The great Jan Morris, died on Thursday at the age of 94 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl Hospital near her home on the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. She’d written more than 50 books, including Booker Prize-nominated fiction; broke one of the great stories of the 20th century; and as William Dalrymple said: “was one of the funniest, liveliest and most wonderful people I’ve known.”
She was born James Morris in 1926. Colour-blindness prevented him from joining the Royal Navy in the Second World War, so he settled for being an intelligence officer in Palestine, before studying at Oxford and becoming a journalist. He met and married Elizabeth Tuckniss and they had five children. One was born in 1953 when his father was high up on Mt. Everest where he’d been sent by The Times of London to cover what turned out to be its first ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
James Morris had never climbed a mountain, but he was fit, so The Times deemed its new deputy foreign editor ready. He made it three quarters up Everest and when he got back down to Base Camp, Morris first gave Hillary a hug then gave a Sherpa his coded message to the British Embassy in Kathmandu. It read: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.” Decoded and safely out of the hands of rival reporters, it read: “Summit of Everest reached on May 29 by Hillary and Tenzing.”
The Times broke its Everest story on June 2, 1953, the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, which prompted The Daily Express to give them equal billing: “All this – and Everest too!”
Morris went on to break a series of scoops, including the secret involvement of the French in Suez. For the next two decades, he went on to write scads of political and travel pieces for The Times and The Guardian, and his celebrated biography of Venice, first published in 1960 and still in print.
But “….I was three or perhaps four when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.”
So by the late 60s, he started hormone therapy and in 1972 at age 46 he had re-assignment surgery (now called, “gender confirmation surgery,” pulleeze!), emerging as Jan Morris.
She wrote a book about her transsexuality called Conundrum, and she relished the adventure.
“I was a member of two clubs in London, one as a man and one as a woman, and I would sometimes change my identity in a taxi between the two.”
As The Guardian’s obituary noted on Friday: “Morris had been denied surgery in the UK because the couple refused to divorce, and wrote in Conundrum that the marriage had no right to work, “yet it worked like a dream, living testimony…of love in its purest sense over everything else.”
Morris and Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter, have remained together all these years.
So think back to your values, and Canada’s, in 1972. Not exactly ‘woke’ in terms of embracing transgender citizens. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the icon of women’s advancement, Germaine Greer, wrote of Conundrum “as Jan Morris plucks at your sleeve for a girlish heart to heart, you wonder about Elizabeth. Her unbroken silence is the truest measure of Jan Morris’s enduring masculinity.”
Elizabeth swiftly replied to Greer: “I am not very silent and certainly not anguished. The children and I not only love Jan very dearly but are very proud of her.”
As The Guardian reported: “Jan and Elizabeth reaffirmed that love in a civil union ceremony in Pwllheli in 2008, witnessed by a local couple who invited them to tea at their house afterwards. “I made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them,” Elizabeth said at the time. “After Jan had a sex change we had to divorce. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on.”
That same year Morris wrote a book of essays to be published posthumously called Allegorizings. It has two themes — “that nothing in life is simple or single; everything has more than one meaning, including life itself,” and aging.
“I’m very interested in death, who isn’t?” said Morris.
“I have been personally concerned with my own death for ages. About 30 years ago I had our gravestone cut,” she said. “It’s under the stairs at home, it has been there ever since.”
“It’s got my own epitaph, which is ‘Here are two friends — Jan and Elizabeth Morris — at the end of one life.’”