Anatomy v. Destiny
IN 1972, AT THE AGE OF 46, James Morris put his finances in order, resigned from his club (the Travellers in London), divorced his wife of more than 20 years, and moved into the house of another woman. So stale and sad a marital caper would normally raise no eyebrows, let alone lead to a book. But Morris' circumstances were rather special. For one thing, the other woman was Morris himself. After undergoing a transsexual operation in Casablanca to shed his manhood and the name James, Morris now lives in Bath, England, under the name Jan Morris, happily experimenting with lipstick, twin sweater sets and pearls.
The pre-Casablanca James Morris seemed one of the least likely people on earth—possibly excepting Joe Namath—who would want to start life anew in a skirt. A brilliant writer, celebrated and comfortably off, he was the apparently happy father of four children. Morris had been an intelligence officer in a crack British cavalry regiment and a glamorous globetrotting correspondent. In 1953, for instance, he climbed 20,000 feet up Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary's group and scooped the world for the Times of London.
When he turned to literature, he raised travel writing to the level of art (Cities, The World of Venice), branched skillfully into history (Pax Britannica), and once turned a bespoke book on, of all things, the World Bank (The Road to Huddersfield) into one of the more memorable popular essays on economics. Yet, as Jan Morris admits in her first book, Conundrum, an autobiography about the switch from "James to Jan," James Morris regularly used to pray "Please, God, make me a girl."
Eternal Womanhood. Why? That is part of the conundrum of the title, and it remains something of a mystery to the end. Like most transsexuals, Morris was never a homosexual or a transvestite. The book convincingly insists that the road to Casablanca was not taken in the pursuit of sexual gratification. It was simply that during the whole of a successful life as a schoolboy, soldier and father—in short, as a male—Morris was tormented by the growing realization that his gender, his inner self, his center of being, his very soul, was feminine. Everything that he eventually did to become Jan was done—he says—from an agonized need for unity between sex and gender, between body and soul. In the process, though, he came to feel that in seeking to become female he was aspiring to a higher order of being. Conundrum quotes Goethe at the end of Faust invoking "eternal womanhood" which "leads us above." Concludes Morris: "I agree with Goethe."
Fortunately for the reader, Jan Morris reads better than Goethe. She writes, in fact, very much like James. Conundrum is a lover's leap removed from those case histories of sexual maladjustment that dish up undigested gobbets of Freud liberally sauced with prurience and self-pity. The book is a brief and graceful, often witty memoir of Morris's inner and outer life. The outer life proceeds from a happy childhood in an artistic upper-class Welsh family (he read Huck Finn, cherished animals, and was taught to "wash my hands before tea"), through years as a choirboy at Christ Church College in Oxford, some time at Lancing, a public school (which James hated), through Oxford and the army (which he enjoyed), as well as work on the Guardian and the Times. (With a touch of male chauvinism, Morris satirizes the liberal Guardian's "stance of suffering superiority, like a martyred mother of ungrateful children.")
Oxford, says Jan, saved James from madness by instilling in him an attitude of tolerance and self-amusement. But in his 20s, James' secret sense of anguishing incompleteness seemed hopeless. The doctors whom he saw blithely suggested that he wear gayer clothes, or bluffly urged him to "soldier on for a lifetime" as a male. Then he met Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a Ceylon tea planter.
Except as "a total declaration of interdependence" or a means of having children, Morris has always regarded sex as the least part of love. The present interchangeability of the rude mechanical word "sex" with the empyrean word "love," seems to him grisly and baneful. In a very English romantic way, though, James had obviously been a great lover—of cities and landscapes, of music and pictures, of friends and children. The book eloquently makes clear that the one person in the world whom Morris has most loved, admired and respected is Elizabeth, and that what Morris is most proud of is his children and the marriage. "It has given nobility," he writes, "to my mostly frivolous life."
He told Elizabeth about his conundrum before they were married in 1949. Long before the term open marriage was fashionable, the Morrises evidently had one—the roles distributed not by tradition but according to talent. James, Morris admits, was not a strong father figure, at least in part because he had to travel so much doing his books. What he tried to be was a kind of devoted patron, whose love and support the children never questioned. "They have known for sure that I was theirs," he says.
If Conundrum were a conventional novel, it would end in this domestic triumph. But marriage did not extinguish Morris's trouble. Few readers are likely to understand exactly why, but the value and affection that Morris conveys about his family make clear what extraordinary pressure he must have felt to do what he finally did. For when the children were well along into their teens, so that Morris and Elizabeth felt that the change would not harm them, he began massive doses of estrogen and opened medical negotiations that led to surgery.
The bemusements of living as a woman after being a man will stir chatter, but are the least important, and in some ways the least interesting aspects of the book. Morris divorced his wife only because he had to take up a woman's identity and passport. As a "sister-in-law," she now sees Elizabeth in Wales on weekends. Jan cries more easily than James did, and is absurdly pleased when she gets an admiring glance from the milkman ("I know it is nonsense but I cannot help it"). She observes, but does not particularly resent that men do not take Jan Morris as seriously in conversation as they once did James Morris.
She confirms what women have said all along: if you are assumed to be incompetent at backing a car and opening bottles, you soon become incompetent.
Jan, who is a tall, weathered, attractive, tweedy-looking Englishwoman, has just started a visit to the U.S. to promote her book—full of fear that she will be regarded as a freak. She and Conundrum will no doubt be attacked by women's liberationists, because both James and Jan have a romantic view of women's nature ("Her frailty is her strength, her inferiority is her privilege") and both believe that there are few more exalted jobs than raising a family. But freakish, no. It is the book's remarkable value that it manages to place what is statistically and socially outlandish within the realm of human loyalty and love."