Jan Morris, “A Writer Who Travels”

Jan Morris-Around the world in 80 years

Jan Morris (October 2, 1926 – November 2, 2020) was a Welsh author and historian, whose work spanned the genres of journalism, memoir, history, essays, articles, and novels.

As a writer, she is best known for her Pax Britannia trilogy (a social history of the British Empire) and her written portraits of cities including Trieste, Venice, Oxford, Hong Kong, and New York City. She is also famous for her transition from male to female in 1972, making her one of the first transgender public figures.

 

Early life and education

Jan Morris was born James Humphrey Morris in Clevedon, Somerset, and was the youngest of three sons. As is customary for persons who have transitioned (notwithstanding when the transition took place) Jan will be referred to with the pronouns she/her from here on.

Her mother Enid was a church organist, and her Welsh father Walter was an engineer. Both brothers went on to have careers in music – Gareth as a flautist and Christopher as an organist.

At the age of nine she attended Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford as a chorister and went to Lancing College in Sussex. Color blindness prevented her from joining the navy during the war, and she enrolled in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers instead. For much of the 1940s she served as an intelligence officer in Palestine.  

After the war, she studied English at Christ College, Oxford, then went on to work at a news agency in Cairo.

 

Journalism and first books

Morris covered the ascent of Everest in 1953, traveling with Edmund Hillary as far as Base Camp as a correspondent for The Times, and broke the news of the successful ascent just in time for it to reach London on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation day.

It was one of many lucrative and ground-breaking assignments, though she left The Times after disagreeing with the editorial support of the Suez Crisis and joined the Manchester Guardian instead. There she alternated six months of working on the paper with six months of book research.

Morris’s first book, Coast to Coast (1956) was an account of a cross-U.S. journey funded by a twelve-month Commonwealth fellowship at the University of Chicago. Reviews were excellent, with the Guardian calling it “deeply evocative,” and contracts for the further books followed.

The first of Morris’s best-known books, a biography of Venice, was published in 1960. By her own admission, her approach to researching it was to “run about the city like a mad dog … [first] the law court … Then the market. And then the railway station.”

The book was successful enough for Morris to give up journalism and move towards writing books full-time. It was well-received both by the public and critics: Harold Nicolson called it “a highly intelligent portrait of an eccentric city … never soppy or sentimental … a very virile book.”

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Conundrum by Jan Morris

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Personal life and “Conundrum”

Morris had married Elizabeth Tuckniss, a former Wren and tea planter’s daughter, in 1949. The couple had four children, Twm Morus, Henry Morris, Mark Morris and Suki Morus. Another daughter died in infancy.

Since she was a toddler, Morris had always been at odds with her male body. She recalled sitting at her mother’s piano at age three or four, realizing that “I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.”

At first she “cherished it as a secret” but for years felt a yearning “for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern…” By the 1960s she was effectively living a double life. “I was a member of two clubs in London,” she recalled, “one as a man and one as a woman, and I would sometimes change my identity in a taxi between the two.”

Elizabeth was supportive of Morris’s decision to undergo courses of hormone therapy, and then to have reassignment surgery in a Casablanca clinic in 1972. The surgery could have been performed in the U.K., but the law would have required that she and Elizabeth divorce, since two women could not be married at that time.

“I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t,” Jan Morris later said. “It was inevitable — I’d been heading there mentally all my life.”

Conundrum, published in 1974, was her account of the journey from male to female. In it, she detailed the clinic in Casablanca, the emotional journey and adjustment to life as a woman with a female partner, and the public reaction, which ranged from hostility to “kindly incomprehension” to acceptance.

She also expressed gratitude for Elizabeth’s support, saying that their marriage was a “living testimony…of love in its purest sense over everything else.” However, Morris’s daughter Suki would later claim that the transition brought a high cost to the rest of the family, in particular Elizabeth who “did not have a voice.”

