Jan Morris obituary: Celebrated writer of place and history

Acclaimed British journalist also chronicled her life as a transgender woman

The acclaimed author and historian Jan Morris visits the coast on a windy day in Criccieth, Wales, March 13, 2018. Photograph: Tom Jamieson/The New York Times

The acclaimed author and historian Jan Morris visits the coast on a windy day in Criccieth, Wales, March 13, 2018. Photograph: Tom Jamieson/The New York Times

 

Jan Morris
Born:  October 2nd, 1926
Died: November 20th, 2020

Jan Morris, the acclaimed British journalist, travel writer and historian who wrote about history’s sweep and the details of place with equal eloquence and chronicled her life as a transgender woman, died on Friday in Wales. She was 94.

She died in a hospital near the village of Llanystumdwy, where she lived. The cause of death is unknown.

As James Morris she was a military officer in one of Britain’s most renowned cavalry regiments and then a daring journalist who climbed three-quarters of the way up Mount Everest for an exclusive series of dispatches from the first conquest of that mountain, the world’s highest.

She continued a brilliant writing career with reports on wars and revolutions from a score of countries, and with much-admired books like “Pax Britannica,” the first of a three-volume history of the British Empire. Morris also married and had five children.

But she became increasingly despondent over the issue of gender identity. At age 46, she underwent transition surgery, explaining the reasoning in a well-received 1974 memoir, “Conundrum,” which was written two years after the operation under a new byline, Jan Morris.

“I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl,” the book began, a riveting narrative of being transgender, which was misunderstood at the time and rarely discussed.

“I thought of public success itself, I suppose, as part of maleness, and I deliberately turned my back on it, as I set my face against manhood,” she wrote.

In all, Morris wrote some four dozen books. Among the best-known early titles were “The Hashemite Kings” (1959) and “Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress” (1973).

In a 1957 review of “Islam Inflamed: A Middle East Picture,” Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic wrote that Morris’ “descriptions of cities and countrysides are equally vivid” and that her writing conveyed “the emotional tone of a place as sharply as its shape and colour.”

“Venice” (1960) won Britain’s prestigious Heinemann Award for Literature. In The New York Times Book Review, Italian author Carlo Beuf called the book “one of the most satisfactory and delightful works on the City of the Lagoons to appear in recent years.”

In 1968, The Times Literary Supplement in London hailed “Pax Britannica” as “a tour de force, offering a vast amount of information and description, with a style full of sensuality.” And in The New York Times Book Review, British biographer Philip Magnus called it “a successful portrayal of what the Empire looked and felt like in a variety of places at the end of the 19th Century – how it ticked, who pulled the strings, and the practical ends and ideals it served.”

Another two dozen books came after Morris’ transition. Besides Conundrum, they included Destinations (1980), a collection of travel essays; Last Letters From Hav (1985), a deadpan exploration of an imaginary city that was a finalist for the Booker Prize; and Fisher’s Face, or, Getting to Know the Admiral (1995), a biography of the British naval reformer John Arbuthnot Fisher.

Morris excelled as a travel writer, drawing literary portraits of places like Manhattan, Hong Kong, her beloved Wales (she was a dedicated Welsh nationalist), Oxford in England and Trieste in Italy.

In a 1984 Times review of Journeys, a collection of articles written mostly in the 1980s, Anatole Broyard extolled Morris’ travel books as “oddly reassuring, showing us that there are more ways of experiencing cultures than most of us supposed.” He took note of her insights, citing her descriptions of Las Vegas (“the acrid smell of fun”), the booming Scottish oil town of Aberdeen (“the brio of capitalism in the raw”) and the English cathedral town of Wells (where “the cathedral’s chief function was its own repair”).

Morris continued writing into her later years, including the essayistic In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary, published in 2018. A final work, Allegorizings, is to be published posthumously. She told The Guardian in 2015 that it would go to press “the minute I kick the bucket,” saying the book is “loosely governed by my growing conviction that almost nothing in life is only what it seems. It contains nothing revelatory at all.”

Clevedon

Morris was born on October 2nd, 1926, in Clevedon, a town in Somerset, England. Her father, Walter, was gassed during World War I and died when Morris was 12. Her mother, Enid Payne, was a concert pianist.

Morris joined The Times of London that same year, becoming a roving correspondent in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. But it was her coverage of the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 that established a reputation as one of the shining journalists of a generation.

The Times secured the exclusive rights to cover the Everest expedition, which was led by Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand explorer, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide from Nepal, and picked Morris – 5-foot-9 and a sinewy 140 pounds – to join the team.

