Saturday, June 22

Life of a Pioneer

Paul Clements, Jan Morris: Life from Both Sides – A Biography London: Scribe, 2022

In May 1953, one of the world’s leading news stories was the attempt by John Hunt’s expedition to be the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest. As we all know, this was a big success, with New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay achieving the goal. It was a British-led expedition, however, and so there was much rapture when the news reached Britain on the eve of the coronation of the new Queen. The person responsible for transmitting the message was 26-year-old Times journalist James Morris. 

Morris was to remain in contact with the members of the expedition, as they held regular reunions; he was especially close to Hillary, who became godfather to Harry, Morris’s second son, born during the expedition.  Morris was also invited by the New Zealand Government to attend Hillary’s funeral in 2008. Yet on meeting the Queen in 2001, Morris had reminded her of having been responsible for getting the news about Everest through to her quickly, only to find Her Majesty looking nonplussed. Morris was embarrassed. The memo that the monarch had apparently missed was that the James Morris of 1953 was in 2001 Jan Morris – had in fact been Jan Morris since 1972.

Paul Clements’s fine biography details what had happened in the interim and relates it to Morris’s long and prolific career in print. The journalist Morris became a full-time author, covering a very broad range of topics, but was known primarily as a travel writer and an historian. Morris produced best-selling books on Venice, Oxford, and Trieste, and, under the composite title of Pax Britannica, wrote three volumes about the British Empire (1968, 1973, 1978): its development, its heyday, and the decline which readers from the 1960s onward were actually living through. The books were all well-researched, and written in a lively and accessible style. 

In the late 60s and early 70s, James Morris had finally grappled with a strong feeling that had possessed him from childhood, a feeling of ‘entombment in the male physique’. He went on to fulfil the hope that he could adjust his body to his sense of self. After a course of hormone treatment, he underwent what was later called gender reassignment surgery. This procedure was still rare, with little information available, but those who shared Morris’s predicament had been heartened by the research revealed in Dr Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966). Before the surgery, Morris experimented with living as a woman, repairing regularly to live in Jericho, the working-class district of Oxford, a far cry from the University town of dreaming spires that her volume on the city had celebrated. After the surgery, undertaken at the age of 46, Morris published in 1974 an account of the experience called Conundrum.

Recalling the conquest of Everest many years after the event, Morris remarked on how the first attainment of the summit had demythologised the mountain: now making the attempt was commonplace, undertaken by hundreds of people every year – it had become a fashion. Considering the issue of gender reassignment from fifty years on, it would be possible to register a similar change. Morris hoped that Conundrum would encourage others who shared her conviction of being in the wrong body to take steps to change this, and indeed she received many letters, including from people who now felt emboldened to escape from other ‘cages’ unrelated to gender or sexuality. On the other hand, there is now arguably the risk of gender reassignment becoming a fashion among young people – or, to put it less flippantly, to be grasped at as a solution to the various kinds of mental and emotional distress that adolescents suffer, but which may be temporary and/or unconnected with gender dysphoria.

In 1972, Jan Morris was a pioneer, and although not the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, she was the first to produce a volume about the experience. Having been publishing books since 1956, she had an audience already, although hardly one whose response she could be confident about. She could also relate the sense of herself expressed in Conundrum to aspects of her condition that were evident in her life and publications. Morris was the child of a Welsh working-class father and a middle-class English mother. Her Welshness became crucial to her, and she lived much of her life in Wales, sharing Welsh nationalist feelings. On the other hand, although Wales was the first target of British colonialism, and colonialism in general involved many evils, part of Morris was nostalgic for its railways, its hotels, and some of its leading personalities. She had devoted three long volumes to memorialising it, and it was not all bad. In addition, although devoted to Wales, Morris returned nearly every year to the excitement of Manhattan, and only stopped travelling abroad in advanced old age. She felt an affinity too with Trieste, an Italian port which had a varied history and a culturally mixed population: she found it hallucinatory, redolent of the liminal state of the crossroads which it had often been, and where she had often felt she existed. 

One question that long fascinated Morris’s readers was how the gender reassignment affected relations with her family. At 22, after a whirlwind romance, James Morris had married in 1949 Elizabeth Tuckniss, a couple of years older, who had spent World War II decoding signals in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. As was common at the period, Elizabeth gave up work on marriage; the couple had five children, three sons and two daughters (the first daughter dying in infancy). When James transitioned, the pair had to divorce, but after civil unions became legal in Britain early this century, they underwent the ceremony.  The pair lived together right through to when Jan died in 2020 at the age of 94. Jan described their relationship after her transition as being like that of sisters-in-law. 

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was always reticent about their life as a couple, except on one occasion. Critical and public response to Conundrum ran the gamut from celebration to rampant bigotry. After a TV panel discussion where Jan had faced much hostility about her choice to transition, Elizabeth wrote to the Sunday Times in protest. She put the question: ‘Is it more noble and admirable to stay a father, deeply unhappy, increasingly suffering, even suicidal (surely a destructive force), than to be a bold and courageous person who has united the family by love and happiness?’

The evidence from the children about the state of the family is more mixed. The eldest son Mark remained on good terms with Jan, while the third son, christened Tom, was close, embracing his Welsh heritage and changing his name to Twm.  Harry, the one born during the Everest expedition, was more distant, personally and often geographically, saying of the post-transition Jan Morris that ‘we were introduced, but never actually got to know one another’. The really unhappy one was the youngest, daughter Suki, only eight at the time of the transition. She and Twm were told by their parents not to call Jan their father any longer, but were not given any other help. Suki also felt that Jan was constantly belittling her appearance and her choices, putting her down. I wondered myself if the changed dynamic of the family affected Suki the most as the only girl: Jan, as the new woman in the house, registered her (unwittingly?) as competition, as the younger female who had to be kept in her place?

Clements’s biography leaves us with Jan Morris as a conundrum in herself. Morris had no model to work with, either in reconfiguring family life after her transition, or in dealing with the Queen’s (or anyone else’s) failure to understand that James had become Jan. The book does make us think about the impact of our significant choices on others; it also, nonetheless, arouses admiration for the pioneers, however flawed they may have been.