• Carrie Mitchell

Jan Morris

“Book lovers will understand me, and they will know too that part of the pleasure of a library lies in its very existence.”

Photo vis NY Times


Jan Morris CBE FRSL (1926-2020), was acclaimed Welsh journalist, travel writer and historian who wrote about history’s sweep and the details of place with equal eloquence and chronicled her life as a transgender woman. She was known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, including Oxford, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, and New York City.


From the NY Times: As James Morris she was a military officer in one of Britain’s most renowned cavalry regiments and then a daring journalist who climbed three-quarters of the way up Mount Everest for an exclusive series of dispatches from the first conquest of that mountain, the world’s highest.

She continued a brilliant writing career with reports on wars and revolutions from a score of countries, and with much-admired books like “Pax Britannica,” the first of a three-volume history of the British Empire. Ms. Morris also married and had five children. But she became increasingly despondent over the issue of gender identity. At age 46, she underwent transition surgery, explaining the reasoning in a well-received 1974 memoir, “Conundrum,” which was written two years after the operation under a new byline, Jan Morris.


In all, Ms. Morris wrote some four dozen books. Among the best-known early titles were “The Hashemite Kings” (1959) and “Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress” (1973). Editors’ Picks


In a 1957 review of “Islam Inflamed: A Middle East Picture,” Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic wrote that Ms. Morris’s “descriptions of cities and countrysides are equally vivid” and that her writing conveyed “the emotional tone of a place as sharply as its shape and color.” “Venice” (1960) won Britain’s prestigious Heinemann Award for Literature. In The New York Times Book Review, the Italian author Carlo Beuf called the book “one of the most satisfactory and delightful works on the City of the Lagoons to appear in recent years.”


In 1968, The Times Literary Supplement in London hailed “Pax Britannica” as “a tour de force, offering a vast amount of information and description, with a style full of sensuality.” And in The New York Times Book Review, the British biographer Philip Magnus called it “a successful portrayal of what the Empire looked and felt like in a variety of places at the end of the 19th Century — how it ticked, who pulled the strings, and the practical ends and ideals it served.”


Another two dozen books came after Ms. Morris’s transition. Besides “Conundrum,” they included “Destinations” (1980), a collection of travel essays; “Last Letters From Hav” (1985), a deadpan exploration of an imaginary city that was a finalist for the Booker Prize; and “Fisher’s Face, or, Getting to Know the Admiral” (1995), a biography of the British naval reformer John Arbuthnot Fisher. Ms. Morris excelled as a travel writer, drawing literary portraits of places like Manhattan, Hong Kong, her beloved Wales (she was a dedicated Welsh nationalist), Oxford in England and Trieste in Italy.

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