I’m going to write about Jan Morris–here, if not anywhere else. The original question was, “Why do I like Jan Morris so much?” After reading most of a late collection of essays, Pleasures of a Tangled Life, it’s morphed into, “Why do I find Jan Morris so insufferable?” Or maybe, “Do I like Jan Morris for the same reasons I find her so insufferable?”
The answer’s probably yes.
At the moment I’m re-reading Conundrum. I read it once, years ago, and was disappointed that it wasn’t more conventional, more informational–as when I thumbed through the entire LAMBDA library list looking for dirty bits (including Giovanni’s Room, perhaps the Baldwin novel least suited to a curious middle-schooler), I wasn’t interested in her story so much as mine.
The book is amazing me. I think it’s the grandeur of her voice, the insistent protagonism of her narrative. It opens with the first moment she realized, or discovered, that she was a girl (at three or four, hidden under a piano, immersed in Sibelius), but proceeds to this opening to Chapter Two:
As I grew older my conflict became more explicit to me, and I began to feel that I was living a falsehood. I was in masquerade, my female reality, which I had no words to define, clothed in a male pretense. Psychiatrists have often asked me if this gave me a sense of guilt, but the opposite was true. I felt that in wishing so fervently, and so ceaselessly, to be translated into a girl’s body, I was aiming only at a more divine condition, an inner reconciliation; and I attribute this impression not to the influences of home or family, but to an early experience of Oxford.
Oxford made me….
and then on to Chapter Four:
I was still only a boy, still unformed, when walking into the colonel’s tent on the banks of the Tagliamento river in Venezia Giulia, I found the commanding officer of the 9th Queen’s Royal lancers rising to his feet to greet me. Yet I was entering a man’s world, the world of war and soldiery. I felt like one of those unconvincing heroines of fiction who, disguised in buskins or Hussar’s jacket, penetrate the battlefields to find glory or romance; and the colonel’s civilized gesture of welcome, to an undistinguished and unpromising reporting subaltern, seemed to me a happy omen. So it was. Stranger and impostor though I was, I was kindly treated in the Army; and far from making a man of me, it only made me feel more profoundly feminine at heart….
But most of all you [women readers] would have felt plain pleasure, at having handsome and high-spirited young men all around you. I did not realize it very consciously at the time, but this is undeniably what I felt myself. Cherishing my secret still, nevertheless I was encouraged often with indulgences, for by now, I discovered, both men and women sometimes instinctively felt the femininity within me. With women this gave me a new sense of ease, for it was always hard work pretending to be gallant; with men it gave me unexpected advantages. In the Army as at Lancing, I was never short of protectors. If my books were stolen, somebody would go get them back for me. If I was losing an argument, somebody would back me up. If, at the training camp of the Royal Armoured Corps, I could not start my blessed motor-bike, I never had to kick for long. At Sandhurst I shared a room with a fellow-cadet who was willing, it seems to me now in wistful retrospect, to do for me any chore I wished, the more tedious, the more eagerly. The worst would never quite happen, I came rather smugly to thing: somebody would always intervene, take the brunt, or forgive me. You know the feeling, I’m sure.
“The worst would never quite happen.” I think this is what intrigues me so: the idea that her identity or status as trans feminine would protect her from mistreatment, would offer her social access rather than undiluted social isolation. She writes about her time in the army as though she were Viola–as though her male identity was a trouser role, and as though she herself was capable of glorying in its possibilities–those not so much subversive as fortunate. She writes about her history as an adventure, a journey in some sense very different from the way Jonathan Ames means it on the back of the nyrb edition’s jacket:
This is a beautiful book. I found it to be melancholic, courageous, and wise. That its subject matter is Jan Morris’s transsexual journey almost seems secondary to her incredible prose and the clarity of her honesty and introspection. Beyond the issue of gender, she searches for an answer to that most elusive of questions: who am I?
There is some niggling, elusive yet crucial difference between a journey and “a transsexual journey.” And some of it has to do with Ames saying that this book is so profound, so poignant, as to transcend its transsexual subject matter.
But I am also amazed by the joy with which she recalls her time among men. Her account of that part of her past is totally free of any shadow of violence. (There are other shadows–she picks up with those in the next chapter, describing herself as a “silent prisoner.”) There’s no fear, and it is striking. It is striking, too, that she believes women would be tickled to go among men disguised as men–that the experience would be one of inclusion, even as a “visitor” or mascot. I am not used to reading accounts so firelit and “wistful,” like an Evelyn Waugh novel without the squalid, cirrhotic epilogue. In Morris’ version, it is not her solemn eulogizer who enters the chapel to light a candle to his own memories, but she herself who remains there: at no point in this story does she give up her subjectivity to an imagined reader. And at no point does her subjectivity become suspect.