Critics struggled with the book. A.N. Wilson admitted that he found it easy “to let a little bitchiness creep into one’s comments on Miss Morris’s most interesting book,” while fellow writer Rebecca West wrote that “now we are both women he mystifies me…[as a man] he had all the pleasures he wanted … she sounds not like a woman, but a man’s idea of a woman, and curiously enough, the idea of a man not nearly so intelligent as James Morris used to be…”

However, Morris’s most famous work, a trilogy on the social history of the British Empire, was also partly inspired by her exploration of gender identity.

“I thought how wonderful it would be if some Roman centurion in the last days of the empire had written not only a description of it, but also something about his own feelings. Then I thought, ‘here I am, on the collapsing frontiers of the British empire, why don’t I do it?’”

The result was the trio of books Pax Britannica (1968), Heaven’s Command (1973), and Farewell the Trumpets (1978). Later, Morris called the trilogy the “intellectual and artistic centre-piece of my life.”

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Life from Both Sides by Jan Morris

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“A writer who travels”

Morris identified as Welsh, having always had an affinity with her father’s land, and became an ardent Welsh nationalist. She admitted being “emotionally in thrall to Welshness,” and after her reassignment surgery, the family moved to Plas Trepan in Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd, in northwest Wales.

By this point, she and Elizabeth had formally divorced, but they continued to live together as “sisters-in-law.” In 2008, when the law allowed them to do so, they registered a civil partnership at the Pwllheli registry office.

Morris continued to work and to travel. Writing had become a daily habit, and she often wrote upwards of 3000 words a day, more if a deadline was looming. Her single novel, Last Letters from Hav, was published in 1985 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while other later books included Fifty Years of Europe (1997), Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest (1999), and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001).

Perhaps her most famous and well-read books were her biographies of cities, written in the same vein as her 1960 book on Venice. Places as diverse as Oxford, Trieste, Manhattan, and Hong Kong captured her attention, while in articles she wrote of Las Vegas (“the acrid smell of fun”), Aberdeen (“the brio of capitalism in the raw”) and the cathedral town of Wells (“the cathedral’s chief function was its own repair”). She also wrote about her beloved Wales in the book Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country.

She always rejected the term “travel writer,” insisting that she wrote books about place, “which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history.” She was, she insisted, a “writer who travels, not a travel writer.” That didn’t not stop her winning the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing.

Her biographer, Derek Johns, wrote that “She involves the reader, while she remains unobtrusively present herself; who uses the particular to illustrate the general, and scatters grace notes here and there like benefactions. She is a watcher, usually alone, seldom lonely, alert to everything around her.”

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Jan Morris- In My Mind's Eye

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Last books and legacy of Jan Morris

In My Mind’s Eye (2018), a diary of memories written when Morris was ninety-one, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Think Again, a collection of her diaries, was published just before her death in March 2020. Her final collection of essays, Allegorizings, was published posthumously in 2021.

Morris was elected to the Gorsedd of Bards in 1992 and made a CBE in 1999. She also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glamorgan, was an Honorary Fellow of Christ Church College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2005 she won the Golden Pen Award for outstanding contribution to literature.

Before her death, she and Elizabeth had a joint memorial stone made, intended for an islet in the river near Trefan Morys, which reads in both Welsh and English, “Here are two friends … At the end of one life.”

Jan Morris died on November 20, 2020, at the Ysbyty Bryn Beryl on the Llŷn Peninsula, Wales, and was survived by Elizabeth.

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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes

Further reading and sources

  • Jan Morris’s extensive bibliography of travel writing, essays, memoirs
  • Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides by Paul Clements, Scribe UK, 2022
  • Conundrum by Jan Morris, Faber & Faber, reissued 2018
  • In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary by Jan Morris, Faber & Faber, 2019
  • Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris, Faber & Faber, reissued 2022
  • Venice by Jan Morris, Faber & Faber, reissued 1993
  • Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country by Jan Morris, Penguin 2000
  • A Writer’s World: Travels 1950-2000 by Jan Morris, Faber & Faber 2004
  • Allegorizings by Jan Morris, Faber & Faber, 2021

For younger readers: Jan Morrison, Travel Writer and Historian – an introduction.

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