14 June 2017

When Sacred Country was first published in 1992, it passed me by. Well, not quite. I passed it by. I read about its publication and applauded what was, in those days, a rare groundbreaking illumination of transgender life, via a main character no less. This was, however, in the heyday of OutRage!, the LGBT direct-action group that was challenging the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of the British Establishment. We did dramatic, spectacular protests every couple of weeks and were arrested almost as often. It was non-stop and, for me, full-time activism. I barely had time to eat or sleep, let alone read books – not even really groundbreaking ones like Sacred Country.

It has been a great pleasure to rediscover and finally read it decades later. And how moving and relevant it still is. Indeed, perhaps even more relevant than ever, in this era when trans issues are finally crossing over into the mainstream, with Caitlyn Jenner featuring on the cover of Vanity Fair, Jack Monroe becoming a celebrity cookery writer, Paris Lees achieving status as a media commentator and Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer proving such a ratings success.

The novel begins in February 1952 in the village of Swaithey in Suffolk – a sleepy backwater still steeped in tradition. Six-year-old Mary Ward, the child of an impoverished farming family, imagines sharing her special secret with her pet guinea fowl, Marguerite: ‘I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.’ This realisation is the beginning of Mary’s arduous, epic striving to become Martin.

Amid the setbacks, including rejection by her own father, Sonny, and neglect by her emotionally fragile and unstable mother, Estelle, there is a touching moment of satisfaction and happiness when Mary/Martin fondly recalls, with discreet pride, being called ‘lad’ by a boating attendant at the Serpentine. His use of the word lad ‘stabbed me with pleasure,’ she/he recounted. Stabbed with pleasure? It is a fierce, jolting phrase that evokes an image of painful joy, which is, perhaps, a harsh but true signifier of Mary/Martin’s bittersweet personal odyssey.

Traversing three decades, this book is a story of the search for identity and fulfilment, on many different levels and in many different ways, as told through the life of Mary/Martin and from the sometimes contrary and contradictory first-person viewpoints of other characters. It involves several interweaving personal stories of nuanced, layered complexity, which we discover gradually through the slow-burn revelation of their lives as we turn the pages. Sacred Country tells not only Mary’s journey to become Martin, but a similar searching and self-discovery by all the book’s characters for something or someone – occasionally successful, mostly not.

Serious but not without humour and irony, Rose Tremain lightens the narrative with funny, quirky moments, helped by, or because, Swaithey has more than its fair share of oddballs and eccentrics. Many of them, not just Mary, end up facing disappointment or fleeing the village, or both. Mary’s father, a stern patriarch, wants his son Timothy to take over the farm, but Timothy deserts the land to become a preacher, while Mary’s mother retreats to the security of a mental institution. Walter leaves the family butcher’s shop to start a new life in Nashville as a country singer. Gilbert, the gay dentist, runs off to London.

But it isn’t all bad for Mary in Swaithey. Although she suffers the hurt of being disowned by many people around her, she is supported by a sympathetic Scottish teacher, her grandfather, who is a fan of Bob Dylan, and a carpenter who believes in reincarnation and wonders whether Mary’s dysphoria might be connected to a previous life. It’s not as if she is totally alone, and that no one cares about her and the hurdles she faces.

In time and geography, the story spans remote and repressive rural England in the Fifties, London’s Swinging Sixties, and the Country and Western capital of Nashville, USA, in the Seventies. Being peppered with topical references to contemporary people and events grounds the storyline in time and place; all the better to relate to the characters and the ins and outs of their lives. The book opens with the death of King George VI in 1952 and is scattered with fleeting references to the English football captain, Bobby Moore, assorted familiar news stories, pop groups, department stores, and much more. It is a careful evocation of an era that older readers will recall and that younger ones may find perplexing.

Sacred Country deservedly won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1992 and, two years later, the Prix Femina étranger. Apart from its undoubted literary merits, the book was ahead of its time in terms of a compassionate, non-sensationalist reflection of the trials and tribulations often faced by people who realise they are not the gender they were told they were. Without sentimentality or a tragic ending, it reflects, through the central protagonist and other characters, the often hurtful but ultimately successful personal struggles of most trans people to make sense of their true gender, find self-acceptance and achieve at least a degree of fulfilment – despite all the obstacles en route. Mary/Martin’s striving is waylaid by the many prejudices and pitfalls that are familiar to almost every trans person. During the same period as the book, the former Vogue model and 1960s transgender pioneer, April Ashley, was fighting a very public battle for recognition and rights. It is a battle that is still being fought today by trans men and women.

Sacred Country

The book was ahead of its time in terms of a compassionate, non-sensationalist reflection of the trials and tribulations often faced by people who realise they are not the gender they were told they were

One of the virtues of Sacred Country is that the trans story is not the single overwhelming facet. It is just there, matter-of-factly in the pages, inviting us to accept it as another aspect of the diversity of human existence. Rose Tremain narrates a trans journey, from female to male, and in the process humanises a still-often-misunderstood gender identity; reaching readers who may not be reachable by trans campaigners. There is no anti-trans murder and no trans suicide in this novel. Though such fates befall transgender people disproportionately in a still-ignorant, fearful and prejudiced world, and particularly did so back in the 1950s and ’60s when transphobia was far worse than it is today, tragedy was never the universal trans experience. Some people coped. They got through, undefeated. Sacred Country reveals the tale of one such ordinary, everyday trans person. Not a remote and privileged celebrity. Just an average Mary who becomes Martin.

Is this the definitive trans story? Of course not. No such single, all-embracing story can possibly exist because there are so many diverse transgender experiences. Although Sacred Country embodies only a few fragments of trans life, this does not diminish the insights, power, relevance and lessons of what it highlights in fictional form. Being trans is still a challenge. Leaving aside intolerant attitudes, the typical regime of hormones plus surgery is liberating, but not easy. It can take a physical and emotional toll, staggered over many years of treatment. Speaking of the pain after his first gender-reassignment surgery, a bilateral mastectomy, Martin recalls: ‘I remember how, in the past, I had imagined pain was my ally. I had imagined that if I suffered enough, I would become a man, of my body’s own accord.’

Martin has more than his fair share of suffering, including heartbreaking disappointment in love. ‘The woman I wanted was Pearl. I wanted to be Pearl’s universe. For her, I would have re-made myself as often and as completely as she demanded. She could have gone on inventing me until death parted us,’ Martin avowed, still bleeding from his breast-removal scars. But that is not the emotional end. ‘It isn’t finished and never can be, really,’ he later tells his grandfather.

One way you could read this book is as a metaphor for a rapidly changing post-imperial Britain: the decline of the old order, with its cosy certainties, and the rise of new, unexpected and previously ignored, derided and suppressed identities. A transition from a monocultural to multicultural country, with all the upheavals, setbacks, confusions, triumphs and disappointments that personal and social change so frequently involves.

Rose Tremain writes a story that, while it is not the same as mine, is one that I, as a gay man and dissenting critic of the status quo, can relate to. It is the narrative of an outsider in a society of defined expectations and narrow-minded conformism. Mary/Martin faces rejection by much of Swaithey, with its small-village mentality, but still manages to chart a course – with ups and downs – to live as the person he truly is: a man.

This is the account of a life that begins as ordinary, even pedestrian. Then, by dint of Mary’s self-awareness of a gender ‘mistake’, it reaches out to become something that transcends the everyday anticipations of her countryside backwater and beyond; confounding the doubters and antagonists.

Related articles