Jan Morris: Both sides now

Jan Morris

Jan Morris

“It is not usually given to a man that after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage he should end up as sister-in-law to his own wife and aunt to his own children.”

Thus begins a profile of one of my favourite writers: Jan Morris, formerly James Morris. The article headlined James and Jan, and written by David Holden, appeared in the New York Times in March 1974, shortly before the publication of Conundrum, Morris’ memoir where he wrote about his sex change.

I haven’t read Conundrum, but I have read about the surgery he underwent in Casablanca in 1972. He wrote about the operation in the essay, Casablanca: A Change of Sex, published in his anthology, The World: Travels 1950-2000.

Casablanca: A Change of Sex
By Jan Morris

(Excerpt from the essay)

In 1974 I published a book Conundrum, about my lifelong conviction that I had been born into the wrong sex, and about my eventual change of sexual role. This had been gradually happening for some ten years, under the influence of hormone treatment, and it had culminated in 1972 with surgery in a clinic run by Dr B at Casablanca, Morocco. The book was intensely personal, of course but did perhaps have some wider significance as a symptom of the more liberated sexual ethics emerging in what was later to be called generally disparagingly the Permissive Age. I did not know Dr B’s address, but when I arrived in Casablanca I looked him up in the telephone book, and was told to come round to his clinic in the afternoon. So I had time to wander about the town.

As a city Casablanca is something less than romantic, being mostly modern, noisy and garish in a pompous French colonial way. The experience I was to have there, though, struck me then as it strikes me now as romantic to a degree. It was really like a visit to a wizard. I saw myself, as I walked that evening through those garish streets, as a figure of fairy tale, about to be transformed. Duck into swan? Scullion into bride? More magical than any such transformation, I answered myself: man into woman. This was the last city I would ever see as a male.

Morris spoke about his sex change again in a Paris Review interview, which I just finished reading. This was a subject he had to face time again, for as Holden wrote in the New York Times, “On the face of things, a less likely candidate for a sex change than James Morris would have been hard to imagine. His whole career and reputation had created an aura of glamorous and successful masculinity. As a young man, after leaving his English boys’ boarding school at the age of 17 toward the end of World War II, he had served nearly five years as an officer in one of Britain’s best cavalry regiments, the 9th Queen’s Lancers.”

Add to that the distinction he climbed the Everest with Hillary and Tenzing as a correspondent for The Times. As the Paris Review notes, ““At twenty-six, having never before climbed a mountain, he scaled three-quarters (twenty-two thousand feet) of Everest to report the first conquest of the mountain. It was a world scoop, and won him international renown. He went on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent, for both the Times and the Guardian.”

Later, he gave up journalism to be a writer.

He had the sex change operation while writing the Pax Britannica trilogy, one of my favourite works. A history of the British empire from Queen Victoria’s coming to the throne in 1837 to the imperial breakup after the Second World War. Romantic, vivid, filled with anecdotes, pen portraits and prose as lush and sensuous as the writings of Lawrence Durrell and John Updike, this is history at its readable best. History as literature.

Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, Book 1 in the trilogy covering the period 1837 to 1897, was published in 1973 – a year after Morris had the operation.

Pax Britannica: The Climax of Empire, Book 2, appeared earlier: it was first published in 1968.

Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat , Book 3, covering the period 1897 to 1965, came out in 1978.

Morris began writing the trilogy as a man and midway through it became a woman. Did that affect the narrative, Morris was asked in the Paris Review interview. The interviewer said:

You begin the trilogy as James Morris. The second volume was written during the ten years of sexual ambiguity when you were taking female hormones but had not yet changed your gender. And the third was written as Jan Morris. To what extent is the character of the trilogy seasoned by this change?

Morris replied:

I truly don’t think at all, really. I’ve reread the books myself with this in mind. I don’t think there is a great deal of difference. It was a purely intellectual or aesthetic, artistic approach to a fairly remote subject. It wasn’t anything, I don’t think, that could be affected much by my own personal affairs . . . less than other things I’ve written.

The interviewer asked:

The very heart of this question is: do you feel your sensibilities at all changed?

Morris replied:

That is a different question. The trilogy: I started it and finished it in the same frame of mind. But I suppose it is true that most of my work has been a protracted potter, looking at the world and allowing the world to look at me. And I suppose there can be no doubt that both the world’s view of me and my view of the world have changed. Of course they have.

