A guide to the books of Jan Morris, a travel writer who tried to understand the meaning of everywhere

Acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris died aged 94 on 20 November 2020. We take a look at the life and work of the author, historian and journalist whose career spanned seven decades, two genders and countless countries.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 4 Dec 2020, 08:04 GMT
Jan Morris.

A historian, biographer and author of fiction, Jan Morris published over 40 works, including Venice (1960) and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001).

Photograph by Jan Morris

‘This was my introduction to mountaineering, and clumsy indeed were my movements as we moved off.’ Clumsy it may have been, but this report from the first ever recorded ascent of Everest in 1953 put Jan Morris — not to mention climbers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay — firmly on the world stage. Born James Humphrey Morris in Somerset in 1926, Morris’s life and career as a journalist reached epic heights, including penning the world-exclusive account of the mountaineers’ efforts to summit Earth’s highest mountain.  

An explorer at heart, it was a stint in the army in the Middle East during the Second World War that allowed Morris, finally, to feel ‘free’. The least interesting journey, according to the writer herself, was the one Morris made transitioning from male to female, a process nonetheless intimately documented in Conundrum (1974), making Morris counter-cultural grist for such publications as the Rolling Stone magazine, for whom she became a writer.

Morris’s 40-plus books span her life as a man and woman almost equally, including The Pax Britannica Trilogy, which examined the social history of the British Empire written in the first part as James, then as Jan. (Morris was a passionate historian, reading English at Christ Church, Oxford, going on to edit Cherwell magazine, and then working in a Cairo news agency.) An enthusiastic explorer of the Empire, she nonetheless never shied away from noting its inequities and cruelties.

Morris passed away on 20 November 2020, aged 94. Her ashes will be scattered around the slate gravestone she prepared some years ago, on which she had inscribed the words ‘Here lie two friends, at the end of one life’.

Photograph by Getty Images

Famously mischievous and waspish in words, Morris was also kind, highlighting the human qualities of a place while managing simultaneously to serve up a scholar’s knowledge in digestible doses. As one of her later books, In My Mind’s Eye (2018) illustrated, she had a great love of animals and a deep revulsion of human cruelty. She made it a habit of attending court proceedings wherever she travelled, to better understand the destination but also to deliver the accused ‘a smile of sympathy’.

A historian, a biographer and an author of fiction, ultimately Morris was a writer of great enthusiasm for whatever she focused on. Drawn by a deep curiosity for the world, she was a writer who happened to fall into travelling — by her own definition she was not a travel writer but someone who ‘wrote many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement’.

She adopted Wales — her father’s native country — as her beloved home, living on the Llŷn Peninsula. But, really, Morris belonged to nowhere in particular. She tended to travel somewhere — Oxford, Venice or Trieste, for example — and stay put for a while, allowing her to develop a deeper understanding of a place, rather than bounce from one destination to another.

Morris’s ashes will be scattered around the slate gravestone she had prepared some years ago, on which she had inscribed the words ‘Here lie two friends, at the end of one life’. She leaves behind Elizabeth, her lifelong partner, whom she met on an Arabic course in the 1940s, and their children. 

For any traveller, Morris's work is worth exploring. Here, we recommend five books that offer a diverse introduction to a body of writing that spans the globe astride two centuries.

Jan Morris first visited Venice as young James Morris, during the Second World War, writing much of Venice (1960) later while working as a roving reporter and foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.

Photograph by Getty Images

The reading list: five unmissable Jan Morris books

Venice (1960)

The fruit of Morris’s long and passionate relationship with the Italian city, this international bestseller offers a vivid immersion into Venetian life, exploring the temperament of city residents, while exploring La Serenissima’s storied past, quirks, history and architecture. Jan Morris first visited Venice as young James Morris, during the Second World War, writing much of this book later while working as a roving reporter and foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. It’s since gone into numerous editions but has never been properly revised; an impressionistically youthful vision of a multilayered city. Along with Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, it’s a superlative example of Morris’ knack for drawing distinct, memorable portraits of cities, characterised by such vivid descriptions as: ‘An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place; a great white liner slips towards its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air.’

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001)

This tribute to Trieste is neither travel book nor history tome — it stands apart, rather like the city of nowhere itself. Morris writes affectionately about Trieste as if it’s a dear friend. I first picked up this book — drawn to the subject of my ancestral home and its evocative ‘nowhereness’ — while living in Perugia. I later visited, and too, felt the tugging loneliness Morris describes. She views the city as a fourth-world diaspora, transcending race, faith, sex and nationality: the circumstance of a fraught history of rule (spanning the Hapsburgs, fascist Yugoslavia and the Kingdom of Italy) and its geographical position as the easternmost outpost of Italy, wedged against the Adriatic between three countries: ‘a fold in the map, hemmed-in, hole-in-the-corner’. She returns here in old age and finds Trieste’s ‘sweet melancholy’ has come to represent her own life. Exploring mysteries of identity and geography, Morris deftly captures the feeling of a ‘hallucinatory city’ in limbo; a ‘half-wishful Utopia’. Contributed by Stephanie Cavagnaro

Sultan in Oman (1957)

Morris’ only true work as a travel writer (by her own definition, at least: an author who moves about rather than writes about place), Sultan in Oman follows a thrilling drive across that country just as the production of oil was transforming it from backwater to modern Middle Eastern business hub. This account of the first crossing of the Omani desert by motorcar saw Morris accompany the Sultan from his southern capital of Salala to the northern capital of Muscat as the winds of change — oil, the end of an Imperial line and revolution — loom large in the background. The trip ultimately inspired Morris to write her major work, The Pax Britannica Trilogy.

Oxford (1965)

“Oxford made me,” said Morris, of the city where she attended school, and later read English at Christ Church. One might say that as a writer it was her world exclusive newspaper reports of the first ever recorded ascent of Everest in 1953 that really cemented Jan Morris as a writer (an eyewitness account was later published — Coronation Everest, in 1970), but it’s the university city she credits with marking her most. A lyrical, stylish guide to the city for anyone interested in its long history, its celebrated residents, and the enduring conflicting contrasts of town and gown culture.

Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone (1980)

A collection of the long form city profiles that Morris wrote for Rolling Stone in the ’70s, taking in everywhere from Los Angeles, ‘the city of knowhow’, to Washington just after Watergate, Cairo at the time of the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks and Trieste where the beginnings of her obsession can be sniffed out. Leading the charge for contemporary travel writing as insightful, expansive cultural commentary that lets place not author shine, this collection is nicely paired with her book, Coast to Coast, her account of spending a year travelling by car, train, ship and aircraft across the United States in the 1950s. ‘I did not know it then, and nor did America, but chance had brought me across the Atlantic at the very apex of American happiness,’ says Morris in the new introduction to the book.

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