Jan Morris spent her long life and career writing about the world. Her voluminous body of work includes books about countries like Spain, the United States, and her ancestral homeland of Wales; cities like Oxford, Trieste, and Sydney; and even city-states like Hong Kong and her beloved (if sometimes resented) Venice. And yet, as she declared on CBS Sunday Morning twenty years ago, “I hate being called a travel writer, and I don’t believe I am one. When I go to a place, I describe its effect upon my own sensibility. I’m not telling the reader what they’re going to find there; I’m just telling people what effect the place has had upon me.” To The Paris Review she called herself a “a belletrist, an old-fashioned word,” and a belletrist “mostly concerned with place.”
“It’s hard not to be fascinated by Jan Morris,” says Observer editor Robert McCrum in the BBC profile just above. This would be true of any writer who had seen and considered so much of the Earth, which in Morris’ case also happens to include the top of Mt. Everest, conquered in 1953 along with the history-making expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary.
She reached the summit as a he, having lived for her first forty or so years as James Morris; becoming Jan, in her perception, constituted a journey of another kind. “I have interpreted this thing romantically, coyly, and tweely as some sort of a quest that has been imposed upon me,” she said in a 1974 talk-show appearance promoting her narrative of transition Conundrum — “an arrogant book, an egotistical book about myself, and I’m afraid that you must take it or leave it.”
Just as Morris never called herself a travel writer, she never spoke of having undergone a sex change. “I did not change sex,” she told her final interviewer, The Guardian‘s Tim Adams. “I really absorbed one into the other. I’m a bit of each now.” For her many readers, this greatly deepens her value as an observer. “I’ve written as an outsider, always,” as she puts it to McCrum. “I’ve never pretended to get inside the spirit, or the thoughts of other cultures, other people, other cities, even. I’m always the onlooker.” And yet this very nature made her, among other things, “the kindest, shrewdest and most indefatigable master portraitist of cities,” as her fellow writer of place Pico Iyer tweeted in response to the news of her death on November 20 at the age of 94.
Among Morris’ work not filed under “travel” one finds subjects like Abraham Lincoln, the Japanese Battleship Yamato, and the rise and fall of the British Empire. To my mind, this historical perspective did a good deal to make her a model “city critic,” and one whose work lights the way for writers of place to come. She continued publishing that work up until the end — and indeed will continue past it, a deliberately posthumous volume called Allegorizings having been completed years ago. “When I die, which I’m going to one of these days, I think people will be able to say that I’ve written an awful lot of books about the whole world at a particular moment,” Morris said in a recent interview on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. She enjoyed a longer moment, not to mention a wider expanse, than most; through her writing, we’ll carry on enjoying it ourselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.