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Jan Morris was born James Humphrey Morris on October 2, 1926, in Somerset, England. As she recalled in her memoir, Conundrum, “I was three or four when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” First intimations. But he would live as a man for the next thirty-six years, mentioning his sexual confusion only to his wife Elizabeth, whom he married at twenty-two in Cairo, where he was working for the local Arab News Agency.

Morris left boarding school at the age of seventeen and served for the next five years in the 9th Queen’s Lancers, one of Britain’s best cavalry regiments. He then moved to Cairo, but soon returned to Britain, attending Oxford for two years before reentering journalism as a reporter for the Times, which assigned him, because no one else was available, to cover the Hillary and Tensing expedition to Mount Everest. At twenty-six, having never before climbed a mountain, he scaled three-quarters (twenty-two thousand feet) of Everest to report the first conquest of the mountain. It was a world scoop, and won him international renown. He went on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent, for both the Times and the Guardian.

In 1956, he was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship, which allowed him to travel through America for a year and resulted in his first book: As I Saw the U.S.A. A similar book was published to great acclaim in 1960, The World of Venice, the product of a year’s sabbatical in that city with his family. Morris ended his career as a full-time journalist in 1961, in part because of a newspaper policy that prevented him from expanding his journalistic assignments into books. He went on to publish numerous books, including The Road to Huddersfield: A Journey to Five Continents (1963), The Presence of Spain (1965), and the Pax Britannica trilogy.

In 1964, there was another change, personal rather than professional: Morris started taking hormone pills to begin his transformation into a female. The process was completed in 1972, when he traveled to Casablanca for the definitive operation. Her first book as Jan Morris, Conundrum, chronicles the passing from male to female. But when asked to discuss the sex change further, she demurs, preferring to let that account speak for itself and referring to the whole matter simply as “the conundrum thing.” Since then she has published thirteen books, including Travels (1976), Manhattan ’45 (1987), Hong Kong (1988) and two novels, Last Letter from Hav (1985) and Fisher’s Face (1995).

Divorce necessarily followed the sex change (it is required by British law), although Morris still lives with his former wife, currently in a house in North Wales called Trefan Morys. Morris describes the house in her book Pleasures of a Tangled Life (1989): “I love it above all inanimate objects, and above a good many animate ones too . . . It consists in essence simply of two living rooms, each about forty feet long. Both are full of books, and there is a little suite of functional chambers on two floors at one end, linked by a spiral staircase.” They have four children.

At seventy-one, she looks remarkably youthful, perhaps a result of the hormone pills. And she still travels, this summer to Hong Kong to cover the transfer of power from Britain to China. The interview was begun in 1989 under the auspices of the 92nd Street Y, at Hunter College in New York City, and continued through telephone calls and letters.

 

INTERVIEWER

You resist being called a travel writer.  

JAN MORRIS

Yes. At least I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature. I must say that my campaign, which I’ve been waging for ages now, has borne some fruit because intelligent bookshops nowadays do have a stack called something like travel literature. But what word does one use?  

INTERVIEWER

Writing about place?  

MORRIS

Yes, that’s what I do. Although I think of myself more as a belletrist, an old-fashioned word. Essayist would do; people understand that more or less. But the thing is, my subject has been mostly concerned with place. It needn’t be. I believe my best books to be far more historical than topographical. But like most writers, I think far too much about myself anyway, and in my heart of hearts don’t think I am worth talking about in this way.  

INTERVIEWER

Basically, what you are then is a historian.  

MORRIS

Well, my best books have been histories. That’s all.  

INTERVIEWER

So let’s start with your Pax Britannica trilogy. Did you have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in mind when you began?  

MORRIS

No, not at all. When I began the trilogy I didn’t know I was going to write it. I ought to tell you how I got into writing it. I’m old enough to remember the empire when it still was the empire. I was brought up in a world whose map was painted very largely red, and I went out into the world when I was young in a spirit of imperial arrogance. I felt, like most British people my age, that I was born to a birthright of supremacy; out I went to exert that supremacy. But gradually in the course of my later adolescence and youth my views about this changed.  

INTERVIEWER

Did they change at a particular moment?  

