Jan Morris, the writer celebrated for her lyrical, evocative prose and hailed as the Flaubert of the Jet Age, made her name with a bald report of barely a dozen words. “Snow conditions bad,” it read. “Advanced base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All Well.”
That downbeat dispatch, carried by runners down Nepal’s Khumbu valley then telegraphed to London, was in fact a coded message designed to protect a famous journalistic scoop. On June 2, 1953, the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation, its true meaning was revealed in the Times: Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay had become the first to stand on the summit of Everest.
Morris was the sole reporter on that expedition, an experience which would have been the pinnacle of most careers. For Morris, who died on Friday aged 94, it was just one chapter in a long adventurous life of remarkable breadth and scope. She was a child chorister at Oxford, a soldier crossing Europe in the second world war, a feted historian, one of 20th century’s greatest travellers, a Booker-shortlisted novelist and transgender pioneer. Along the way she met Che Guevara in Cuba, exposed French collusion in the invasion of Suez, and lived on Field Marshal Montgomery’s houseboat on the Nile.
James Morris was born in Somerset in 1926, to a Welsh father and English mother. It was a musical childhood — his brothers became an organist and flautist and James went as a choral scholar to Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford then Lancing College. In 1944 he joined the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, serving as an intelligence officer in Italy and Palestine and at one point being stationed in Venice — the city that would become the subject of the award-winning 1960 book that would establish his reputation as a travel writer.
After the war he worked for the Arab News Agency in Cairo, returned to Oxford to read English and edit Cherwell, the student newspaper, then joined the Times, first as a subeditor then correspondent. In 1949 he met and married Elizabeth Tuckniss — a relationship so joyful and intense he would accompany her morning commute by bus across London just so they could keep talking — and they went on to have five children. In 1968, he published the first volume of the Pax Britannica trilogy, a monumental account of the British empire which the Times Literary Supplement declared “a tour de force”.
But though the life of the dashing army officer and intrepid journalist seemed to epitomise the era’s ideal of action-man masculinity, Morris knew all along he was living in the wrong body. Sitting under his mother’s piano aged three or four, “her music falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as if in a cave”, Morris realised he “should really be a girl. I remember the moment well and it is the earliest memory of my life.”
Supported throughout by Elizabeth, he began hormone treatment in 1964 and in 1972 had reassignment surgery in Casablanca, returning afterwards to resume family life at their home in Wales. (British law at the time forbade same-sex marriages, so the couple were forced to divorce, only to remarry in 2008). “It was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, one might say to the power of mind over matter — or of love in its purest sense over everything else,” wrote Morris in Conundrum (1974).
That book was a frank and groundbreaking account of her transition but in later years she declared herself “sick to death of the whole business”, joking that her death would be marked by the headline: “Sex Change Author Dies”.
Rather, she liked to expound the power and importance of kindness as a virtue overlooked in the modern obsession with romantic love and sex. “Everything good in the world is kindness,” she told the Observer earlier this year. “Though the only person who ever uses that word in politics is the prime minister of New Zealand. She is tremendous isn’t she?”
Though that first message from Everest was abbreviated and factual, the full report which appeared on June 8 showed the early hallmarks of Morris’s expressive style: “implacable Everest’s sting has been drawn at last.”
In these pages in September, the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis argued travel writers and explorers should ignore their own sentiments and strive to look “beyond the shadow of self”. Morris was, by her own confession, the complete opposite. Returning after a decade to update her book on Venice, she noted: “it turns out to be nothing like the objective report I had originally conceived. It is a highly subjective, romantic, impressionist picture less of a city than an experience. It is Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment.”
That approach attracted some criticism. Reviewing her biography of Abraham Lincoln the historian Andrew Roberts complained “the 16th president gets only an occasional look-in”. But Morris’s willingness to give personality and atmosphere to the cities she visited, her “sensitivity to the poetry of place” as one reviewer put it, made her books uniquely compelling. Rebecca West called her “perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time”; Jonathan Raban said her essays were “very close to being pure magic”. Michael Palin praised the books ability to elevate rather than distract from a traveller’s own impressions: “they made you relish the place even more when you went.”
Writing in the Financial Times in 2016 she gave short shrift to detractors who complained that their experience of a place was nothing like her evocation of it: “Well of course it isn’t, I always feel like replying, you didn’t write the book!”
Despite a career circling the world, it was Wales that Morris found “unmatchably beautiful” and where she lived for most of her life, becoming a prominent supporter of Welsh independence. For the last three decades she and Elizabeth shared an 18th century, slate-roofed barn on the Lyn peninsula in the country’s rural north, a mile from the sea and a dozen from the summit of Snowdon. Their son, the poet Twm Morys, lives close by and announced her death on Friday: “This morning at 11.40 . . . the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her life-long partner, Elizabeth.”
Though the remote Welsh house might sound like a retirement hideaway, Morris kept working, publishing her most recent book “Thinking Again” only in March. She zipped around the lanes in the bright red seat of her Honda Civic Type R — a model beloved of boy racers but which she acquired in her 80s — and she continued give interviews to visiting reporters from the world’s newspapers. Often she would show them the grave stone stored in the under stairs cupboard which she and Elizabeth will eventually share, inscribed in English and Welsh with the words: “Here lie two friends, at the end of one life”.
Morris was the last surviving member of the 1953 Everest expedition. For all the flag waving triumphalism surrounding the achievement and the coronation-day reporting of it, she would later write of it not as the zenith of empire, but a final fling, “a last hurrah of old-school Britishness”.
She often wrote about places and people looking back on their prime and latterly her subject had become her own old age. But while her descriptions of Venice and Trieste had an air of graceful melancholy, her words about her own final chapters were shot through with a defiant cheerfulness. “I don’t want to sound complacent,” she told the FT in 2018, “but I have had a marvellous life”.