Jan Morris was undoubtedly a brilliant writer. Her prose had a natural liveliness. She observed, she did her homework. Travel pieces were her speciality, and her evocation of busy cities such as Hong Kong, Trieste, Venice, even New York, will always find a place in anthologies. She could turn her hand to writing well about anything. In the Mind’s Eye, reflections she published in 2018, is a little masterwork.
The literary brilliance had begun with James, the masculine gender she had been born with. James Morris made a name for himself as a star reporter on The Times. Accompanying Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to climb Mount Everest, he too had climbed close enough to the top and his scoop made him a national figure. His trilogy, Pax Britannica (1968), Heaven’s Command (1973), and Farewell the Trumpets (1978), are a timely appraisal of what he then called “the muddled grandeur” of the British Empire. It had been a force for good in the world, and “fighting a rearguard action is the right and honourable thing to do.”
But Conundrum (1974), the book describing the re-assignment of gender from James to Jan, was to hang over the brilliance and the flair. It is painful to read, and puzzling because the realization that something is wrong with being James is somehow associated with squatting under the piano aged four while his mother is playing Sibelius. Once I was on a television program with Jan, and the girl coming to dab anti-glare make-up on our faces was embarrassingly unsure what to do. Jan’s mother was English, her father was Welsh but Jan couldn’t speak the language, and her enthusiasm for Welsh nationalism showed that even someone who really was familiar with the ways of the world could harbor a sentimental side. She never divorced Elizabeth, married when she was James. Already prepared, there is a gravestone that reads, “Here are two friends, Jan and Elizabeth, at the end of one life.”