The ‘Conundrum’ Faced By a Pioneering Trans Travel Writer
In this exclusive excerpt, biographer Paul Clements offers a glimpse into way the late prolific English writer Jan Morris navigated a transphobic, misogynist literary world.
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Jan Morris, who died at age 94 in 2020, was an extraordinarily prolific English historian, Booker Prize–shortlisted novelist, and travel writer (a term she found “demeaning,” despite the fact that so much of her seven-decade career took her across continents). She is now the subject of a new biography by Paul Clements, a longtime friend of Morris’s for 30 years. Launching her writing career as a correspondent for the Times of London covering the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, and the Adolf Eichmann trial for the Manchester Guardian, Morris lived in North Wales with her wife and five children, and was regarded as much a pioneer for her work as she was for coming out as trans and having gender-affirmation surgery in 1972 in Casablanca, which she documented in her book, Conundrum (1974).
In this exclusive excerpt, Clements describes Morris’s experience of coming out as a trans woman among her cohort of writers, friends, and journalists, who were shocked by and often insensitive about her transition. The way she grappled with their reactions is particularly notable, especially considering the lack of trans representation or community at that time.
At the end of 1974, still living in her flat in Bath, [travel writer] Jan Morris looked back on a momentous two years. It had been the most eventful and disturbing period of her life, and she had been on a punishing schedule. Her desire now was to throw a cordon sanitaire around her personal history and move on; but this would prove a struggle: Morris’s gender journey would impact on how her books were regarded for the rest of her life, and [her 1974 memoir about her transition] Conundrum will undoubtedly continue to be a major part of her legacy for many years to come.
Morris’s transition had surprised many writers and acquaintances. Her longtime friend Alan Whicker was stunned to learn about it: “I have no gay or transsexual hangups, yet from then on was always apprehensive about my first post-operation meeting with [Morris], who I liked enormously and greatly admired; we had seen a lot of action together. So, should I shake his hand? Kiss her cheek? Do I buy him a beer? Offer her cucumber sandwiches?” Whicker need not have worried: “After some forty years of postcards and occasional phone calls, Jan and I collided naturally and with glad cries in the crowd outside the Hong Kong Club. ‘You haven’t changed a bit,’ she said, smiling. ‘Can’t say the same for you,’ I said, observing the twinset and pearls.”
Critics of Morris’s books would sometimes bring up her transition, even when it was not strictly relevant to the title under review. Anthony Burgess reviewed Morris’s collection Places for The New York Times in 1973. He thought that Morris had captured the spirit and feel of places well, but not often the smell, saying, “You need Graham Greene for rankness and palpable seediness …. I wish Morris would write another book in the vein of Greene’s Travels With My Aunt and really use Fiji, Colombo, Darjeeling and the rest of the places.” Burgess’s reference to Greene’s book was a knowing aside, since Morris had written in Conundrum that she had become “an adoring if interfering aunt to her children.” In Burgess’s biography, he was quoted as saying, “I knew [Morris] when she was James – knew him, never met her. I never suspected he’d change his sex. Seemed quite a masculine type, raised a family and so forth. Bit small-boned, perhaps, but plenty of bristle.”
Writers, journalists, and broadcasters never lost their fascination with Jan Morris’s story, but she was adept at sidestepping their questions. She deflected awkward ones by introducing a non sequitur, switching topics at a tangent in a tradition usually reserved for politicians. In a Sunday newspaper profile of her in the early 1990s, the critic Kate Kellaway described a sense of unease:
“Jan Morris gets to her feet to shake hands, her tall mannish frame contradicted by her soft face and high voice. She wears a soft primrose jersey, a string of yellow beads and looks with her cloud of white hair and intense blue eyes — like an exacting Grandma. ‘No questions about me,’ she said before the interview. Now she considers each question gingerly, as if it might be a trick, a cloak for something else. I realize that, as her interlocutor, I view her in the same way. It’s as if she — … reinvented as Jan — were the embodiment of a trick question … it’s impossible, at a first meeting, to cancel curiosity, to discount her appearance or to shake off the uncomfortable sense that one is talking to a benign — even coquettish — woman one moment, a gruff, potentially unforgiving man the next. It makes a quicksand of ordinary conversation, and covert uncertainty increases precisely because she disallows it.”
