The Conundrum of “Conundrum”


Arts & Culture

Stephanie Burt on how to remember Jan Morris’s trans memoir Conundrum. Jan Morris died in November of 2020, and you can read a remembrance of her by her colleagues here. 


Before the actor Elliot Page and the model Janet Mock and the legislator Danica Roem and the TV star Nicole Maines were born, before Against Me! and Anohni and Cavetown had sung a note, before Jenny Boylan’s She’s Not There and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and Eddie Izzard’s Definite Article, twenty years before the first recorded appearance of the word cisgender, and three years after I was born, in 1974, the Anglo-Welsh travel writer and veteran Jan Morris published a short and beautiful book called Conundrum. Morris was already famous as the first journalist up Mount Everest, part of Edmund Hillary’s expedition: she would go on to publish dozens more books and a flurry of essays (some in The Paris Review) before her death in 2020, but Conundrum remains her best known.

Not the first modern trans memoir, but perhaps the first with literary ambitions, Conundrum helped establish one way of thinking about what it means to be trans. It’s an early example of the “wrong body” narrative (the phrase shows up on the first page), the story by which the truly trans person always knew she was a woman (if assigned male at birth) or a man (if assigned female). It’s also the kind of now-obsolescent narrative by which genital surgery, and only genital surgery, confirms trans women as really and only true women: Morris’s longed-for operation, in Morocco, becomes “the climax of my life.” Her preface to the 2001 reissue called the volume “a period piece.” Between the lead-up to surgery, the wrong-body story, and the occasional nostalgia for Empire, Morris’s memoir might now seem so dated as to provide no help for the present—except that it does, and not just for its rich style. Conundrum remains a sympathetic guide, not so much to present-day transgender struggles as to trans joy.

As a child in Somerset and Oxford, Morris knew herself as a “girl in a boy’s body.” She “cherished that knowledge as a secret” through the male sociability of a boarding school, the Army’s postwar Ninth Lancers, the Everest expedition, and the professional life of a midcentury foreign correspondent, rushing from coup to summit to tourist attraction to war zone. “The flexibility and self-amusement I absorbed from the Oxford culture—which is to say, the culture of traditional England” saved her sanity, by her own account, while the situational homosexuality, and the male camaraderie, of her teens and twenties neither scarred nor transformed her. “I was kindly treated in the Army,” she remembered, “and far from making a man of me, it only made me feel more profoundly feminine at heart.”

She was, in a sense, a foreign correspondent already, embedded in “an entirely male adult world.” Morris says that she was “pining for a man’s love,” though not in a directly sexual sense: Morris denied that her feelings were (her word) homosexual. Instead Conundrum insists on a more diffuse sensuality that Morris found in ritzy fast cars, in Venice, in a “caress” from a loved one of any gender, in other “tactile, olfactory, proximate delights,” prose style itself perhaps among them. Morris’s sense of “the British masculine ethos” emphasizes esprit de corps, shared devotion to a shared public goal, like statecraft or mountain climbing. Women, by contrast,  keep on “doing real things, like bringing up children, painting pictures, or writing home.”

Her sense of group effort as masculine and individuality as feminine speaks to a social stratum that had Empire while Americans had a frontier. “I was a child of the imperial times,” she admits, decrying “that distasteful ignominy, Suez.” She had already quit as a foreign correspondent, becoming instead a full-time freelance writer, before coming out, but she continued traveling for pleasure and for her many freelance assignments. The Arab world comes off well in her brief accounts: “In the heart of Muslim Cairo, women were more naturally accepted in the office than they would have been at the Guardian,” let alone the Times of London. Mexicans, South Asians, and Fijians are, on the other hand, “guileless peoples.” (She means it as a compliment—they accepted her gender—but it has not aged well.)

The last half of the memoir chronicles Morris’s journey from globe-trotting journalist, to Wales-based (and still traveling) parent and husband, to increasing unhappiness with her body and her movement through the world, until—first with hormones, then with changed social status, then with surgery—she becomes able to live as who she is. Reputable UK doctors, willing to perform Morris’s bottom surgery, insist that she first divorce her wife. Instead she chooses a surgeon in Morocco. Morris’s time in Casablanca “really was like a visit to a wizard,” and it left her “astonishingly happy” —as, to judge from her prose, she remained. Jan and Elizabeth would stay together, one way and another, for seventy years.

There is no one trans story: Morris’s memoir remains one of many. It’s a fine lesson about her life alone, but an iffy guide to trans lives more generally. Many of us don’t need surgery, many of us need it but don’t get it, and many of us do want it very much, but do not regard it as the climax of anything—hormones, social transition, and outward appearance can all be more important. So can meeting other trans folks: only in Casablanca, after “the operation,” did Morris “set eyes for the first time on others like me.”

