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Jan Morris
London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
£8.99, 150 pages, ISBN 0-571-20946-7.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Conundrum was, of course, first published in 1974, but this is a new edition, with a brand new and invaluable introduction by the author herself. Jan Morris was originally called James Humphry Morris, which is practically common knowledge. The back-cover blurb says she is "one of Britain's best and most loved travel writers" and that is no exaggeration. Indeed she is also probably the most prolific: the list of her works fills an entire page, in extremely small print. The autobiographical book Conundrum is the profoundly moving and rightly celebrated account of James’s long transformation, from man to woman, from James to Jan. It shocked many readers when it was originally released, but has now become a highly respected classic, although I suppose it continues to offend people who are opposed to sex-changes, on religious grounds for instance.

For the student of gender, such books are always invaluable, but this one offers something extra: it is splendidly written, in Jan Morris's quintessentially English style. For feminist constructionists like myself, more or less psychoanalytical case histories or more or less literary (auto)biographies of male-to-female transsexuals provide a fascinating paradox: the great majority of them provide an explanation / justification which is a variation on the old "woman trapped in a woman's body" essentialist cliché. Yet the very fact that these people "pass" (in the strongest, politicized sense, as in a black person who passes), that they are mistaken for genetic females, is a powerful argument in favor of constructionism.

Morris is no exception to the rule. Chapter 1 begins with this sentence: "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born in the wrong body, and should really be a girl." [1] And a few pages later, she recalls: "I declared myself to be a girl in a boy's body." [6] She also writes that no-one really knows why some people believe at an early age that "despite all the physical evidence, they are really of the opposite sex." [5] This tremendously dated sentence highlights the richness of the material that has since been accumulated since. I suppose she could argue that no-one still really knows, but it is certainly not through lack of trying, and it does not stop dozens of researchers in biology or the humanities from coming forward with dozens of theories on the subject. To begin with, today people are more careful to distinguish between sex and gender, and the two categories are constantly being questioned. Even the use of the word "physical" should be questioned, as the use of the words "anatomical", "physiological" and "biological". Anne Fausto-Sterling for instance has many edifying things to say about this. But as we shall see, Morris does not always sound so dated, although she writes in the 2001 introduction: "This book is already a period piece. It was written in the 1970s, and is decidedly of the 1970s." [ix]

The following chapters, all about growing up in a stylish atmosphere, singing in the terribly distinguished choir school of Christ Church (Oxford) and being educated at Lancing, the very "posh" public school (in the British sense, i.e. private), are equally interesting. We learn without surprise that she was "rather an attractive boy"—I have always wanted to write such a grammatically paradoxical sentence—who discovered "the pleasure of sex" at school: "Inevitably, the English public school system being what it is, I was the object of advances." [19]

Chapter 4 deals with Morris's army days, when s/he felt like a stranger and imposter in a "man's world, the world of war and soldiery" [23]. This did not stop Morris from admiring "the military virtues" and the "powerful sense of family". She writes that "the English world had not yet come apart" [25] and describes a rather civilized milieu (again, Morris is very English, even if her mother was educated at Leipzig and even if she writes that she calls herself Anglo-Welsh and prefers her Welsh side). There were in the military gentlemanly protectors and opportunities for amateur anthropological forays; Morris suffered little persecution in spite of her/his feeling like some sort of undercover outsider:

I invite my women readers to imagine how they would themselves have felt if, successfully disguised as a young man, they had been admitted to this closed and idiosyncratic male society in their late teens. For this is how I conceived my condition. [26]

After the Army, Morris went to Oxford, of course, and continued pondering her/his strange condition. The subsequent chapters encompass interrogations of several natures, including the spiritual kind. Morris went through periods of depression, feeling like a prisoner, occasionally contemplating suicide. S/he never considered simply opting for homosexuality. There is in Chapter 5 a passage I find slightly dubious, and strangely at odds with what precedes and what follows:

[…] I looked on the bright side generally, and adhered to the belief, which I hold to this day, that self-analysis is often a mistake, and leads one only down endless and unprofitable paths of speculation. I did not query my condition, or seek reasons for it. [34]

But this chapter also contains gems like:

I had reached the conclusion myself that sex was not a division but a continuum, that almost nobody was altogether one sex or another, and that the infinite subtlety of the shading from one extreme to the other was one of the most beautiful of nature's phenomena. Sex was like a biological pointer, but the gauge upon which it flickered was that very different device, gender. If sex was a matter of glands or valves, gender was psychological, cultural or in my own view spiritual. If one's sex, I reasoned, fell into the right place along the scale of gender, well and good; if it fell anomalously, too far one way or the other, then there came conundrum. But if one could not shift the scale, one could surely move the pointer. Gender might be beyond definition: sex science could understand. [42]

This gave the book its title, and is followed by the exclamation: "to alter the body!" Then Morris obtained the first estrogen tablets. Sex acts were far from primordial, on the contrary. Morris met and fell for Elizabeth, hiding nothing from her. They had five children, and lost one. The pages that follow detail the gradual transformation—with wife in tow—and the successive jobs, with different employers, exotic travels (Everest and all), the writing, always. They are full of basically conservative politically incorrect pronouncements that will probably infuriate today's often more militant kind of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer folks. This is a far cry from the writings and theories of people like Pat Califia, Kate Bornstein or Susan Stryker. The latter's contribution to the Exeter Third Wave Feminism Conference in July 2002 I remember fondly and vividly. Califia, Bornstein and Stryker are if you will the postmodern answer to Morris's modern stance. They are to Morris what Madonna is to Marilyn Monroe, or Judith Butler to Simone de Beauvoir.

Chapter 12, coming after casual mentions of extraordinary meetings (Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Che Guevera) and very interesting considerations on places like Venice or on the feminine principle (whatever that is), details the effects of the pills Morris took. The whole chapter is available on the Internet somewhere, as it remains a favorite among many transsexual readers. It notably encapsulates the confusion of others, those whose gaze was on Morris, and who needed to know the gender of the person they were facing. To this day I believe there is nothing more upsetting for the average Westerner than not being able to immediately cram in the two safe little boxes marked "male" and "female" every individual in sight, for obvious reasons. Chapter 12 concludes with the lines: "The time had come, I thought, to move to a stage further. I had reached the frontier between the sexes, and it was time for me tentatively to explore life on the far side." [101] Chapter 16 takes us to Casablanca in 1972 and the clinic of the legendary Dr. B., who is more or less cryptically mentioned in many accounts of French transsexuals' lives notably. Chapter 17 begins with the marvelous sentence: "Elizabeth welcomed me home as though nothing in particular had happened […]" [127]. I'm sorry if I indulge in national clichés again, but this sounds so English to me. Naturally the book concludes with Morris facing the world as a woman, after the operation. Unless I am misinformed, she still lives with her wife—I have always wanted to write such a grammatically paradoxical sentence—and hates it when prying reporters ask about her sex life. I myself would not have minded learning a little bit more about the subject. The paragraph which concludes the 2001 introduction is rather moving, and provides a new conclusion to the book, but I do not want to spoil it for the reader.

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