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Angela Tilby: Jan Morris relished male and female

27 November 2020

REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Jan Morris in 2008

Jan Morris in 2008

I READ Jan Morris’s autobiographical Conundrum shortly after it first came out. I couldn’t make much of it, then. It seemed to me to describe a quixotic odyssey that I could not even begin to know how to relate to. Here was a gifted male journalist, the first to break the news of Hillary and Tenzing’s conquest of Everest, a married father of five, a former soldier, and a Christ Church choirboy, and, at the heart of that interesting and varied life, an account of how James became Jan.

I read Conundrum again much more recently, and was fascinated by it. I admire the light touch and the measured way she dealt with the inevitable attacks by batting away criticism and getting on with her life as a writer. Of course, she had behind her a strong sense of history and belonging, a public-school background, an Oxford education, and an initial entry into a public world that gave her easy access to important people, travel, and influence.

Jan Morris was a fine writer, endlessly fascinated by history, places, and people. Perhaps her alienation from the body in which she was born gave her a heightened sense of being an observer, an outsider, which she developed to the full in her books on great cities. She gave the lie to those who grumpily claimed that her gender change affected her prose style for the worse. James Morris knew where evil locates itself, and his description of the trial of Adolf Eichmann captures something of what Hannah Arendt described as “the banality of evil”: the way in which evil preys on our unexamined prejudices and pettiest preferences, turning us into monsters.

In recent years, I got the impression that Jan Morris did not altogether welcome the zealotry of those who now take up the transitioning cause. She relished the fact that she had been both male and female, suggesting we are all both, in some way or another. Gender is play, a tragi-comedy out of which character is formed. She never comes across as “oppressed” — indeed, she admired military values, which she defined as “courage, dash, loyalty” and “self-discipline”. And there was also a sense of nostalgia in her work, a longing for what goes beyond the fractured and the imperfect.

There is a love story, too. James married Elizabeth, changed gender, divorced her while continuing to live with her, and then they finally became civil partners. In her nineties, James was still caring for Elizabeth, who, by then, had dementia. It is a story of faithfulness, a “beautiful story”, although perhaps not quite in the sense intended by the Church of England Evangelical Council’s video (News, 20 November). Courage, dash, loyalty, and self-discipline. Not bad values for a soldier and servant of Jesus Christ to emulate, whether female or male, gay or straight.

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