A new biography examines what made the prolific travel writer and transgender figure so driven, and who was ignored along the way.
JAN MORRIS: Life From Both Sides: A Biography, by Paul Clements
The travel writer and historian Jan Morris hated being pigeonholed. Indeed, she bristled mightily at being called a travel writer at all, finding the term “demeaning” and reductive, though many of the books and articles she wrote during a plush and renown-stuffed career of seven decades were set far from her native England and the home in North Wales she made for much of adulthood with her wife, Elizabeth Tuckniss. She wrote plenty about both those places too, but Morris was no stranger to an expense account. She once called tourists “morons” in a speech, biting the hand that was feeding her at a travel magazine breakfast.
Toward the end of her long life — Morris died in 2020 at 94 — she also rejected the idea that she had transitioned in a linear way from male to female, despite a 1972 operation toward that explicit end in Casablanca, Morocco, which she documented two years later in the landmark memoir “Conundrum.”
“I’m both now,” she told The Times of London in pronoun-plastic 2018. “I’ve got to be legally one sex or the other, but I’m both.” Decades earlier, she had opined that “the greatest writing is omnisexual, like Shakespeare.”
Paul Clements, a journalist and — eek! sorry! — travel writer who knew Morris for 30 years, has produced a lovely and scrupulous biography of her, subtitled, with a whiff of Joni Mitchell, “Life From Both Sides.” He absents himself entirely from the narrative, as if to counterweight his subject’s fondness for the first person, which magic-carpeted her right into the bloggy internet era, and pitches a generous tent for her ambiguities and contradictions — even her self-centeredness. It’s a book that properly situates Morris in the literary canon while also acknowledging her status as a “transgender pioneer,” another term she would have probably loathed.
As James Morris, after attending Oxford and serving in the British Army, she had already been a pioneer, as a correspondent for that same Times — then a quite fusty newspaper with a “largely sedentary editorial staff” who lunched at the gentlemen’s club Boodles and shared snuff after supper. Morris got the exclusive assignment to join the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, recording such details as the “ubiquity of cuckoos,” before sending word of the expedition’s success through relay runners delivering a coded message, just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Another career highlight: covering the war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial for The Manchester Guardian. In him Morris noted “a queer stiffness or jerkiness of locomotion,” and then delivered the small but powerful realization: “Eichmann was trembling.”
She was not just closely observant but astonishingly prolific. In one period she clocked 12 pages, or 3,000 words, per day, “hammering at a blue Olivetti more or less uninterruptedly,” Clements writes; even in supposed retirement — The Observer joked she had as many as Frank Sinatra — that count was only reduced to 1,000 words, about the length of this review (for which I, bleary in mere middle age, wangled a deadline extension).
Morris reviewed lots too, and pounded out essays, diaries and so many books, sometimes reissuing them in different forms, that even her agent couldn’t keep track. Tallying the grandchildren was also a challenge. Jan and Elizabeth had three sons and two daughters, one of whom died in infancy after being stung by a hornet, though Morris, who occasionally deep-tangoed with the truth, in “Conundrum” blamed “an unidentified virus.” Even before her transition, she asked not to be called “Daddy,” and parenting naturally suffered from her workaholism, though she bonded closely with one son, Twm Morys, in particular over Welsh poetry. Her surviving daughter, Suki, agrees with Germaine Greer that Elizabeth, now in a care home with dementia, “did not have a voice”; and further tells Clements of Jan’s “drip, drip, drip of unkindness … undermining everything, making me look and feel inferior and worthless.”
But any intriguing domestic snapshots in “Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides” — donkeys, vintage Rolls-Royces — are crowded out by the constantly whirling carousel of her adventures. She ranged so widely and richly that questions about a certain looseness with facts, or whether her prose style changed after transition, seem almost beside the point. Imperialism was a favorite and perhaps over-romanticized topic (“unctuous effusions,” one Middle Eastern scholar called her 1957 book on the Sultan of Oman). Morris swept through continents and centuries, calling Australia “flabby, spongy, unadventurous”; reporting on apartheid in South Africa; and — like Simone de Beauvoir and other midcentury intellectuals before her — traversing America “coast to coast.” So convincing were her dispatches that many believed the fictional titular country in “Last Letters From Hav,” her 1985 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was real.
Though Morris wrote that her marriage was “open,” Clements keeps things strictly PG, whether out of discretion or lack of dirt. Her most passionate affair might have been an imaginary one with Lord “Jacky” Fisher of Kilverstone, an Admiral of the Fleet who was possibly first to use the expression OMG, in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill. Though she obviously longed for academic credibility, an essential drollness and self-deprecation perhaps got in the way; more than once she dismissed herself as a “flibbertigibbet,” one in a lexicon of favored “ricochet” words that included “harum-scarum” and “razzle-dazzle.”
As a cub reporter, Morris had interviewed Cary Grant and Irving Berlin, and later became a celebrity in her own right, going on “The Dick Cavett Show” and drawing the scorn of Nora Ephron in Esquire. Some thought her prose ran toward the purple (“the finest descriptive writer in our time, of the watercolor kind,” sideswiped Dame Rebecca West in these pages), but her many admirers included Paul Theroux — though he once rather crudely compared her appearance to Tootsie’s — and Tina Brown, who commissioned Morris to profile Boy George for Vanity Fair. Long-faded glossies with names like Holiday, Venture and Horizon sent her to faraway lands and paid her handsomely, though she talked about money as “a constant worry.”
Like the finicky cat of yesteryear’s advertising who shared her name, Morris had strong likes and dislikes, enumerated here with savor. Yes to: maps, marmalade, music (she also favored the adjectives “melancholy,” “myriad” and “magnificent”); Elon Musk, battleships and wine. No to: complainers, Washington, D.C. (“perhaps the most ineffably boring city on the planet”), zoos and — oddly, considering how it had helped her — science. “Even evolution was suspect to her,” Clements writes, one of the few moments in a very full telling when I wanted to know more.
This biography is a boon companion to Morris’s sprawling oeuvre, even if her complex psyche, like her physicality, might be impossible to corral. Jan Morris was one woman who “had it all,” as the old Helen Gurley Brown guide so mythically proposed — but the cost to other people is left somewhere in the mist.
JAN MORRIS: Life From Both Sides: A Biography | By Paul Clements | Illustrated | 608 pp. | Scribe | $35