Love story: Jan Morris - Divorce, the death of a child and a sex change... but still together

Nearly 60 years ago, the writer James Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss. Their relationship endured divorce, the death of a child – and his sex change. Now they have cemented their partnership with a civil union

James Morris was one of the most successful young journalists of the Sixties generation; Jan Morris is one of the finest travel writers and historians in Britain. Now, late in life, Jan (formerly James) has gone through a civil ceremony with the woman he married nearly 60 years ago.

But then, Jan would say, nothing important changed in their relationship except that detail she refers to as ,"this sex-change thing – so-called". Their enduring partnership is perhaps one of the most remarkable of modern times.

The first time that Elizabeth Tuckniss walked down the aisle, in 1949, her groom was a dashing undergraduate. This month, her civil partner was an elderly lady recently voted the 15th greatest British writer since the war.

In reality, the couple have never been apart. In a touching story of constancy, they stayed together after Morris's trip to Morocco in 1972. He went as a man, and came back as woman. The law, then, did not allow same-sex marriages, so the couple were obliged to go through an amicable divorce. Morris used to describe her as her "sister-in-law", but on BBC Radio 4's Bookclub yesterday, she revealed that the relationship was closer and more enduring than that implied.

"I haven't told this to anybody before," she said, "I've lived with the same person for 58 years, I married her when I was young and then this sex-change thing – so-called – happened and so we naturally had to divorce, but we've always lived together anyway. I wanted to round this off nicely so last week Elizabeth and I went to have a civil union."

The ceremony was held at the council office in Pwllheli on 14 May, in the presence of a couple who invited them to tea at their house afterwards.

"I made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them," Elizabeth told the Evening Standard. "We are back together again officially. After Jan had a sex change we had to divorce. So there we were. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on."

The ceremony was "quite private" and "very nice". They had to read out a promise to each other, which was probably superfluous after so many years. They then signed their names, and were offered tea or biscuits. The only ominous detail was a small notice, in standard use at civil ceremonies, which warns that this is a legal proceeding, and giving false information is an offence.

More than half a century ago, James Humphrey Morris was the most famous newspaper journalist in Britain. He was assigned by The Times to cover John Hunt's expedition to Everest in 1953, a job that required physical fitness and courage. It also led to a comic conversation with the Queen, at a meeting in Buckingham Palace of representatives of the British Book World many years later, which Jan Morris told to The Independent.

She asked the Queen: "Do you remember when they climbed Everest for the first time, and the news came to you on the day before your coronation?"

"Yes, of course I remember," the Queen replied, to what she obviously thought was a foolish question.

"Well," said Jan, "I was the person who brought the news back from Everest so that it got to you on time."

This left the bemused Queen wondering how this grey haired woman, or any woman, could have been the first with such dramatic news. Morris watched her reaction.

"Her eyes went cold," she said. "I felt sorry for her because she always has people to explain things, and there was nobody around to put her straight. She suddenly found herself in totally unknown territory."

Even before the Everest trip, James Morris had had a varied life. There was a Somerset childhood, a Welsh father and an English mother she has never discussed, boarding school in Lancing College, where the boy became convinced that he was in the wrong body – not homosexual, just "wrongly equipped".

Then there was a brief spell as a cub reporter in Bristol, military training at Sandhurst, and service as a teenage intelligence officer with the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers in the final throes of the war, which took him through Italy and Palestine. Demobilised in 1949, he went to Christ Church College, Oxford, to read English, and in the same year, married the daughter of a tea planter from the island then known as Ceylon. She has said that she "always" knew of her husband's belief that he should have been born female. It did not stop them having five children, one of whom died at the age of two months.

In 1960, he published a cultural history of Venice, which established him as a major writer, and which has never been out of print. Its success brought in enough money for a switch from journalism to writing books full time. She has published about 40, including the trilogy, Pax Britannica, about the rise and fall of the British empire. It was begun when she was a man and completed when she was a woman, in 1978. Morris regards that as her best work. There was also a satirical novel, Our First Leader, about an independent Wales established after a Nazi invasion, and dozens of highly regarded and widely read travel books.

The trip to Morocco in 1972 was possibly the bravest thing the former James Morris ever did. Doctors warned him that a sex change could have unforeseen effects upon his personality and literary talent, but he defied them and started taking female hormones during the early 1960s, and finally had surgery at the age of 46 in Casablanca. She described the transition in the 1974 book Conundrum, the first book she published under her new name.

Such open discussion of what was then a very unusual operation created waves of social embarrassment and unwanted publicity. She once wrote: "I do not doubt that when I go, the event will be commemorated with the small back-page headline 'Sex Change Author Dies'."

The television interviewer Alan Whicker said later that he did not know whether to shake her hand or kiss, to offer to buy beer or cucumber sandwiches. There was an infamous television interview in which Robin Day tried to ask her whether she was having a "full sex life". She was furious, and complained to the director general. He later admitted that he had found it all excruciatingly awkward.

However, she gave herself the best advice on how to deal with life's irksome problems, in her autobiographical book Pleasures of a Tangled Life. Travelling, she wrote, "can be done well or badly, conscientiously or with a slovenly disregard of detail and nuance". Doing it well means putting up with irritants like being overcharged or robbed, because the miseries of travel are "the salt that gives them flavour".

Jan and Elizabeth have been together now for just under half a century, with most of those years spent in the Welsh village close to where Jan's father grew up. They have specified that when they die, their headstone will say, in Welsh and English: "Here are two friends, at the end of one life".

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull

Arsenal strengthened their grip on a top-four finish with a straightforward 3-0 win over Hull City.

Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
arts + ents Samuel L Jackson and Michael Madsen have taken part in a reading of Quentin Tarantino’s axed follow-up to Django Unchained.
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit