Jan Morris Was a Brilliant Writer. For Me, She Was Also an Inspiration.
Jan Morris, who died last week, was a great writer and a pioneering trans woman whose ground-breaking memoir 'Conundrum' unleashed a cultural shockwave when it was published.
If it is your destiny never to visit Venice, yet still you yearn to escape time’s linear tyranny in the darker alleyways of the Dorsoduro or long for the tang of age and rot in your nose as molecular evidence of your presence in la Serenissima, then have I got the book for you: Venice.
Written in 1960 by the British journalist and author Jan Morris, Venice is far more than a history or a guidebook. It makes you feel that you’ve lived there. Morris, at the time a foreign correspondent for the liberal Guardian newspaper, had intended the book to be a dispatch about contemporary Venice, a city she had come to know intimately since first entering into its daily life at the end of World War II as a teenage officer in the British Army put in charge of the city’s requisitioned motorboats.
Instead, her extraordinary virtuosity as a writer led her to produce a work of literature that so perfectly captures the soul of the city that it is a text immune to update or change.
If you haven’t heard of Jan Morris, who died at a hospital near her home on the Llŷn Peninsula in her beloved Wales on November 20 at the age of 94, it’s not because your local bookstore doesn’t stock her; you’ve just been looking for great writing on the wrong shelves.
You should have tried Travel. Or History. Morris was a prolific writer; there are 19 books on places (she hated the label travel writer), 12 books of essays, and six histories, two novels, one biography, and eight memoirs, plus a whole bag to be filed under miscellaneous.
Her Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, would alone cement a literary and academic reputation. I’m 55 and I’ve been reading her since I was a teen and I’m barely halfway through her canon and they may yet see me out. Despite sixty years of critical acclaim, Morris didn’t even think that Venice was her best work; that, she said, was her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.
As Virgil was to Dante, you can feel Morris’s hand on your elbow, her voice and her presence runs through all of her writing. She described her books as an extended form of memoir: “They are one and all about the effects of everything on me,” she told an interviewer who had begun by asking her why she disliked the term travel writer. “My books amount to one enormously self-centered autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply—a writer.”
There was far more to Morris than simply being a writer; she was a pioneering trans woman and her memoir Conundrum, which described her struggle with gender dysphoria and eventual transition from male to female unleashed a cultural shockwave when it was published in 1972.
By the late 1970s, the reverberations had even reached as far as my all-male English boarding school, and when I first heard Morris’ name it was attached to the now archaic term transsexual by a string of horrible jokes. Too embarrassed to sign out a copy of Conundrum from a library in the town, I swiped one and learned for the first time that I wasn’t alone in my conviction that I was, despite my genitals, female.
Moreover, I also learned that just as Conundrum had parted the veil on trans lives for me, Morris’s own moment of revelation had come from a 1930s biography of Lili Elbe—The Danish Girl, if you prefer your references in recent movies. It seemed people like us had been around for ages.
Morris was by no means the first British person to transition, but she was the first to do so equipped with a gift for articulating her experience with a platform and a readership who would take her seriously. She set about disentangling the concepts of sex and gender for a post-war generation whose instinctive interests in trans lives were mostly prurient.
If this made trans women less interesting, then as far as Morris was concerned, that was to the good. We are as boring as you are, she would say. She was also clear that no amount of persuasion, psychology, drugs, religion, or plain torture could ever "cure" a trans person and that we are who we say we are and the best that society can do is accept that and treat us as human beings with health care and rights.
Morris said that she was lucky to have come out in the '70s, which she saw as an age of liberation. Yet in today’s world of bathroom ban enthusiasts and a conservative onslaught on LGBTIQ rights, these remain radical ideas. Which brings me to the other intersection between her life and mine; we have both been journalists who worked for The Times of London and our transness associated—for better or worse—with the paper.
When Morris stepped through its grand portals in the 1950s, she was presenting as a man and The Times was very much the newspaper of the British establishment, a male-dominated adjunct of the State that with its butlers and dimly-lit dining and drawing rooms frequented by prime ministers, diplomats, and the grand panjandrums of U.S. correspondents felt more like a gentleman’s club than a newspaper.
Just as in the army, Morris was fascinated to be a secret female observer of this most arcane organ of male power, and in Conundrum she even admits a fondness for its crusty halls; yet her description of the suicide of a fanatically loyal editorial executive frozen out of the paper just short of retirement would be recognizable to a staffer in the skyscraper offices of today’s Murdoch-owned Times.
Morris didn’t stay long at the Times, leaving in 1956 after disagreeing with its line on the Suez debacle, but she gave her editors memorably good value, scooping the world in 1953 with the news of the Hillary/Tenzing successful ascent to the summit of Everest.
I was at the Times for many years longer than Morris, and our stories diverge. I sued the paper when I was made redundant shortly after making complaints about untruths and transphobia in the paper’s output. The judge couldn’t conceive that the people who ran the paper that has done more to sow misinformation, foment mistrust, and fuel hatred of trans people than any other in a rampantly transphobic British media were themselves transphobic—and as a result, I lost.
The day after Jan Morris died, the Times of London put her picture on the front page, the correct editorial call for a woman who was a titan of 20th-century writers yet perversely lacking in self-awareness for the paper of transphobia. I’d love to ask Morris what she made of that, but alas we’ll never know. From her writings, I doubt she’d be much bothered that they deadnamed her, but I do fancy that she might agree that by doing so our old paper failed her greatest test, which was kindness.
Asked in 2015 by the Guardian if there was a question she had never been asked but wished she had, she replied, “I would like to have been asked if there was any moral purpose emerging from my 40-odd books, and I would answer yes, my gradually growing conviction that simple kindness should be the governing factor of human conduct.”
Farewell, Jan. You lived a great life, you changed mine, and I’d recommend Venice to anyone.