Filing dispatches by using guides as relays between the expedition’s overnight camps and the city of Kathmandu in Nepal, she wrote of deep snow dragging at the explorers’ feet, sweat trickling down their backs, their faces burning from cold, ice and wind. But Morris stopped short of the summit, allowing the expedition leaders to claim the limelight.

“I think for sheer exuberance the best day of my life was my last on Everest,” she wrote in Conundrum. “The mountain had been climbed, and I had already begun my race down the glacier toward Katmandu, leaving the expedition to pack its gear behind me.”

She continued: “I heard from the radio that my news had reached London providentially on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. I felt as though I had been crowned myself.” For a Britain that was fast losing its empire, the conquest of Everest was greeted with nationalistic euphoria.

As a correspondent with The Times and later with The Guardian, Morris wrote about wars, famines and earthquakes and reported on the trial in Israel of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was convicted and executed for his leading role in the extermination of millions of Jews.

She also covered the trial in Moscow of Francis Gary Powers, the US spy plane pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union. She travelled to Havana to interview Che Guevara, the revolutionary leader, who was described in “Conundrum” as “sharp as a cat,” and to Moscow again to meet with British intelligence defector Guy Burgess, who was “swollen with drink and self-reproach.”

Prominent

It was in the early 1960s that Morris met with a prominent New York endocrinologist, Dr Harry Benjamin, an early researcher on transgender people.

He advised her on a slow process of transition that began with heavy doses of female hormones – some 12,000 pills from 1964 to 1972, according to the writer’s own calculations. Morris wrote, “I was about to change my form and appearance – my status, too, perhaps my place among my peers, my attitudes no doubt, the reactions I would evoke, my reputation, my manner of life, my prospects, my emotions, possibly my abilities.”

From the very beginning of her marriage, Morris had confided her feelings about her gender identity to her wife, Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter.

“I told her that though each year my every instinct seemed to become more feminine and my entombment within the male physique more terrible to me, still the mechanism of my body was complete and functional, and for what it is worth was hers,” Morris wrote.

They would have three sons and two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. In addition to her son Twm, a Welsh poet and musician, she is survived by Tuckniss; two other sons, Mark and Henry; a daughter, Suki; and nine grandchildren.

Conundrum describes Morris’ relationship with Tuckniss, even before the surgery, as an “open marriage, in which the partners were explicitly free to lead their own separate lives, choose their own friends if they wish, have their own lovers perhaps, restrained only by an agreement of superior affection and common concern.”

Tuckniss and later their children, with some discomfort, supported Morris’ initial hormone treatments.

She finally decided on an operation to complete her transition in 1972, choosing a clinic in Casablanca, Morocco.

Morris asserted that every aspect of existence changed with her transition. The more she was treated as a woman, the more she behaved – in her own estimation – as a woman.

“If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming,” she wrote. “If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.” She added, “I discovered that even now men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative, and certainly less self-centred than they are themselves; so I generally obliged them.”

Reaction to her transition, and her chronicling of it, included shock and disparagement, and gave rise to critical debate about the nature of her writing voice and how she depicted what it means to be a woman. Female writers were troubled by Morris’ value judgments on the differences between the sexes, which were especially controversial in an era when the feminist movement was reaching its apogee.

“She sounds not like a woman, but like 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,” Rebecca West wrote in a 1974 appraisal of Conundrum in The Times Book Review.

But Bernard Levin, writing in The London Observer that same year, noted that “as a communication of the uncommunicable, Conundrum is very good indeed.” It is also, he said, “in many ways, a straightforward autobiography rippling with humour.”

And Auberon Waugh, a British columnist and critic, asserted in a 1976 article in The Times Book Review on Travels, a collection of essays by Morris, that “she now writes in a fine, robust, self-confident style.”

Transition

Morris herself asserted that her transition had changed her view of life so profoundly that it was bound to affect her writing style.

“My scale of vision seemed to contract, and I looked less for the grand sweep than for the telling detail,” she wrote in Conundrum. “The emphasis changed in my writing, from places to people.”

She complained that her transition had distracted from her writing accomplishments. “I do object to it being dragged in, for example, when I write a book about the British Empire,” she said on “CBS Sunday Morning” in 2000. Nonetheless, she repeated on the program her prediction that the headlines on her obituaries would read: “Sex-change author dies.”

By her early 90s, Morris said the matter seemed remote.

“I’ve never believed it to be quite as important as everyone made it out to be,” she told The Times in 2019. “I believe in the soul and the spirit more than the body.”

Although she divorced her wife just before her operation, the two remained close, often travelling and living together, even after Tuckniss began struggling with dementia. In their house, Morris kept a gravestone that bore the inscription – both in Welsh and English – that was meant to be their future epitaph: “Here are two friends, Jan and Elizabeth, at the end of one life.” – New York Times

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