Jan Morris, the celebrated travel author, historian and transsexual writer best known for her Pax Britannica trilogy, has died at 94.
The purple prose of Pax Britannica resonates with fans of Empire still. From the third volume, Farewell the Trumpets, on a parade for the Viceroy of India George Nathaniel Curzon:
“This was Empire! Here illusion mastered reality and theatre became life. Trumpets sounded, guns fired, soldiers presented arms, elephants snorted, jewels glittered, cameras clicked (nearly everyone had a Kodak) . . . Here were twelve State trumpeters, and twelve military bands and the 40,000 parading soldiers. As the vast polychromatic crowd rose thunderously to its feet there fell on the dry air the first solemn notes of the British national anthem — so dignified, so old, so far from home, so simple in that exotic setting, so touching, so profound, that the very soul of India seemed to be stirred.”
It’s florid, typical Morris, but you had to admire her flowing elegant style.
Jan Morris, born James, was one of the first high profile people to go transgender. She chronicled this transition in her 1974 book Conundrum. Nowhere have we seen a better, more sensitive discussion of this than at www.brainpickings.org by Maria Popova.
James as a young man around the time he was the only journalist on the Everest expedition, and later after transition
A selection of quotes by Jan Morris, compliments to Popova:
- “I was three perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.”
- “You are only free when you realise you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”
- “Nobody really knows why some children, boys and girls, discover in themselves the inexpungeable belief, that despite all the physical evidence, they really are of the opposite sex . . . nobody is born entirely male or entirely female, and some children may be more susceptible to what the psychologists call the ‘imprint’ of circumstance.”
- “Transsexualism . . . is not a sexual mode or preference. It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction, and no true transsexual has ever been disabused of it. . . In my mind if is a subject far wider than sex: I recognise no pruriency to it, and I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit.”
- “Oxford made me . . . For near the heart of Oxford ethos lies the grand and comforting truth that there is no norm. We are all different, none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.”
James Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949 and they produced five children before James decided to become Jan, undergoing hormone treatment then surgery. They divorced, then resumed living as a couple at the village of Llanystumdwy in north Wales and entered into a civil union. For 50 years Elizabeth and Jan stayed together until Jan’s death on November 20. Here are concluding lines in Conundrum: “I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or social convention. I thought it was a matter of the spirit, a kind of divine allegory, and that explanations of it were not very important anyway. What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.”
Apart from the Pax Britannica series on the rise and fall of Queen Victoria’s empire, Morris wrote Spectacle of Empire about the aesthetics of the era, Coronation of Everest on the first ascent by New Zealander Edmund Hilary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing; Fisher’s Face, about the Victorian sailor — it is clear reading this book that Jan loves the Admiral; many travel books and one on cities, including Hong Kong; and the strange Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.
Everyone who loves to read must spend a lot of time with Jan Morris, in spirit.