Jan Morris, who died last week at the age of 94, may have lived one of the more various and accomplished lives on record. She was, in turn, a soldier, a newspaper correspondent with a number of scoops to her name, a fine memoirist, and a writer of books whose scope encompassed the world.
Any dutiful obituarist must also note something else which happened fifty years ago. It is likely for ever to feature in the first paragraph, if not the first line, of everything written about Morris. She was born a man, named James by her parents, and underwent what her publishers and profilers term ‘a change of sexual role’ in 1972 – back when such a thing was a rarity and rather dangerous to accomplish.
I hope to leave that subject aside for a moment while contemplating her place in letters. By the end of her long life, Morris had become something of a national treasure and an institution. Her quixotic obsessions – a personal, mythical interpretation of the Welsh side of her family and her home in that country, and the late First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher – became the subject of stories shared by friends, editors and admirers.
Other profilers note her long companionship with Elizabeth (née Tuckniss) – first through marriage, then a legally-divorced close friendship, and finally a civil partnership, with the ceremony witnessed by a local couple who afterwards invited the two for tea. Elizabeth survives Jan, but a visiting journalist or two was shown the headstone which is planned for both of them. They will lie on a Welsh island they owned in the Dwyfor, a river that runs by their home. The stone reads: ‘Here lie two friends, at the end of one life’.
These are beautiful stories, but they should not retroactively colour in fully our impressions of Morris. Nor should a sense – repeated in some otherwise careful obituaries – that as ‘James’, Morris’s ‘written voice always sounded certain’. Whereas as Jan, her writing grew more introspective and aware of the ways that time and tide conspire to decay the facades of men as much as they do institutions and places. This was exhibited notably in her Pax Britannica trilogy, which chronicled Britain’s imperial decline.
Reading her early books as James dispels that view. Coronation Everest includes Morris’s 1953 ascent of the world’s highest mountain alongside Hunt, Hilary and Norgay. Morris joins in their boisterous camaraderie and delights in some of the physicality of being young and fit and at the summit of the world. But it also features the young journalist’s constant anxiety about whether he will be able to break the story successfully – without falling victim to another’s subterfuge or something he, in his flawed way, might overlook.
Sultan in Oman establishes its titular character as a flinty, far-sighted archetype of an Arab ruler. Morris follows the new man and his emerging oil economy in the first expedition across territory the sultan claims as his. All present expect a fight, but the tone of the journey is closer to a light farce. When the sultan descends an oil derrick in newly conquered land, with force at his back and ‘one hand on his dagger (but not, I think, with a view to any impending violence)’, he is immediately surrounded by courtiers and serfs and driven away. After all this display, Morris ‘reflected that, after all, there might not be any oil beneath the sands of Jebel Fahud. There are such places’.
Coast to Coast, a book of America, is a series of joyous first impressions. But among them, Morris carefully notes the snobbery and racial animus at the heart of the Southern gentlemen; and the efforts many formerly slave-owning families made, in their crumbling plantation houses, to establish false aristocratic genealogies and to pretend, with their stilted, hostile manners, that they leant in the direction of gentility.
And in Conundrum, Morris’ memoir of changing sex, all is uncertain and between two worlds, except the desire to live as female. That is a feeling established from the very first page and the age of three. Even so, in Casablanca for surgery, there is a moment where, movingly, Morris confronts the change that is about to befall her male self.
Drugged, awaiting anaesthetic sleep and an operation in a foreign city, Morris drags herself from the table and stands before a mirror. There, she surveys the body she is soon to lose. She says goodbye to it, and to her unresolved life in that form. What follows the procedure, however, is not sorrow but exhilaration. Morris feels desire to carry on as before, but also to experience those hopes that this change of role allows to become real.
For all of these books, and those that followed them, the hard distinctions which divide ‘places’ and ‘people’ in travel writing did not exist. Morris did not much like the idea that her works were travel books, anyway. For her, everything folded together into a dreamlike journey from reality into subjective experience, vivid and pure.
This is what allowed her writing on cities like Oxford and Venice to be both definitive and personal. It is how an exploration of the acquisition of power in Oman could include delirious passages, taken almost from Kipling, of encountering isolated tribes and their diverging traditions, forms of dress, and differing extents of exposure to the mechanised world.
It is how a career of writing quite idiosyncratically, on subjects some dismissed as trivial or purely indulgent, won not only the admiration granted to stylists and technicians, but an increasing public fondness which was not generated by critical approval or temporary acclaim.
Morris wrote over forty books, and miscellaneous collections of her works populate many otherwise divergent shelves. Many readers have expressed not only their sadness at the loss of someone of such skill, whose works they enjoyed, but also the close of a perspective that was transforming. It is the end of one writer’s life as a vivid dream.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.