonplace then at least carried out routinely. For people in Britain the most famous instance was that of April Ashley. But people who were willing to adopt such an extreme remedy were nonetheless still considered freaks. Were their problems physiological or psychological? To this day there appears to be no firm consensus on this. In an introduction to the 2001 edition of Conundrum Jan wrote of research which suggested that a region of the hypothalamus, at the floor of the brain, was abnormally small in transsexuals. But there is no widely agreed hypothesis on the subject. Jan takes little interest nowadays in the subject of transgendering, however. Her feeling is that it was all a very long time ago and that she has said all she wants to say about it in her book.
The strength of feeling Jan Morris expresses about James’s condition is often startling.
My work was well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, and the opportunities I was offered were almost unbounded. But I wanted none of it. It was repugnant to me. I thought of public success itself, I suppose, as part of maleness, and I deliberately turned my back on it, as I set my face against manhood . . . I was cultivating impotence.
This feeling that James’s body was not just wrong but hateful is one that caused him utter despair in his thirties. He even contemplated suicide. And yet there is a remarkable context to these feelings, since James Morris was at the time the loving husband of his wife Elizabeth and the equally loving father of four children. (There was a fifth child, who died at the age of two weeks; this is movingly described in Conundrum.)
James and Elizabeth met in London shortly after the end of the Second World War and were married in 1949. James told Elizabeth about his feelings at the outset, and Elizabeth accepted them. Not the least remarkable aspect of Jan Morris’s life is that the marriage survived and transcended the problems posed by James’s condition. Furthermore, the children, who were aged between around 9 and 17 during the time of the transition, have stoutly supported Jan throughout. For a time Jan and Elizabeth maintained separate households, Jan in Oxford and later Bath, and Elizabeth in North Wales, but the relationship never foundered. In 2008 they were formally reunited in a civil partnership ceremony. They live together in the converted stable block of the plas, the big house they owned for many years near the village of Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd.
Naturally one of the questions readers of Conundrum have asked is ‘What about sex?’ Jan is perhaps a little evasive about this, and understandably so. Her desire to be a woman was not about wanting to have sexual relations with men, though she does rather charmingly describe the pleasures of being flirted with. A marriage that produces four children must be to some extent sexually healthy. But it is to Jan’s credit as a writer that the reader does not dwell on this for long. We accept that for her, sex was not so much a physical as a spiritual matter.
Jan Morris wrote Conundrum very soon after the operation, and by now, nearly fifty years after the event, it seems clear that it is describing a transitional emotional state. Jan writes:
The more I was treated as a woman, the more a woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be oddly incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming . . . Men treated me more and more as a junior . . . and so, addressed every day of my life as an inferior, involuntarily, I accepted the condition. I discovered that even now, men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative and certainly less self-centred than they are themselves: so I generally obliged them.
Many women readers have objected strongly to this characterization. It was as though, having been a chivalrous man, Jan now wanted to be a damsel in distress. Some critics stated flatly that while she might have undergone a physical transformation, she had no idea what it was actually like to be a woman. Jan claimed to have become more emotional. ‘I cried very easily, and was ludicrously susceptible to sadness or flattery. Finding myself less interested in great affairs . . . I acquired a new concern for small ones. My scale of vision seemed to contract, and I looked less for the grand sweep than the telling detail.’
For anyone who knows the Jan Morris of today and has read fairly widely in James/Jan’s oeuvre, these statements written in 1973 sound unconvincing. And Jan would appear now to accept this. I suspect there is no real difference between what Jan Morris in her later life has been as a person and a writer, and what James Morris would have been had he remained a man. As regards her competence, anyone who has had the experience of being a passenger in her car as she drives down the rutted road to her home will attest to her skills and enthusiasm.
In her writing, while some critics for a while claimed to detect a change in tone, I don’t think there is any persuasive evidence for such a change. The sensibility, conditioned early by High Anglican Christianity and shaped by readings of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, remained a constant. Conundrum itself remains an essential book, one of the seminal books of the late twentieth century. Its importance may be considered alongside that of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. It has been a beacon whose light has stretched far and wide. Jan Morris was a pioneer not in that she took the brave step she did, but in that she was able, with her superb literary gifts, to communicate her experience so powerfully to other people, many of whom shared the distress and confusion she herself had felt. Conundrum is a modern classic.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 61 © Derek Johns 2019
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 46: Conundrum
About the contributor
Derek Johns has been a bookseller, editor, publisher and literary agent. He is a former trustee of English PEN, a member of the Advisory Committee of the Booker Foundation, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.