I first knew of Jan Morris as a name attached to several ‘travel’ books while I was working as a bookseller – as much as she herself resisted the label of being a travel writer. Not very much later in that same role, an elderly gentleman told me about how she had publicly transitioned as a woman, some time after her account of the ascent of Everest. Both these facts suddenly illuminated the figure behind the very beautifully but impersonally published perennial titles of hers that we stocked: Oxford, Venice, Spain etc.
By the time she passed away in 2020 I had seen several more of her memoirs and essays published, and I had a much fuller sense of this woman who had typified transgender identity for several generations of the reading public. I felt like I missed her for what she meant to many people, even if I had been perhaps too young, but mostly too ignorant, to have read her work in her lifetime.
Jan Morris was born in Clevedon, Somerset, in 1926. She was educated in Oxford first at Christ Church Cathedral School, where she was a chorister.1 After enlisting and serving in the British army in Italy and Palestine, she returned to Oxford to undertake a degree at Christ Church College.2 During this time she was also had a stint as editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper.
Her early career as a journalist was crowned by the report to the Sunday Times of Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, with later prominent reporting on the first proof of French collaboration with Israel in the Suez conflict, 1956.3
In 1974, her account of her gender transition, Conundrum, became a worldwide bestseller, and is an early example of a transgender narrative in the public eye. Reviews from the time are not altogether as hostile as might be expected, but some critics thought that Morris’ writing was incompatible with womanhood, for example Rebecca West’s New York Times review.4 There seems to be an uncritical belief in an écriture féminine to which, they argue, Morris does not conform. This particular branch of feminist thought, that certain styles of writing are better able to express and demonstrate women’s perspectives, might be something that we find more problematic as an assertion today.
As a reader of fiction, especially science fiction, more than the genres Morris most often wrote in, I love Last Letters from Hav.5 I think it’s wonderfully uncanny, as a result of the sense of credibility with which Morris imbues a fictional place. The recent editions are accompanied by an introduction from Ursula K. Le Guin, which is a sensible publishing decision; fans of Le Guin’s novels, whose science fiction elements draw on imagined or speculative social systems, will find similar care taken by Morris to construct an imagined society in a moment of crisis.
Things to see in Oxford relating to Jan Morris
Morris’ connection to Oxford is obviously tied closely to Christ Church College. The Cathedral is publically accessible for services and prayer, with choral services on Sundays at 11am and evensongs Tuesday through Sunday at 6pm. Copies of Cherwell can be called up to Bodleian reading rooms, including volumes from Jan Morris’ tenure as editor.
Morris’ favourite places to see, for those wanting to follow in her footsteps, include the tomb of Dr. Richard Baylie, which can be viewed within the eponymous chapel on tours of St John’s. Morris noted that ‘he is dressed in his academicals, and is leaning with one knee cocked against a pile of books; his forefinger keeps his place in one volume, and he is looking preoccupied up into the sky, as if his train of thought has momentarily escaped the argument of the page, and true to the Oxford method, has soared away to more celestial syllogisms’.6
Morris’ writing on Oxford is certainly rooted in time; her description of Summer Eights seems farcical, where men rowed and women looked ‘vacuously’ on asking brothers to explain the crews, before retiring as ‘happy little groups of people, white and blue and polka-dotted, strolling through the meadows’.7 This seems a far cry from Summer Eights today, the interspersed men’s and women’s crews, with onlookers of all varieties far too drunk on warm, fruitless Pimms to recognise all but the first boats in each division, all to the competing club music emanating from each boathouse’s gym.
One point on which Morris and I definitely agree is in the best treasure in Oxford: the Alfred Jewel. An enamel portrait (of Christ, most likely) in a gold setting, fronted by a thick piece of quartz, the jewel is on permanent display at the Ashmolean, and represents the energy with which Alfred sought to revitalise literacy during his reign. Modern scholarship is confident that the jewel is the end piece of an aestel, a rod for pointing to a text as it is read; several were donated to Alfred’s bishops alongside manuscripts of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, newly translated into Old English.8 As a symbol of Alfred’s intention to associate wealth, prestige and learning, it is a powerful and affective piece.
- Jan Morris, Conundrum. (London: Faber & Faber, 2018).
- Richard Lea, ‘Jan Morris, historian, travel writer and trans pioneer, dies aged 94’, Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/20/jan-morris-historian-travel-writer-and-trans-pioneer-dies-aged-94 [accessed 20th March 2023]
- Lea, ‘Jan Morris, historian, travel writer and trans pioneer, dies aged 94′.
- Rebecca West, ‘Conundrum’, New York Times. 14 April 1974, p. 5.
- Jan Morris, ‘Last Letters from Hav’ in Hav (Chatham: Faber and Faber, 2006), pp 1-187.
- Jan Morris, Oxford (Cary: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 161.
- Morris, Oxford. p. 133.
- Leslie Webster, Anglo-Saxon Art. (London: British Museum Press, 2012).