After a life of travel, she’s back where he started
The writer of some of the most poignant works in the travel genre crossed sexual as well as geographical boundaries
Even after all these years, Jan Morris can’t quite explain what it was all about. Not sex, precisely, nor consciousness, nor identity. The celebrated travel writer tends to complain that she is “sick to death of the whole business,” or, at least, of being asked about it. But last week, in a nondescript north Wales council office, we learned something important about who she really is.
Morris, 81, was joined together, in a civil ceremony, with Elizabeth Tuckniss, the woman she married almost 60 years ago. Back then, Jan was James Morris, a dashing, wavy-haired former army officer and all-action journalist, who, in the dreariness of post-war Britain, already shone out as a chap capable of doing remarkable things.
Just how remarkable, we are still discovering. Even those against the idea of same-sex marriages would struggle to dispute the affecting nature and essential goodness of this extraordinary love story.
The Morrises, who first fell for each other in their early 20s, stayed together through James’s much-chronicled 1970s sex-change operation, the enforced divorce that followed, the ridicule and hostility that pursued them in the prime of their lives, and the long absences caused by work and travel. Now, in old age, they are, finally, a legally-constituted couple again.
They celebrated with a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits, then returned to the old house they have shared for many years.
“We did it because we could,” said Jan, who broke the news during a BBC program.
Elizabeth, 84, the daughter of a teaplanter who first walked down the aisle with her partner in 1949, admitted that “it is nice to be legal again.”
Morris’s books deal with the pathologies of places, evoking rather than describing the experiences of being in Venice, Oxford, Cairo or Spain. They are notable, in this personalized and ego-riddled field, for their sparing use of the first-person singular, and although the writer has been hailed by critics as “the Flaubert of the Jet Age,” and a “motorized scholar-gypsy,” her presence in the books is always a discreet one.
It isn’t hard to guess why. For many years Morris wasn’t sure who “I” was — and even when, after a fashion, she found out, it was at the cost of more personal attention than she had ever wanted. Best, then, to let the writing speak for itself, and to tread lightly.
“I do not doubt,” she mused some years ago, “that when I go, the event will be commemorated with the headline: ‘Sex Change Author Dies.’ ”
Morris is not only the most famous and probably most successful person ever to have switched genders, but seemed at the time — at least to his upstanding middle-class readers — a wildly improbable sort to do so. Born into a well-to-do family and educated at Lancing and Oxford, James had served ably in the Queen’s Royal Lancers
during the Second World War, later becoming a star foreign correspondent in journalism’s fearsomely macho heyday.
He had accompanied Edmund Hillary on the 1953 Everest expedition, breaking the story of the successful ascent.
He was glamorous, brave and clever, but he wasn’t what he seemed to be. The suave exterior concealed a secret he had known from an early age.
“I was three, or perhaps four years old,” he wrote in his famous book
Conundrum, “when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well. I was sitting under my mother’s piano, and it is the earliest