This retired author’s most powerful work, about the British Empire, is still not easily available, although it exists in a magnificent Folio Society set. Let’s deal with the most sensational aspect of Jan Morris’s life first. She was born James Morris, in 1926, and served as a young man in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, but changed her name to Jan in 1972 following sex reassignment surgery. It was performed in Morocco because Morris was happily married to Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea-planter, and under arcane British law they would have had to divorce.
It was Morris who accompanied the British Mount Everest Expedition, and who transmitted news of its success to The Times on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, and it was Morris who reported on the Suez Crisis from Cyprus, and who produced proof of the collusion between France and Israel in the invasion of Egyptian territory.
Today, she’s best known for superlative travel writing, including Sultan in Oman (1957), The Venetian Empire (1980), and many volumes of perfectly judged essays. One tends to suspect that travel writers are restlessly searching for the perfect destination. In Morris’s case, two novels about the fictional country of Hav offer clues; could this fantastical land be the haven most sought by the restless Welsh historian? Another unusual voyage, across the borders of gender and identity, was sensitively explored in Conundrum. Clearly there are many kinds of journeys to be undertaken. Morris is incapable of writing a dull sentence; there are few writers whose first page leads inexorably to the last.
Which brings us to the gargantuan undertaking of the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the world map’s red bits. At its peak the British Empire (a phantom title without constitutional meaning) was four times larger than the Roman Empire, and the volumes are densely packed with stories to make the jaw drop. Morris elegantly confronts the greatest problem, that of the revisionist historian who must toe an ideological line to condemn every colonisation without considering circumstances. Here, empire is seen in finery and shame, processional pomp and unthinking cruelty. The greatest tales involve its forgotten heroes and villains, a self-declared “master race” caught between duty and decency: “How to induce your coloured labour to work for you, but not live among you; spend money, but not earn profits; mend the public highway, but not vote in the public elections.” It’s a unique, enthralling achievement. The author is still happily married and lives in Somerset.