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literature

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Morris, Jan (b. 1926)  

The talented and prolific Anglo-Welsh journalist, historian, and travel writer Jan Morris was one of the first to tell her story publicly in a memoir.

Over the past fifty years, Morris has published over forty books on topics ranging from history, biography, and journalism to fiction and explorations of her Welsh nationalism, but she is best known for travel books that capture the past, present, and essential character of a place. Although Morris's travel writing is readily identifiable for its sensual descriptions that suggest to Anatole Broyard "a lover looking for consummation," Morris seldom writes in the first person and never touches upon intimate details of her "tangled life."

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However, Morris became one of the first transsexuals to tell her story publicly in the memoir, Conundrum (1974), in which she reveals that traveling has been the outer expression of an inner journey "across strange frontiers." Catherine Jan Morris, born James Humphrey Morris in Clevedon, Somerset, in 1926, lived the first half of her life as a male.

Morris insists that transsexuality, "in its classic sense," is never a choice. "It is not a sexual mode or preference," she writes. "It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction, and no true transsexual has ever been disabused of it." She traces this conviction to her earliest memory; as a three- or four-year-old hiding beneath his mother's piano amid the cascading notes of "Sibelius," James realized that "I had been born into the wrong body." Throughout a childhood described as otherwise happy, the boy ended his silent bedtime prayers with ". . . and please, God, let me be a girl. Amen."

Following an Oxford education, the young man served in the British Army, an experience that made him feel yet more profoundly feminine, "like one of those unconvincing heroines of fiction who, disguised in buskins or Hussar's jacket, penetrate the battlefield to find glory in romance." In 1953, as a London Times reporter stationed at 22,000 feet in the Himalayan slopes, Morris "scooped the world" with the story of Hillary and Tenzing's conquest of Mount Everest. Although his reporting brought him fame, Morris secretly regarded the expedition as "rather absurd" and associated it--and journalism--with a repugnant masculinity.

The 1950s and 1960s were for Morris a time of wanderlust and prolific writing. "The more distracted I was [by sexual conflicts], the more obsessively I traveled." By the mid-1960s, Morris had abandoned journalism and was free to pursue other writing, working especially on the Pax Britannica, a widely acclaimed, three-volume history of the British Empire. Meanwhile, he married Elizabeth, a union that "had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream." The couple produced five children. Now, divorced, they live together in Wales as sisters.

In 1972, after eight years of hormone treatments during which James was being transformed into Jan "like a slow-motion Jekyll and Hyde," Morris underwent sex-change surgery in Casablanca. Two years later Conundrum was published, dedicated "to all who are suffering still in the same solitary and unsought cause."

Morris concludes her memoir by stating, "If I were trapped in that cage again, nothing would keep me from my goal, however fearful its prospects, however hopeless the odds. I would search the earth for surgeons, I would bribe barbers or abortionists, I would take a knife and do it myself, without fear, without qualms, without a second thought."

Carolyn Kraus

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Broyard, Anatole. "Books of the Times." New York Times (August 31, 1984): 20.

Clements, Paul. Jan Morris. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998.

Morris, Jan. Conundrum. London: Faber, 1974.

_____. Pleasures of a Tangled Life. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1989.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Kraus, Carolyn  
    Entry Title: Morris, Jan  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 22, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/morris_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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