Jan Morris

b. 1926 – d. 2020

Jan Morris was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1961.

Jan Morris remembered – by Derek Johns

Jan Morris, whose literary agent I was for twenty years, has died at the age of 94. She used to joke that the obituaries would be headlined ‘Sex-change Author Dies’, and she would have been gratified that those published in the days immediately after her death focused on her as a writer and not as a trans pioneer (which she never thought of herself as being).

Jan was one of the great British writers of the post-war era. Soldier, journalist, writer about places (rather than ‘travel writer’), elegist of the British Empire, novelist, she fashioned a distinctive prose style that was elegant, fastidious, supple and sometimes gloriously gaudy. The student of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, from her days as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford, she was steeped in the High Anglicanism whose progenitors were Archbishop Laud and the Oxford Movement. ‘Oxford made me,’ she often claimed. All the while she was an agnostic, however, saying that she wished the beautiful churches of the world could be put to some use less ‘preposterous’ than prayer.

She was highly competitive, as the journalistic coups from Everest and Suez attested. Peregrine Worsthorne once remarked that she was preternaturally endowed with great gifts of charm and diplomacy. She was also lucky, beginning her career just when jet travel was opening up the world. In 1983, as Jan stood in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, she reflected that after a lifetime of travel she had visited all the chief cities of the world.

In declining the description ‘travel writer’ Jan was simply expressing a truth, which is that her method was to go to a place, usually a city, and then stay put, observing at leisure the people and the sights. Perhaps her only travel book, strictly speaking, was Sultan in Oman, which described her at times hilarious experiences travelling in 1955 with the then sultan as he tried to subdue his subjects in Muscat.

When travelling, Jan had some unusual techniques designed to open chance encounters with the locals. One was the ‘smile test’, which often got her into trouble. Another was whistling very loudly, and yet another was asking the way when she already knew it. Jan was such an attractive person that people could scarcely resist.

Her range as a writer was remarkable. In addition to the books and articles about places there was the magnificent Pax Britannica trilogy. I say ‘magnificent’ and not ‘magisterial’, since it was, like all her work, unashamedly subjective and literary. While properly derogating much that the British Empire had brought to the world, she also celebrated many of its manifestations, especially the architecture.

Jan’s one foray into fiction (I don’t really count the little jeu d’esprit Our First Leader) was the delightful Last Letters from Hav, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1985. Her archive at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth contains many letters from readers asking where exactly Hav was. For she presented the book as a work of travel literature, and indeed the experience of reading it is uncannily like that of reading her other work. My favourite invention is the Roof Race, in which all the young men engage in a race across the roofs of the city. ‘In 1810,’ she writes, ‘Lady Hester Stanhope, the future “Queen of Palmyra”, was among the spectators: she vociferously demanded the right to participate herself, and was only dissuaded by her private physician, who said it would almost certainly be the end of her.’

Jan’s sense of fun informed everything she did and wrote. She was colossally egotistical, but well aware of this, and she subverted her own purposes and made fun of herself frequently. In the bedroom of her lovely stable-block house near Criccieth is a full-length wardrobe, one door of which is adorned on the back with a full-length portrait of her hero John ‘Jackie’ Fisher. She would invite visitors into her boudoir, and then open the door with a flourish and pose dramatically standing next to it. Fisher was the formidable Admiral of the Fleet in the early part of the twentieth century, and Jan wrote a book about him entitled Fisher’s Face. This face was ‘suave, sneering and self-amused’ and Jan loved it. She stated that she would like either to have been Jackie Fisher or to have had an affair with him. Now that she is gone, I’m sure she will.

Jan’s feelings about her gender confirmation were, by her own account, mixed and often muddled. In Conundrum, her 1974 book describing her experience, she wrote, ‘Sometimes I think I understand it, and then a cloud passes the sun and I am in mystery once again.’ 

Jan took little interest in the subject of transitioning as it became so much talked about in recent years. But she was gratified to learn that Tom Ford, the director of the film The Danish Girl, had been inspired by reading Conundrum.

In the end, Jan was not a ‘sex-change author’, but one of our greatest authors. When, in 2008, The Times listed the top 50 post-war British authors, she was in fifteenth place. The legacy she leaves is substantial indeed. No one before had written about places quite as she did. She crossed literary borders and opened up territories in a way that inspired many writers who were to follow. The corpus of her essays will, I think, never be equalled. She was sui generis, a one-off, a great writer and a great human being.