05 May 2018

Jan Morris' Conundrum

Conundrum: From James to Jan - An Extraordinary Personal Narrative of Transsexualism
Jan Morris
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974
174 pages

I love the travel writing of Jan Morris, and had long thought about reading this memoir. Since I am currently planning some travels of my own, I came across her name again and checked "Conundrum" out of the library.


Afterwards I felt like I had met her in a cozy tearoom and we had had a nice long chat over some delicious tea and scones. In this most personal of memoirs she tries to explain what may well be inexplicable, even to her, namely feelings about gender and sex. Most of the book is about her life before the sex reassignment surgery: her early life at school, in the British Army during WWII, and her years spent on the road as a travel author. She tries to convey what she felt as James Morris, what she felt during the 10-year transition from male to female, and what she is feeling now as Jan.

There is nothing lurid, no graphic details of the surgery. What would you expect of such a nice British lady? Instead there are ponderings about the topics of relationships, belonging, family, and gender and sex. She has a theory/idea of a scale and a pointer correlating gender and sex, though I'm not sure I understood that completely.

© David Hurn
Reading "Conundrum" now seemed very timely, despite the 44 years since it's publication. Issues about LGBT rights have been in the news from all over the world in recent years. Reading about transsexualism from the inside is a thought-provoking experience.

Further Reading

"Writer Jan Morris on reporting from Everest and changing sex"
Henry Mance, The Financial Times

"Love story: Jan Morris - Divorce, the death of a child and a sex change... but still together"
Andy McSmith, The Independent

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