Around 1991, I read Conundrum for the first time myself. I remember it as validation—a literary author, one who (as we said then) had a sex change, felt as I did. Much later, starting on hormones, I, too, “relished the goodness of the sun in a more directly physical way… Life and the world looked new.” Today it is not hard to meet other trans people online, and even (if you are lucky enough to live in, say, Wellington, New Zealand, or some other place without COVID-19) in person. Back then I could do so only in books. I had met young gay men, and fallen hard for charismatic lesbians, and felt out of place at fabulous parties hosted by splendid drag queens. I had tried and failed to see myself in the confidence of genderfluid rock stars. But I had never encountered anyone who admitted to feeling like me.

Morris could hardly have seen so many of us coming. She believed she was one of “at least 600 people … in the United States,” “perhaps another 150 … in Britain,” to have had gender-affirming surgery (she said nothing about how many people might want it). She predated by decades today’s galaxy of trans books for trans readers (some from queer or trans publishing houses), books like Imogen Binnie’s Nevada or Rachel Gold’s Being Emily or Roz Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull or the anthology We Want It All. Nobody knows how many trans people there are—it depends how you count us—but a UCLA law school study from 2016 guessed over a million in the United States alone.

More troublingly, the Morris of 1974 sites herself among “true transsexuals,” and as against “the poor castaways of intersex, the misguided homosexuals, the transvestites, the psychotic exhibitionists.” Insisting that she’s one of the real, deserving few, and not of the mentally ill, unreliable many, Morris replicates the medical model propounded in the sixties and seventies by doctors such as Harry Benjamin and Robert Stoller. (Benjamin himself prescribed her hormones.) Today we call this sort of distinction between deserving and undeserving trans people (practiced largely by cis doctors) gatekeeping, and many of us want to end it. (It’s a particular problem, both for teens and for adults, in Britain.) Still other passages could have been written today: wondering whether and how to come out with young children in the house, she registers “the fear that I might in some way harm them by revealing the truth too soon. Besides they had a marvelous mother already.”

The modern movement for trans acceptance owes far more to trans people from other backgrounds and with other ambitions, to Marsha P. Johnson or to Sandy Stone, than it ever could to Jan Morris. But that is not Morris’s fault. Conundrum belongs near the headwaters of a great and nourishing river of Western trans self-representation, a river whose expansion has given us, from its initial runnel of autobiographies, science fiction writers, poets, stand-up comedians, young adult novelists, comics writers, and cartoonists.

Yet Morris also places herself in a tradition of English aesthetes and prose stylists, stretching back hundreds of years, from Thomas Browne to Gilbert White, Virginia Woolf to Charles Lamb. She’s part of trans history because she’s part of trans literature, and she’s part of trans literature because she’s part of literature more broadly. She invites us to pay sustained attention not just to what she says but to her way of saying it.

Here, for example, is Morris on Everest: “In the morning it is like living, reduced to miniscule proportions, in a bowl of broken ice cubes in a sunny garden. Somewhere over the rim, one assumes, there are green trees, fields and flowers; within the bowl everything is brilliant white and blue. It is silent in there. The mountain walls deaden everything and cushion the hours in a disciplinary hush.” And here she returns to Venice: “Sometimes, after dinner, especially if friends from home were with us, reckless and laughing with wine we would creep down the stairs of the old palace, braving the chinks of light which, surreptitiously revealed from chained door or curtained window, testified to the unremitting interest of our neighbors and unfastening the boat from its mooring in the side canal, with difficulty we would start up its engine and sail down the Grand Canal, past the great bulk of the Salute, until, as though we were passing into some undiscovered country, we entered the wide lagoon.”

If you enjoy that sentence—and I do—more joy awaits, not only in Conundrum but amid Morris’s fifty-five (not a typo; there are at least that many) other books, many about places (Oxford, Venice, Wales, Sydney, Manhattan, India), most not overtly about gender. Two more collections of Morris’s essays and diary entries will appear in 2021. If, on the other hand, you want beautiful insights about being trans, you can also find them in the authors name-checked above, and many more. There are many ways to be trans, to come out, to enjoy the lives and the bodies trans people can have. The one in Conundrum is the one I found first.


Read our Art of the Essay interview with Jan Morris in our Summer 1997 issue.

Read excerpts from Jan Morris’s diaries in our Summer 2018 issue.

Stephanie Burt is a poet and critic and professor of English at Harvard University. Her books include After Callimachus: Poems, Don’t Read Poetry, Advice from the Lights: Poems, and the essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has appeared in such publications as the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. She serves as poetry coeditor for The Nation.