The Life and Works of Jan Morris
Honors Jan Morris, an internationally-acclaimed historian and writer who recently passed away.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
The internationally-acclaimed historian and writer Jan Morris passed away on November 20, 2020 at the age of 94. Her career spanned nearly 80 years, during which she focused on a wide variety of topics, from travel to her experience as a transgender woman. She wrote over four dozen books—most on her journeys around the world—and was honored in the Royal Society of Literature, winning several awards including two Golden PEN awards and the Glyndwr Award. Rather than acting as an objective narrator and listing facts about the places she traveled to in her books, Morris allowed the reader to create their own image of the places by focusing on the beauty of the landscapes and different cultures. She served as a role model for other aspiring writers and other transgender people as someone who was not afraid to come out to the world during more conservative times. Though I do not identify as transgender, her confidence inspires me to become more open and reflective with myself.
She was born as James Morris in England, where she grew up and later started working for the Times of London. During her time as a journalist, Morris was offered an opportunity to accompany Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people in history to reach the summit of Mount Everest, on their 1953 journey up the mountain and thus became the first reporter to break the news of the incredible feat to the world. She later published “Coronation Everest” (1958) on this experience, bringing her fame and recognition and two years later, wrote “Venice,” which established her distinct style: a beautiful, flowing prose that evoked sensory pleasure and catapulted the reader into a majestic, dreamy world. Due to the success of “Venice,” Morris wrote “The Venetian Empire” (1980), a historic account of the ancient empire. Though the topic might seem boring to some, Morris managed to make it captivating by whooshing readers back to the past in great sensory detail. Her vivid account of landscapes, for instance, takes readers to a different world.
Her great success in these early books led her love of travel to blossom; she continued traveling on her own after she quit the Times of London and wrote prolifically about these adventures. Morris even produced artwork detailing some of the places she traveled to: all continents but Antarctica. In her home, which she called Trefan Morys, some of these paintings are still present, as well as models of ships (her childhood obsession).
But out of all of the incredible journeys she undertook for her literature (my personal favorite account is when she described traveling to Italy, where she worked as an intelligence officer for World War II), perhaps Morris’s most perilous was her own transition. A different kind of fame came to her after 1972 when she successfully underwent gender reassignment surgery; the procedure was extremely rare at the time, and few people knew how the process worked. She abandoned the name James Morris, announced herself as Jan Morris, and wrote a book about this transition called “Conundrum” (1974). Early reactions were mixed due to confusion and prejudice surrounding the idea of changing genders. Over the years, however, being transgender became more widely accepted, largely thanks to “Condundrum,” and Morris received her two golden PEN awards in 1999 and 2005 for her book. Her belief that every human soul had a gender and that it didn’t necessarily have to be the same gender that you were born as spoke to a lot of people. The first sentence of “Conundrum” is “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body, and I should really be a girl.” By freely being herself, Morris inspired others to do the same. Morris has become a confident role model to many and emphasized that being transgender is something to embrace and celebrate.
Up until her death, Morris was witty, motivated, and sharp. She lived in North Wales, Ireland and cared for the love of her life, Elizabeth Morris, who suffers from dementia. In the past few years, people who have met her described her as “funny,” “outrageous,” “skillful,” and “spirited.” She took walks, ate out, interacted with fans and citizens, and entertained her community of Criccieth with stories and memories of her long life. She lived through World War II, the Suez Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War, and other iconic historic moments, all of which she documented in poignant detail.
Personally, I love reading about different places and cultures because the only country I have been to outside of the United States is Canada. My history classes and my own research have introduced me to information on the endless locations I would love to visit. It would be a dream come true to visit the scenic landscapes of Sydney, Australia; experience the rich culture of Spain; and explore the city of Hong Kong; all places that Morris visited and wrote about. Reading a few sentences out of Morris’s books almost makes me feel like I’m already there. Morris’s books aren’t just your average travel brochure: they’re vivid, captivating, mesmerizing, and so eye-opening that you forget when and where you are and get transported to a whole new world. It’s almost as if I don’t even need to travel to these places because Morris paints a picture through her words too well—yet my desire to travel grows as I read on. Words that flow brilliantly don’t need pictures to accompany them, and Morris creates elegant imagery for the reader to effectively imagine the scenery. Her books are also meant to serve as a kind of “choose your own adventure”—readers can immerse themselves and imagine the landscapes in all sorts of different ways based on the descriptions of the place. I read some excerpts from her books “Over Europe” (1992), “Manhattan ‘45” (1987), and “Venice” and became immediately enchanted and hooked. I can’t explain it in my own words—you have to read hers!