Jan Morris recently was voted 15th greatest British writer since the Second World War. Her award winning publications include the 1960 travel book Venice, which has never been out of print since it first rolled off the presses, and the history trilogy Pax Britannica. But her writing must take second place in this commentary to the romantic drama of her life.
Born James Humphrey Morris on October 2, 1926, the future Jan Morris became Britain’s leading journalist in the 1950s. After service in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers during the closing period of World War II, Morris was the Times correspondent who accompanied the British Mount Everest Expedition. Other prominent reporting followed. In many ways James Morris was much blessed. His successful career paralleled a successful marriage. In 1949 he had wed Elizabeth Tuckniss, and together they had five children.
But in 1964 James Morris began a medical transition that would culminate in a trip to Morocco in 1972, where he underwent sex reassignment surgery. James became Jan. Whatever interior struggles he had previously had in some ways at that time transitioned into her struggles to reformulate a life and a career.
Pax Britannica, begun by Morris while he was a man, was completed when she was a woman. And over time there followed a trove of other triumphs in literature, from travel books (The Matter of Wales, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere) to essays (Among the Cities, O Canada!, Contact! A Book of Glimpses), history, fiction, and memoir.
The British government had forced Elizabeth and her husband to divorce following Jan’s transition. At the time same-sex unions were not permitted. But the couple never stopped living together and loving one another. Recently, on May 14 this year, Elizabeth and Jan tied the knot again in a Britain where same-sex civil unions are now sanctioned.
“I made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them,” Elizabeth told the Evening Standard, following their government-sanctioned reuniting. “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.”
For Elizabeth and Jan, now in their 80s, love has consistently trumped sexual identity, convention, and all of the sturm und drang that so pervasively accompany the politics of sexual expression. Here is a case of two humans loving one another over the course of a lifetime, everything else be damned.