Jan Morris, the historian and travel writer who evoked time and place with the flair of a novelist, has died aged 94.
As a journalist Morris broke monumental news, including Hillary and Norgay’s ascent of Everest, and the French involvement in the Israeli attack on Egypt in the Suez war. As a bestselling author of more than 30 books, she was equally lauded for histories including Pax Britannica, her monumental account of the British Empire, and for her colourful accounts of places from Venice to Oxford, Hong Kong to Trieste. But she was also well-known as a transgender pioneer, with Conundrum, her account of the journey from man to woman, an international sensation when it was published in 1974.
Her son Twm announced her death on Friday. “This morning at 11.40 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, on the Llyn, the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her life-long partner, Elizabeth,” he wrote.
Born James Morris in Somerset in 1926, Morris traced the roots of her transition back to childhood. In Conundrum, she recalled realising, aged three or four, that “I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl”. At first she “cherished it as a secret”, the “conviction of mistaken sex … no more than a blur, tucked away at the back of my mind”. But all through her childhood she felt “a yearning for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse.”
Morris joined the army in 1943, and served as an intelligence officer in Palestine before returning to study English at Oxford and working as a journalist. When the Times sent her on the 1953 expedition to climb Everest, Morris preserved the scoop by racing down the mountain and wiring a coded message: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.” The story appeared on the morning Elizabeth II was crowned.
The star correspondent spent the next year travelling from New York to Los Angeles, a journey at the heart of Morris’s first book, Coast to Coast, in 1956. The Guardian called it “admirably evocative”, at its best “where he has drunk deeply of American life”.
A disagreement with the Times over its stance on Anthony Eden’s adventure in Suez saw Morris join the Guardian, heading for Egypt when Israel launched an invasion. Returning through the Sinai desert with Israeli forces, Morris noticed Egyptian lorries and tanks which had been completely incinerated. When she fell into conversation with some French fighter pilots based at an airport outside Tel Aviv, she discovered they had been supporting the Israeli campaign with napalm bombs. The report was the first evidence of French collusion in the Suez conflict, lifting the lid on a plan that forced Eden to resign and left Britain humiliated.
For the next five years Morris alternated six months at the Guardian and six months writing books on South Africa and the Middle East. The publication of her cultural history, Venice, in 1960 allowed her to move towards writing full time. Writing in the Observer, Harold Nicholson called it “a highly intelligent portrait of an eccentric city”, which “gives us all the sadness and the beauty of a civilisation that has decayed”.
“He is never soppy or sentimental,” Nicholson continued, “a brisk bora or a clean Adriatic breeze always comes to shift the fog and to stir the paludian exhalations; his is a very virile book.”
Nicholson can hardly have known that while in Venice, Morris had begun to take hormone pills, the first steps of a transition which was completed in 1972 by a surgeon in Casablanca. “I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t,” she told the New York Times in 1974. “It was inevitable – I’d been heading there mentally all my life.”
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic struggled with her account of the transformation, Conundrum. In the Guardian, AN Wilson confessed himself unsure as to why it is easy “to let a little bitchiness creep into one’s comments on Miss Morris’s most interesting book”, while in the New York Times, Rebecca West admitted that “now we are both women he mystifies me”. Noting acerbically that, as a man, “he had all the pleasures he wanted”, West questioned the validity of Morris’s identity: “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 … I cannot accept Conundrum as the story of a true change of sex.” But in her own life, Morris reported little change: walking in her town, no one batted an eyelid when she introduced herself as Jan. “I put it down to kindness,” she told the Observer in 2020. “Just that. Everything good in the world is kindness.”
While 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 in 1985 her novel, Last Letters from Hav, was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Volumes evoking Hong Kong, Sydney and Trieste spanned the globe, but she always rejected the term “travel writer”, explaining to the Guardian in 2015 that while she had only written one book about a journey across the Oman desert, she wrote “many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history”.
Reflecting on her own history in 2018, Morris said her transition no longer felt like the defining moment of her life, telling the Financial Times that it hadn’t changed her writing “in the slightest. It changed me far less than I thought it had.” As she approached her final years she thought of herself as “both man and woman … or a mixture of both.” Her transition may have overshadowed her books at first, she admitted, “but it’s faded now.”
Morris remained with her wife, Elizabeth, after her transition, though they had to divorce. They held a civil union ceremony in Pwllheli in 2008.
Her final book, Think Again, a collection of her diaries, was published in March.