Jan Morris appeared as a castaway on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs twice — nearly 30 years apart. Nine years after Conundrum was published, she was interviewed by Roy Plomley, who had devised the program in 1942, and was given an easy ride about her former life. It is unusual, although not impossible, for celebrities to be asked to appear again, and in 2002 Morris was invited back. Her encounter this time was with a much less deferential presenter, Sue Lawley, whose style of interviewing was a world removed from Plomley’s easy-going approach. Lawley, who had taken over the presentation reins of the program from Michael Parkinson in 1988, was a hard-nosed news anchor who had quizzed Gordon Brown on his sexuality in an earlier program. With Morris, Lawley posed searching questions about her transition, to which she responded with quick-witted rebuffs, becoming increasingly irritated with the line of questioning and saying, “I’m not enjoying this a bit.” She became testy, saying that her childhood was entirely happy and she had a marvelous time: “People have been trying to find Freudian reasons for my condition … but I have no explanation for how I was born into the wrong sex.” Morris outlined how she and Elizabeth were good friends: “It was a marriage of friendship and I had no secrets from her. I told her everything — she deserves a lot of credit. She was the key to the latch of my conundrum.”
Morris, as usual insisting on the maintenance of certain contradictions, resisted Lawley’s “black and white” approach and said she was happy at one level and unhappy at another. She said, “It was a spiritual and metaphysical thing to do. People try to define something that is indefinable. I accepted it as it came and to pin down exactly why I did it jars with me. It’s like trying to define a piece of music by Debussy.”
After its publication, Conundrum quickly climbed into the ranks of bestsellerdom, which was no surprise given the amount of publicity the book attracted. When the first hardback print run sold out, paperback reprints were published in both Britain and the U.S., and the book was published in foreign languages. In Sweden and Germany, it was still called Conundrum, while in the Spanish and Italian editions the title became El enigma and in French L’énigme. In Portuguese it was entitled Conundrum, or Enigma and, in Morris’s own words, “something extremely beautiful in Japanese.” Some editions also featured photographs of Morris both pre- and post-transition.
Numerous paperback editions were published, and while the text remained unchanged, Morris wrote a new introduction to the edition which came out in 1987, 13 years after the original hardback, adding an epilogue in which she said that Elizabeth, their children, and herself were all living happily ever after. She looked back at the stir the book had caused, still holding to the opinion that, “on the whole,” the responses had been kind: “I was lucky that it all came to light in what is now often disparagingly called the Permissive Age, but which still seems to me, for all its excesses, a time of joyous liberation throughout the Western world—liberation most obviously from sexual inhibitions, but also from innumerable unnecessary assumptions and taboos.” A new color cover illustration for the 1987 edition shows an image of a woman with a twinkly-eyed smiling countenance, healthy complexion and white hair wearing a yellow jumper and white beads, remarkably different from the original back cover of the 1974 hardback.
In the epilogue, Morris wrote that by the mid-’80s she had dropped out of the limelight: “It is true that occasionally even now a critic, reviewing my new book on Wales or Anglo-Indian architecture, will drag in what I have come to think of as the Conundrum Factor, and an eminent London pundit once went so far as to collate my views on monarchy (I am a lifelong republican) with my sexual peculiarities. I do not doubt that when I go the event will be commemorated with the small back-page headline: SEX-CHANGE AUTHOR DIES.” She added: “But who cares? For every enemy Conundrum has made me, it has made me a thousand friends. All across the world, wherever I travel, I find myself among comrades because of it … who see in the story metaphors beyond mere physical change of psychological twist.”
Excerpted with permission of the publisher from the book Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides, written by Paul Clements and published by Scribe Publications in December 2022. Available wherever books are sold.
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