The Writing Life of Jan Morris
by Gillian Fenwick.
Reviewed by Ellen London
Traveling Genius: The Writing Life of Jan Morris by Gillian Fenwick explores the literary development of one of Britain’s most published, revered, and speculated-about authors.
Born as James Humphrey Morris in 1926 and reintroduced as Jan Morris after undergoing sex-change surgery in 1972, Fenwick’s subject is a true case-study of the effect—or lack thereof—that such a dramatic personal change can have on a writer’s personal prose style. As James and eventually Jan Morris, the author’s extensive body of work spans half a century and includes over fifty books and thousands of essays, reviews, and introductions to other authors’ work.
As Fenwick writes in her preface, “It is an enormous achievement. It represents, on average, one book a year of her own, two major essays in other writers’ books, and an essay for periodical publication more or less once a week” (xii). From the outset of her study of Morris’ work, Fenwick portrays a feverishly ambitious writer who approaches her work with borderline obsession. She repeatedly cites Morris’ announcement in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001) that she would write no more books—although she continues to write just as busily as ever—as evidence of Morris’ innate need to set down the world around her and make sense of its effect upon her.
Fenwick adamantly refutes the idea that Traveling Genius is a biography of the author, instead emphasizing that the book is a study of her “writing life,” as is reflected in the book’s subtitle. Although a brisk 165 pages, the book is packed with information about Morris’ extensive body of work, including excerpts from her books and essays, as well as anecdotes and reflections quoted directly from the author.
The book is divided into nine major chapters, each reflecting a different genre of writing and a set of places that have influenced Morris’ career. Fenwick offers a disclaimer in her preface regarding the breakdown of chapters, saying that “It may not be a perfect set of divisions, but it has the advantage of encompassing all of [Morris’] major work and much of the rest” (xii). Morris’ work is known for its detailed focus on place and on how various levels of society and humanity operate within set geographical locations. Fenwick’s division of chapters into specific places, then, follows Morris’ own model for how to categorize one’s personal experience as a world citizen.
Chapters include several places and moments of key importance to Morris’ writing career, including Oxford, Venice, and Trieste; Morris’ literary affection for Britain and Wales; Morris’ sex-change; the presence of biography and autobiography in her writing; her lesser-known forays into fiction; books and essays on cities, which form the bulk of her work; and books and essays written about the rest of the world.
While Fenwick effectively demonstrates the many genres into which Morris’ writing fits, she labels Morris first and foremost as a travel writer. At the age of eight or nine, James Morris penned his first creative work, “Travels with a Telescope,” a story based on the imaginary adventures that took place in the land just visible by telescope from his home in Clevedon, in southwest England. From a young age, Morris was intrigued by travel and would later take pride in having spent time in every single inhabited continent.
Fenwick describes Morris’ unorthodox childhood as a boy, most of which was spent at a choral school in Oxford that “encouraged his sense of being different, what he calls his ambiguity” (9). She asserts that, as this sense of ambiguity intensified in adulthood, Morris traveled with even more abandon. In this way, Fenwick suggests a hypothesis that is seldom considered in the controversy about Morris’ sex-change and its effect on her writing. Fenwick strays from the common analysis of a shift in gender-coded prose style, implying instead that Morris’ work gained greater depth and breadth as she continually refined her identity through travel.
Over the course of her study, Fenwick follows Morris’ career from his first big break as the official correspondent to the British Mount Everest expedition in 1953 to Conundrum which, published in 1974, revealed the author’s metamorphosis to Jan Morris. Fenwick’s prodigious research and extensive knowledge of Morris’ writing and life is readily apparent as she considers every piece of Morris’ work through a sophisticated lens of literary theory and the context of Morris’ personal life. While the narrative structure of Traveling Genius can best be categorized as “literary studies” (which, indeed, it is on the book’s back cover), Fenwick threads enough of Morris’ life story through the book to create a compelling biography as well.
To supplement her concise but meaty analysis of the writer’s work, Fenwick makes use of many different contacts and influences in Morris’ life, both personal and professional. Critics, both positive and negative, are quoted at length in the text and offer an academic perspective on Fenwick’s assertions. Paul Clements, coeditor of Jan Morris: Around the World in Eighty Years, a compendium and commentary of the writer’s work and travels, is also consulted for insight and support and enhances some of the work’s more biographical moments.
Fenwick makes little effort to conceal her admiration for Morris and writes of the author in an intimate manner. Through exhaustive research, she recognizes certain themes in Morris’ writing before and after the much-discussed sex-change. Morris is an expert on people and places, Fenwick asserts, who is able to delve into a new landscape while remaining slightly removed from it as an interested spectator. While Fenwick engages more deeply with Morris’ work and life than her subject would have, she maintains the same aura of observation by telling Morris’ story through the landscapes she experienced.
Jan Morris is an internationally acclaimed travel writer and essayist, and Fenwick’s portrayal of her achievements reveals her to be just that. Her careful division between the author’s life as a man and later as a woman, however, while undoubtedly important to the author’s approach to writing, undermines the continued success that Morris experiences today, long after her change of gender. Fenwick refers to James Morris in the past-tense and to Jan in the present. While chronologically accurate, this shift in tense makes James seem somehow deceased, and his work posthumous, rather than the backbone for Jan’s subsequent success and devoted readership.
Although never meant to be a biography, Traveling Genius nevertheless frames the life of Morris within the writing life that continues to define her. Between a close-reading of Morris’ books and essays and a careful assessment of her many endeavors, Fenwick threads enough biographical information through her book for the reader to craft a fair depiction of the enigmatic writer. This is, after all, how the Jan Morris whom Fenwick describes would like to be portrayed: as a semi-fictional character who emerges between the lines of her own stories.
Traveling Genius: The Writing Life of Jan Morris
(Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
ISBN: 978-1-57003-747-4. $39.95. 165pp.