“To be writing about a place you’ve got to be utterly selfish,” said the legendary travel writer Jan Morris in her Art of the Essay interview. “You’ve only got to think about the place that you’re writing. Your antenna must be out all the time picking up vibrations and details. If you’ve got somebody with you, especially somebody you’re fond of, it doesn’t work so well.” Although Morris, who died Friday at the age of ninety-four, preferred to travel alone, her writing radiates the qualities of an ideal companion: knowledgeable, witty, relaxed, and always up for an adventure. If you pricked a globe with pins indicating the places she explored throughout her work—Venice, Hong Kong, wide swaths of South Africa and Spain, and, of course, Wales, where she lived for much of her life with her wife, Elizabeth—it would never stop spinning. Morris was nearly as adventurous in her literary endeavors as she was in her travels, publishing more than forty books of history, memoir, essays, diaries, and even fiction. In a foreword to the expanded edition of Morris’s novel Hav, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognizable type and superb quality.” Morris was also responsible for a groundbreaking account of her own gender confirmation surgery, Conundrum (1974). A tremendously insightful writer till the end, she in recent years published a selection of her diaries, an excerpt of which appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The Paris Review. In these personal accounts of her days, Morris writes about walking her “statutory thousand daily paces up the lane,” keeping a frayed copy of Montaigne’s essays in her old Honda Civic, and spending days in the garden. One entry consists simply of a poem about her life with Elizabeth:
In the north part of Wales there resided, we’re told,
Two elderly persons who, as they grew old,
Being tough and strong-minded, resolute ladies,
Observing their path toward heaven or hades,
Said they’d still stick together, whatever it meant,
Whatever bad fortune, or good fortune, sent.
They’d rely upon Love, which they happened to share,
Which went with them always, wherever they were.
And if it should happen that one kicked the bucket,
Why, the other would simply say “Bother!”
(Not “F— it!” for both were too ladylike ever to swear .… )
Below, three of Morris’s longtime colleagues remember her charm:
My fondest memories of Jan Morris are of my visits to her home in North Wales. She and her wife, Elizabeth, lived for many years in a plas, a big house, and when this became too big they renovated the stable block and moved in there.
Wales mattered to Jan. In midlife, and at more or less the same time as her gender reassignment, she embraced what she called Welsh Republicanism. Her home, Trefan Morys, is in a remote area near the town of Criccieth. You leave the main road, take a long, rutted drive, negotiate the narrow entrance in a high stone wall, and you are suddenly in an enchanted space. Elizabeth was the architect of the garden and Jan the interior designer. You enter the house through a two-part stable door (Jan always greeting you with the words, “Not today, thank you”), into a cozy kitchen, and then the main downstairs room. The walls are lined with eight thousand books, including specially leather-bound editions of Jan’s own. Up the stairs there is another long room, with an old-fashioned stove in the middle. Here are more books, but this space is given over mainly to memorabilia and paintings. Pride of place is given to a six-foot-long painting of Venice, done by Jan, in which every detail of the miraculous city is rendered (including tiny portraits of the two eldest sons, who were very young at the time Jan painted it). Model ships hang from the ceiling, and paintings of ships adorn the walls. Jan loved ships from the time she spied them, as a child, through a telescope as they passed through the Bristol Channel near her family’s home.