Sir or Madam

Conundrum

by Jan Morris
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 174 pp., $5.95

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

Uppermost in Christopher Robin’s prayers, if we are to believe A.A. Milne, were Mummie, Daddy, and Nanny—not, however, in James Morris’s. “Please, God,” went this little boy’s nightly orison, “let me be a girl. Amen.” And he made the same prayer whenever he “saw a shooting star, won a wishbone contest, or visited a Blarney well.” His persistence was rewarded, but not for forty years. In the summer of 1972, thanks to the intervention of a Moroccan surgeon, this popular British author—ex-cavalry officer, foreign correspondent, mountain climber, father of four—became Jan: a sister-in-law to his wife, “an adoring if interfering” Auntie Jan to his children.

Now that her ordeal is over and she has settled down in Bath, Jan Morris has decided to tell all, well not quite all, about “the most fascinating experience that ever befell a human being.” Sure enough this award-winning travel writer squeezes maximum mileage out of the most sensational and perilous trip he/she ever took, the trip from one sex to another. And sure enough, Conundrum lives up to its peculiar subject, disarming one with Welsh charm one moment, disconcerting one with genteel exhibitionism the next. For a change compulsive writing—Conundrum has to be seen as the last act, or rather the last curtain call, in Jan’s sex change—makes for compulsive reading. Yet it is also an irritating book: coyly reticent where it should be frank, whimsical where it should be scientific, embarrassing where it aims to be touching.

The trouble with confessional writers is that their confessions are apt to become specious advertisements for themselves. Euphemisms can be made to excuse or enhance all manner of errors. Take the recent Portrait of a Marriage. Vita Sackville-West beat her breasts flat describing an entanglement with another woman, but she never admitted to being a lesbian; she called it having “a dual personality.” The same with the author of Conundrum. James/Jan suffered from a decidedly more dual personality than Vita, but he/she finds a totally different pretext for her maladjustment: changing sex was a spiritual act—“I equate it with the idea of soul.”

Yes, Conundrum aims at being an inspirational book, especially in its piety where women are concerned. With all the fanaticism of a convert, Jan insists on seeing women as frail, virginal beings (woman’s “frailty is her strength, her inferiority is her privilege”) divinely entitled to both pedestal and halo. These misconceptions go back to the authoress’s boyhood: “A virginal ideal was fostered in me by my years at [school], a sense of sacrament and fragility, and this I came slowly to identify as femaleness—’eternal womanhood,’ which, as Goethe says…’leads us above.’ ” Elsewhere we read how the boy identified with nuns, with the Virgin Mary. He envied the …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.