The greatest distance travelled by Jan Morris, was not across the Earth’s surface but from being newspaper reporter James Morris to the female voyager and historian Jan Morris. The Guardian
James’ Morris post-war career as a journalist, writing for The Times and the Manchester Guardian, was balanced with time spent researching and writing travel books, with his unique voice as a travel writer first emerging in the publication of Venice in 1960.
Morris’ approach to travel writing hooked readers. His written voice always sounded certain, but his personal life was overshadowed by the knowledge that the male body of James was an error, and his true identity was female. With the support of his wife Elizabeth, he had reassignment surgery in 1972 and returned from clinic in Casablanca as Jan.
Morris had been denied surgery in the UK because the couple refused to divorce, and wrote in Conundrum (1974), which told most of the story, that the marriage had no right to work, “yet it worked like a dream, living testimony … of love in its purest sense over everything else”.
Morris’s exploration of sexual identities enhanced her trilogy on the social history of the British empire, Pax Britannica (1968), Heaven’s Command (1973) and Farewell the Trumpets (1978). Sometimes she made whimsical choices of subject, and of genre, especially the fantasy-fiction travelogue Last Letters From Hav (1985). Morris acknowledged the indulgence, adding that “the whole oeuvre of travel is one enormous ego-biography”, but the criticisms hurt.
She vowed several times to type no more but could not give up the daily practice of writing, which produced the inspired Fifty Years of Europe (1997), Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), In My Mind’s Eye (2018), which was serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week, and her final book Thinking Again which was published in 2020.
Upon her death, the lives of Jan and Elizabeth, with whom she had lived for many years as ‘sisters-in-law’ were marked with a memorial stone inscribed in English and Welsh which read: ‘Here are two friends… At the end of one life’