Jan Morris, historian, journey author and trans pioneer, dies aged 94 | Books
Jan Morris, the historian and travel writer who conjured up time and place with the flair of a writer, died at the age of 94.
As a journalist, Morris delivered monumental news, including Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent to Everest, as well as French involvement in the Israeli attack on Egypt in the Suez War. A bestselling author of more than 30 books, she has received equal praise for her story, including Pax Britannica, her monumental depiction of the British Empire, and for her colorful accounts of places from Venice to Oxford, Hong Kong to Trieste. But she was also known as a transgender pioneer, with Conundrum, her report on the man-to-woman journey, an international sensation when it was published in 1974.
Her son Twm announced her death on Friday. “This morning at 11:40 am in Ysbyty Bryn Beryl on the Llyn, author and traveler Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves her lifelong partner Elizabeth on the bank, ”he wrote.
Born James Morris in Somerset in 1926, Morris has traced the roots of her transition into childhood. In Conundrum she remembered realizing at the age of three or four that “I was born into the wrong body and really should be a girl.” At first she “cherished it as a secret”, the “belief in wrong sex … nothing more than a blur that I have in the back of my mind”. But throughout her childhood she felt “a longing for what I didn’t know, as if a piece was missing from my pattern or an element in me that was supposed to be hard and permanent but instead was soluble and diffuse.”
Scoop… Morris’ report that Tenzing Norgay (pictured) and Edmund Hillary had conquered Everest was printed on the day the Queen was coronated in 1953. Photo: Edmund Hillary / AP
Morris joined the army in 1943 and served as an intelligence officer in Palestine before returning to study English and work as a journalist at Oxford. When the Times sent her on an expedition to climb Everest in 1953, Morris saved the shovel by racing down the mountain and wiring an encrypted message: “Snow conditions, poor stop, advanced base abandoned yesterday awaiting improvement . ” The story appeared on the morning of Elizabeth II’s coronation.
The star correspondent traveled from New York to Los Angeles the next year, a trip to the heart of Morris’ first book, Coast to Coast, in 1956. The Guardian called it “admirably impressive,” preferably “where he drank deep of the American Life ”.
A disagreement with the Times over their stance on Anthony Eden’s adventure in Suez led Morris to join the Guardian and go to Egypt when Israel launched an invasion. When Morris returned through the Sinai Desert with Israeli forces, he noticed Egyptian trucks and tanks that had been completely burned. After talking to some French fighter pilots at an airport outside Tel Aviv, she found that they had supported the Israeli campaign with napalm bombs. The report was the first evidence of a French collusion over the Suez conflict, exposing a scheme that forced Eden to resign and humiliated Britain.
Over the next five years, Morris rotated six months at the Guardian, writing books on South Africa and the Middle East for six months. The publication of her Venice Cultural History in 1960 enabled her to write full-time. Harold Nicholson wrote in the Observer calling it “a highly intelligent portrait of an eccentric city” that “gives us all the sadness and beauty of a decayed civilization”.
I should have been scared, but it wasn’t me. It was inevitable – I had gone there mentally all my life
“It’s never sloppy or sentimental,” continued Nicholson, “a brisk bora or a clean Adriatic breeze always comes to shift the mist and stir the Paludian exhalations; this is a very manly book.”
Little Nicholson could have known that Morris had started taking hormone pills in Venice, the first steps in a transition completed by a surgeon in Casablanca in 1972. “I should have been scared, but I wasn’t,” she told the New York Times in 1974. “It was inevitable – I’ve been mentally on the way there all my life.”
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic struggled with their report on the transformation, Conundrum. In the Guardian, AN Wilson confessed to herself unsure why it was “easy to get a little bitchiness into the comments on Miss Morris’ most interesting book,” while Rebecca West admitted in the New York Times that “we are both women now, he mystifies me” . When West found that he had “all the joys he wanted as a man,” he questioned the validity of Morris’s identity: “She doesn’t sound like a woman, but like a man’s idea of a woman, and, oddly, the idea by A man who is nowhere near as intelligent as James Morris … I cannot accept Conundrum as the story of a true sex change operation. “But Morris reported little change in her own life: as she was walking around town, no one slapped an eyelid when she introduced herself as Jan. “I attributed it to kindness,” she told the Observer in 2020. “Exactly that. All the best in the world is kindness. “
Jan Morris in 1988. Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images
As the critics floundered, the book became a bestseller around the world, and Morris’s literary reputation continued to grow. Her three-volume History of the British Empire, Pax Britannica, was completed in 1978, while her 1985 novel Last Letters from Hav was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Volumes reminiscent of Hong Kong, Sydney and Trieste spanned the globe, but she always rejected the term “travel writer” and told the Guardian in 2015 that while she had only written one book about a trip through the Oman desert, she had written “many Books “have written about places that have nothing to do with movement, but much more about people and history. “
As Morris pondered her own story in 2018, she said her transition was no longer the defining moment of her life and told the Financial Times that it hadn’t changed her writing in the least. It changed me far less than I thought. “As she approached her final years, she saw herself as” a man and a woman … or a mixture of both “. Her transition may have overshadowed her books at first, she admitted, “but now it’s faded.”
Morris stayed with her wife Elizabeth after their transition despite the fact that they were divorced. They held a civil union ceremony in Pwllheli in 2008.
Her last book, Think Again, a collection of her diaries, was published in March.