Born on October 2, 1926, Morris is 87 now. He had to divorce his wife after the sex change because that was the law, but they continued to live together and were legally reunited on May 14, 2008, in a civil union. The Independent reported at the time:

Jan and Elizabeth have been together now for just under half a century, with most of those years spent in the Welsh village close to where Jan’s father grew up. They have specified that when they die, their headstone will say, in Welsh and English: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life”.

Jan Morris on empire and sex change

(Excerpts from the Paris Review interview}
INTERVIEWER

So let’s start with your Pax Britannica trilogy. Did you have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in mind when you began?

MORRIS

No, not at all. When I began the trilogy I didn’t know I was going to write it. I ought to tell you how I got into writing it. I’m old enough to remember the empire when it still was the empire. I was brought up in a world whose map was painted very largely red, and I went out into the world when I was young in a spirit of imperial arrogance. I felt, like most British people my age, that I was born to a birthright of supremacy; out I went to exert that supremacy. But gradually in the course of my later adolescence and youth my views about this changed.

INTERVIEWER

In what’s now the Queen Victoria volume you demonstrated something you do frequently. You began with the particular, with Emily Eden, and then spread out over the British Empire. The reader sort of grows up with Queen Victoria. In the preface of the first volume you state that you are “chiefly attracted by the aesthetic of empire.” Did this dictate a different approach?

MORRIS

Yes, it did. Because I did not set out to exhibit a moral stance about the empire. I treated it as an immense exhibition. By and large, I accepted the moral views of those who were doing it at the time. Things that would seem wicked to us now didn’t always seem wicked to people in the Victorian age. I accepted that. Since this is an escapist point of view, really, I decided that I would not in any way make it an analysis of empire but rather an evocation. The looks and smells and sensations of it. What I later tried to imagine was this: Supposing in the last years of the Roman Empire one young centurion, old enough to remember the imperial impulses and the imperial splendor but recognizing that it was passing, sat down and wrote a large book about his sensations at that moment. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Said I, But somebody could do it about this still greater empire, the British Empire. Who is that? I asked myself. Me!

INTERVIEWER

As empire began its decline, more frightening than the loss of territory, you say, was the possibility that the British might have lost the will to rule. In what ways was empire’s decline an expression of British character at the time?

MORRIS

In several ways it was. In the more honorable way, I think it was in the way that I was trying to express my responses to the district commissioner of Gaza. There were a great many very decent men who were devoting their lives to the empire. Perhaps, when they began their careers, they did it in a paternalistic way, which is in itself a form of arrogance; by the time I got into it, very few of them were arrogant. They were only anxious to hand it over honorably and at a reasonable speed. I think they did it very well on the whole. Compared with the record of the French leaving their empire, the British did it in a successful, kindly way. But at the same time, of course, the British had been absolutely shattered by two world wars. The first one left the empire physically larger than ever before. The second one was an obvious death knell for it. The British came out of the Second World War an extremely tired and disillusioned nation, exemplified by the fact that they immediately gave the boot to their great hero, Winston Churchill. All they were interested in then was getting back to their island and trying to make it a more decent place to live. In that respect, the will to empire had most certainly gone. And the sense of enterprise and of adventure and of push and of just a touch of arrogance too—of swagger, at least—that had been essential to the extension of the empire. All that had been kicked out of the British. Perhaps a very good thing too.

INTERVIEWER

There was such a show of panache, such a show of grandeur, such pageantry.

MORRIS

You mean the ending of it or the running of it?

INTERVIEWER

The running of it.

MORRIS

The ending of it too was done with a certain panache, a lot of grand pullings down of flags and trumpet calls and royalty going out to kiss prime ministers lately released from jail.

INTERVIEWER

You begin the trilogy as James Morris. The second volume was written during the ten years of sexual ambiguity when you were taking female hormones but had not yet changed your gender. And the third was written as Jan Morris. To what extent is the character of the trilogy seasoned by this change?

MORRIS

I truly don’t think at all, really. I’ve reread the books myself with this in mind. I don’t think there is a great deal of difference. It was a purely intellectual or aesthetic, artistic approach to a fairly remote subject. It wasn’t anything, I don’t think, that could be affected much by my own personal affairs . . . less than other things I’ve written.

INTERVIEWER

The very heart of this question is: do you feel your sensibilities at all changed?

MORRIS

That is a different question. The trilogy: I started it and finished it in the same frame of mind. But I suppose it is true that most of my work has been a protracted potter, looking at the world and allowing the world to look at me. And I suppose there can be no doubt that both the world’s view of me and my view of the world have changed. Of course they have.