Image of Jan Morris courtesy of Elizabeth Morris

Jan Morris

(born 1926)

'The Flaubert of the jet age'

Alistair Cooke

Early Life

With a Welsh father and English mother, Jan Morris (then called James) was born in Clevedon, Somerset in 1926. Jan Morris is a transgender woman and would spend the first forty six years of her life living as a man, though from school (she attended Lancing College, West Sussex) onwards she believed herself to have been born into the wrong body. She never believed herself to be homosexual but simply to have been born “wrongly equipped”.

As Europe began to slip towards war she undertook military training at Sandhurst and joined the army as an intelligence officer in the Queen’s Royal Lancers. Serving in Italy, Palestine and finally in the Free Territory of Trieste, during this time Morris began to develop a love of travelling and adventure. After demobilisation in 1949 she returned to Britain to study at Christ Church College, Oxford.

After returning to Britain, Morris met Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter from Ceylon. The couple married and would have five children, living together for six decades. After university Morris pursued a career in journalism, taking a job as a correspondent for The Times. Throughout the 1950s Morris would become one of the most successful and famous journalists in the UK (then writing under the name ‘James Morris’). In 1953 Morris accompanied Edmund Hilary and Tenzin Norgay to Everest, where, when they descended the summit she was able to gain the biggest scoop of her career in being the first journalist to get the news to the world, using a coded message. The arrival of the news has become legendary as it reached The Times newspaper on the eve of the Queen’s coronation – giving further cause for national celebration.

She was also responsible, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, for the revelation that the French Air Force was colluding with the invading Israeli Army. The result was the first proper evidence that the British and French were preparing for war and caused a firestorm of controversy, intensifying the crisis. The Suez Crisis went on to destroy the credibility of the British and is now widely regarded as the terminus of the British Empire – a subject Morris would come to write about in later years.

The first Jan Morris book was published in the late 1950s, and were based on the travels and histories of the locations she visited as a journalist. This included insightful works on the Middle East - The Sultan of Oman (1957) and The Hashemite Kings (1959). However, it was not until the publication of Venice in 1960 when Morris would be able to give up journalism to become a full time writer and historian. Whilst writing further travel books (The Presence of Spain (1964) and Oxford (1965)) Morris also began to work on her great history of the British Empire – The Pax Britannica. This trilogy of books would deal with rise and fall of Britain as an international power and while working on the history, Morris would go through the most courageous and terrifying adventure of her life – the transition from man to woman.

In 1964, when the understanding and treatment of gender dysphoria was still in its infancy, Morris began to take steps to change gender. In 1972 when she was 46 she visited Casablanca, Morocco where she underwent a sex reassignment surgery by leading surgeon Georges Burou (she was unable to have the operation in the UK). She wrote a memoir about the experience, Conundrum (1974), the first Jan Morris book published under her new name. In 1978 the last volume of The Pax Britannica was published, a trilogy she began writing as a man and completed as a woman.

Morris has written travel books, articles, essays and even a comical novel. For her work she has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Wales and the University of Glamorgan, and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was made CBE in 1999.

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