Acclaimed British Journalist Jan Morris: Travel Writer and Historian Who Chronicled Her Life as a Transgender Woman

Journalist Jan Morris: “It changed my writing from places to people.”

From a New York Times obit by Jonathan Kandell headlined “Jan Morris, Celebrated Writer of Place and History, Is Dead at 94”:

Jan Morris, the acclaimed British journalist, travel writer and historian who wrote about history’s sweep and the details of place with equal eloquence and chronicled her life as a transgender woman, died on Friday in Wales. . . .

As James Morris she was a military officer in one of Britain’s most renowned cavalry regiments and then a daring journalist who climbed three-quarters of the way up Mount Everest for an exclusive series of dispatches from the first conquest of that mountain, the world’s highest.

She continued a brilliant writing career with reports on wars and revolutions from a score of countries, and with much-admired books like “Pax Britannica,” the first of a three-volume history of the British Empire. Ms. Morris also married and had five children.

But she became increasingly despondent over the issue of gender identity. At age 46, she underwent transition surgery, explaining the reasoning in a well-received 1974 memoir, “Conundrum,” which was written two years after the operation under a new byline, Jan Morris.

“I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl,” the book began, a riveting narrative of being transgender, which was misunderstood at the time and rarely discussed. . . .

In all, Ms. Morris wrote some four dozen books. Among the best-known early titles were “The Hashemite Kings” (1959) and “Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress” (1973).

In a 1957 review of “Islam Inflamed: A Middle East Picture,” Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic wrote that Ms. Morris’s “descriptions of cities and countrysides are equally vivid” and that her writing conveyed “the emotional tone of a place as sharply as its shape and color.”. . .

In 1968, The Times Literary Supplement in London hailed “Pax Britannica” as “a tour de force, offering a vast amount of information and description, with a style full of sensuality.”. . .

Another two dozen books came after Ms. Morris’s transition. Besides “Conundrum,” they included “Destinations” (1980), a collection of travel essays; “Last Letters From Hav” (1985), a deadpan exploration of an imaginary city that was a finalist for the Booker Prize; and “Fisher’s Face, or, Getting to Know the Admiral” (1995), a biography of the British naval reformer John Arbuthnot Fisher.

Ms. Morris excelled as a travel writer, drawing literary portraits of places like Manhattan, Hong Kong, her beloved Wales (she was a dedicated Welsh nationalist), Oxford in England and Trieste in Italy. . . ..

Ms. Morris continued writing into her later years, including the essayistic “In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary,” published in 2018. A final work, “Allegorizings,” is to be published posthumously. She told The Guardian in 2015 that it would go to press “the minute I kick the bucket,” saying the book is “loosely governed by my growing conviction that almost nothing in life is only what it seems. It contains nothing revelatory at all.”

Ms. Morris was born on Oct. 2, 1926, in Clevedon, a town in Somerset, England. Her father, Walter, was gassed during World War I and died when Ms. Morris was 12. Her mother, Enid Payne, was a concert pianist.

Ms. Morris enlisted in the elite Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers in 1944 and served in Italy during World War II as an intelligence officer. After two more years of military service in Palestine, then a British protectorate, she was discharged as an army lieutenant and enrolled at Oxford University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1951.

Ms. Morris joined The Times of London that same year, becoming a roving correspondent in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. But it was her coverage of the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 that established a reputation as one of the shining journalists of a generation.

The Times secured the exclusive rights to cover the Everest expedition, which was led by Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand explorer, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide from Nepal, and picked Ms. Morris — 5-foot-9 and a sinewy 140 pounds — to join the team.

Filing dispatches by using guides as relays between the expedition’s overnight camps and the city of Kathmandu in Nepal, she wrote of deep snow dragging at the explorers’ feet, sweat trickling down their backs, their faces burning from cold, ice and wind. But Ms. Morris stopped short of the summit, allowing the expedition leaders to claim the limelight. . . .

As a correspondent with The Times and later with The Guardian, Ms. Morris wrote about wars, famines and earthquakes and reported on the trial in Israel of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was convicted and executed for his leading role in the extermination of millions of Jews.

She also covered the trial in Moscow of Francis Gary Powers, the United States spy plane pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union. She traveled to Havana to interview Che Guevara, the revolutionary leader, who was described in “Conundrum” as “sharp as a cat,” and to Moscow again to meet with the British intelligence defector Guy Burgess, who was “swollen with drink and self-reproach.”

It was in the early 1960s that Ms. Morris met with a prominent New York endocrinologist, Dr. Harry Benjamin, an early researcher on transgender people.

He advised her on a slow process of transition that began with heavy doses of female hormones — some 12,000 pills from 1964 to 1972, according to the writer’s own calculations. Ms. Morris wrote, “I was about to change my form and apparency — my status, too, perhaps my place among my peers, my attitudes no doubt, the reactions I would evoke, my reputation, my manner of life, my prospects, my emotions, possibly my abilities.”

From the very beginning of her marriage, Ms. Morris had confided her feelings about her gender identity to her wife, Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter.

“I told her that though each year my every instinct seemed to become more feminine and my entombment within the male physique more terrible to me, still the mechanism of my body was complete and functional, and for what it is worth was hers,” Ms. Morris wrote.

They would have three sons and two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. In addition to her son Twm, a Welsh poet and musician, she is survived by Ms. Tuckniss; two other sons, Mark and Henry; a daughter, Suki; and nine grandchildren.

“Conundrum” describes Ms. Morris’s relationship with Ms. Tuckniss, even before the surgery, as an “open marriage, in which the partners were explicitly free to lead their own separate lives, choose their own friends if they wish, have their own lovers perhaps, restrained only by an agreement of superior affection and common concern.”

Ms. Tuckniss and later their children, with some discomfort, supported Ms. Morris’s initial hormone treatments.

She finally decided on an operation to complete her transition in 1972, choosing a clinic in Casablanca, Morocco. . . .

Reaction to her transition, and her chronicling of it, included shock and disparagement, and gave rise to critical debate about the nature of her writing voice and how she depicted what it means to be a woman. Female writers were troubled by Ms. Morris’s value judgments on the differences between the sexes, which were especially controversial in an era when the feminist movement was reaching its apogee.

“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,” Rebecca West wrote in a 1974 appraisal of “Conundrum” in The Times Book Review.

But Bernard Levin, writing in The London Observer that same year, noted that “as a communication of the uncommunicable, ‘Conundrum’ is very good indeed.” It is also, he said, “in many ways, a straightforward autobiography rippling with humor.”. .

Ms. Morris herself asserted that her transition had changed her view of life so profoundly that it was bound to affect her writing style.

“My scale of vision seemed to contract, and I looked less for the grand sweep than for the telling detail,” she wrote in “Conundrum.” “The emphasis changed in my writing, from places to people.”. . .

By her early 90s, Ms. Morris said the matter seemed remote.

“I’ve never believed it to be quite as important as everyone made it out to be,” she told The Times in 2019. “I believe in the soul and the spirit more than the body.”

Although she divorced her wife just before her operation, the two remained close, often traveling and living together, even after Ms. Tuckniss began struggling with dementia. In their house, Ms. Morris kept a gravestone that bore the inscription — both in Welsh and English — that was meant to be their future epitaph: “Here are two friends, Jan and Elizabeth, at the end of one life.”

Also see Veronica Horwell in theguardian.com on Jan Morris—here are the opening grafs:

The greatest distance travelled by Jan Morris, who has died aged 94, was not across the Earth’s surface but between extraordinary identities: from being the golden-boy newspaper reporter James Morris to the female voyager and historian Jan Morris. James became Jan when what was then called a sex change was unexplored territory, from which she boldly sent back an early dispatch in 1974.

The 70s reaction to that transformation was at best incomprehension, at worst hostility, especially literary hostility, but Morris wrote on – publishing more than 40 books, many still in print, even though the places they describe have metamorphosed too. She became an institution after having experienced the world, and herself in it, change radically in a lifetime.

Also see Matt Schudel in the Washington Post—the opening grafs:

As a young reporter, Jan Morris was on the mountainside, at 22,000 feet, when the first expedition in history reached the top of Mount Everest. She reported on wars and revolutions around the globe, published dozens of elegant books exploring far-flung places and times and was regarded as perhaps the greatest travel writer of her time.

Yet the most remarkable journey of her life was across a private border, when she cast off her earlier identity as James Morris and became Jan Morris

 

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