MORRIS

Yes. I was living in what was then Palestine, and I had occasion to call upon the district commissioner of Gaza. He was an Englishman. It was a British mandate in those days, and he was the British official in charge of that part of Palestine. I knocked on his door and out he came. Something about this guy’s hat made me think twice about him. It was kind of a bohemian hat. Rather a floppy, slightly rakish or raffish hat; a very, very civilian hat—a sort of fawn color, but because it was bleached by imperial suns and made limp by tropical rainstorms all of the empire was in that hat. He seemed to be rather a nice man. I admired him. He had none of my foolish, cocky arrogance at all. He was a gentleman in the old sense of the word. And through him, and through meeting some of his colleagues, I began to see that my imperial cockiness was nonsense and that the empire, in its last years at least, wasn’t a bit arrogant, it wasn’t a bit cocky. People like that were simply trying to withdraw from an immense historical process and hand it over honorably to its successors. Because of this, my view of the empire changed.

I went on and wrote a book about an imperial adventure, which was a crossing of southeast Arabia, with the Sultan of Oman, but under the auspices of the Raj, really. One of the reviewers of the book said, Why does this author fiddle around along the edges, along the perimeters of this imperial subject? Why not get down to the heart of it? For once a writer did take notice of what a reviewer suggested: because of what he said, I decided I’d write a large, celebratory volume at the center of the imperial story, 1897, which was the time of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the climax of the whole imperial affair. I wrote that book, and I loved doing it. Then I thought, Well, I’ll add one on each side of it and make a triptych. I’ll have a volume showing how Queen Victoria came to the throne and the empire splurged into this great moment of climax. Then we’ll have the climactic piece. Finally, we’ll have an elegiac threnody, letting the thing die down until the end, which I took to be the death of Winston Churchill. Nothing at all to do with Gibbon.  

INTERVIEWER

In what’s now the Queen Victoria volume you demonstrated something you do frequently. You began with the particular, with Emily Eden, and then spread out over the British Empire. The reader sort of grows up with Queen Victoria. In the preface of the first volume you state that you are “chiefly attracted by the aesthetic of empire.” Did this dictate a different approach?  

MORRIS

Yes, it did. Because I did not set out to exhibit a moral stance about the empire. I treated it as an immense exhibition. By and large, I accepted the moral views of those who were doing it at the time. Things that would seem wicked to us now didn’t always seem wicked to people in the Victorian age. I accepted that. Since this is an escapist point of view, really, I decided that I would not in any way make it an analysis of empire but rather an evocation. The looks and smells and sensations of it. What I later tried to imagine was this: Supposing in the last years of the Roman Empire one young centurion, old enough to remember the imperial impulses and the imperial splendor but recognizing that it was passing, sat down and wrote a large book about his sensations at that moment. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Said I, But somebody could do it about this still greater empire, the British Empire. Who is that? I asked myself. Me!  

INTERVIEWER

As empire began its decline, more frightening than the loss of territory, you say, was the possibility that the British might have lost the will to rule. In what ways was empire’s decline an expression of British character at the time?  

MORRIS

In several ways it was. In the more honorable way, I think it was in the way that I was trying to express my responses to the district commissioner of Gaza. There were a great many very decent men who were devoting their lives to the empire. Perhaps, when they began their careers, they did it in a paternalistic way, which is in itself a form of arrogance; by the time I got into it, very few of them were arrogant. They were only anxious to hand it over honorably and at a reasonable speed. I think they did it very well on the whole. Compared with the record of the French leaving their empire, the British did it in a successful, kindly way. But at the same time, of course, the British had been absolutely shattered by two world wars. The first one left the empire physically larger than ever before. The second one was an obvious death knell for it. The British came out of the Second World War an extremely tired and disillusioned nation, exemplified by the fact that they immediately gave the boot to their great hero, Winston Churchill. All they were interested in then was getting back to their island and trying to make it a more decent place to live. In that respect, the will to empire had most certainly gone. And the sense of enterprise and of adventure and of push and of just a touch of arrogance too—of swagger, at least—that had been essential to the extension of the empire. All that had been kicked out of the British. Perhaps a very good thing too.