Looking Back Upon Jan Morris’ Eventful Life As “Both Man And Woman”

jan morris

Celebrated journalist, writer, historian, traveller, and transgender activist Jan Morris passed away on Friday, November 20 at the age of 94. Her son, Twn Morris, announced the same: “This morning at 11.40 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, on the Llyn, the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her lifelong partner, Elizabeth.” As per reports, Morris had been facing health issues for some time now. People the world over are mourning the loss of the pioneer best characterised by her strong authorial voice, a mind of her own, and enduring love for life.

From James To Jan

Born as James Morris in 1926, she realised early on that she wasn’t meant to be a ‘boy’. In Conundrum, a book documenting her gender transition, she wrote that at the age of three she realised that she had “been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Morris also described her childhood as one filled with a yearning for something undefinable: “ there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse.”

These childhood musings culminated in a gender reassignment surgery in Casablanca in 1982. Talking about the life-changing moment with The New York Times, Morris said, “I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t. It was inevitable – I’d been heading there mentally all my life.” Expectedly, her transformation was met with hostility and incomprehension. Nonetheless, having thus received “inner reconciliation”, James Morris finally came into her own as Jan Morris – a female force to be reckoned with.

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A Literary Institution

Initially a part of the army, Morris eventually turned to journalism after pursuing English at Oxford University. Consequently, she went on to break landmark historical events like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Everest, and the French involvement in the Israeli attack on Egypt in the Suez war. A keen traveller, Morris penned down her sojourns in books described as “admirably evocative” and “ never soppy or sentimental” by critics.

Post surgery, however, critics were decidedly less kind to Morris: “She sounds not like a woman, but like a man’s idea of a woman, and curiously enough, the idea of a man not nearly so intelligent as James Morris used to be,” critic Rebecca West wrote about Conundrum. However, in a testament to her literary genius, Conundrum turned out to be a bestseller and paved the way for books like Pax Britannica and Last Letters from Hav, with the latter also being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As Morris brought to life places, people, and history through her words, she acquired a literary reputation much beyond that of a simplistic “travel writer”.

“Two Friends At The End Of One Life”

Morris’ love story was as unconventional yet as heartwarming as Morris the person. She married Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949, while still living as James, and went on to have five children with her. Tuckniss proved to be a constant pillar of support as James transformed into Jan and quelled naysayers who said that the marriage was destined to be doomed. Even after divorcing each other, they lived together as “sisters-in-law” for decades. In Morris’ words, their extraordinary relationship “worked like a dream, living testimony … of love in its purest sense over everything else.” The duo also devised the most perfect homage to their companionship and sisterhood by getting a joint memorial stone for themselves, inscribed with heartfelt words: “Here are two friends … At the end of one life.”

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In her final years, Morris considered herself both man and woman … “or a mixture of both” During her lifetime, she bridged many a gap – between man and woman, love and hate, and convention and choice. With Morris’ death, the world has lost a fearless gem whose activism, literary endeavours, and zest for life will be an inspiration for posterity.

Picture Credits: The Guardian

Tarini Gandhiok is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

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