Perhaps the lesson is never to trust anyone who claims to believe in “the religion of kindness”. Apparently this was the travel writer Jan Morris’s professed creed. In fact, as her daughter Suki Morys wrote in The Sunday Times last weekend, Morris was a narcissistic bully whose parenting style alternated between neglect and abuse.
Jan told Suki she felt “utter contempt” for her and would often ask her to look over the will she had written — a will from which Suki was conspicuously excluded. Maybe we should put Morris down as “religion of kindness (non-practising)”.
Suki concedes that Morris was “a wonderful writer”. To this I feel compelled to reply: no she wasn’t. Morris will be remembered as the great Times journalist who scooped the news of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest. She will be remembered as a transgender pioneer. Her reputation as the greatest travel writer of her time cannot last. Her books are entertaining but they are also over-written, dense with cliché and filled with a pervading atmosphere of falsity.
Travel writers must tell the truth about the world. Especially when that truth is ugly or difficult. Morris did not. Her books repackage tourist fantasies: Venice is romantic and fading, Oxford is romantic and scholarly, Trieste is romantic and melancholy. Etc.
In great writers the coexistence of personal cruelty and artistic genius is confounding. How could Philip Larkin write such sensitive poems yet treat women so abysmally? With mediocre writers the connections between personal and literary failing are all too evident.
In Suki’s account, Morris was a self-mythologist interested not in the unhappy realities of family life but in a twee make-believe in which her daughter was not a depressed and insecure teenager but a picturesque person “as merry as a dancing star”. This, by the way, is a phrase worthy not of a great writer but of PG Wodehouse’s Madeline Bassett.
When you encounter self-flattering fantasies such as this you can be sure cruelty is close. In her memoir Conundrum, Morris records that she spent the night of her daughter Virginia’s death lying in the light of a “great moon” listening to a nightingale singing “like a voice from the Empyrean”. In fact, Suki writes, Morris refused even to visit the dying Virginia in hospital.
Hiding the truth behind flowery screens of cliché and gush is the trick of all Morris’s books. Venice presents a “translucent”, “tremulous and flickering” city which is “instinct with soft, seductive textiles” (what?) and whose pavements are “worn with moonlight ecstasies” (eh?). Even the mud in Venice is romantic — “womb-like and unguent”, apparently.
It does not matter whether this is true or even whether it means anything — the reader is supposed to be beguiled by the luxury adjectives. Suki observes of Morris’s travels that “all her accounts are pretty much fantasy”.
This grandiose over-writing is the literary equivalent of decking your house out with plastic chandeliers and cheap plaster statues and convincing yourself you are dwelling amid the solemn magnificence of Blenheim Palace. Morris is not curious about the real Venice — corrupted with tourists, worshipped half to death — only in the florid recital of a myth.
Early feminist critics such as Nora Ephron and Germaine Greer unfairly associated the falsity of Morris’s writing with her gender reassignment. The truth is more banal. Morris seems to have been a narcissist of a familiar kind — anything that did not accord with her self-mythology was simply wished away.
All ages produce such figures — writers who flatter the sensibility of the time. Most are quickly forgotten. Morris, I suspect, owed her success to the drabness of postwar Britain and the declining glamour of travel. In those years, as the cost of flying fell and the world filled up with tourists, a disappointed middle class needed to believe more urgently than ever that their holidays were authentic and romantic experiences, not pre-packaged mass entertainments.
Morris’s books cast a cheap enchantment over a world that travel agents and globalisation had drained of mystery. With a Morris paperback in your luggage you are not just another member of the pink-faced tourist herd trooping off Ryanair flight 548 from Luton to Venice, you are a Byronic figure seeking “a gnarled and gorgeous” city. But this is not travel writing. It is the glossy seduction of a cruise ship catalogue.
Compare Morris to the actual greatest travel writer of that time, VS Naipaul, and the disparity is obvious. “The world is what it is”, runs Naipaul’s most famous sentence, introducing a book that dwells without illusion or sentiment on the legacies of colonialism in Africa. Nothing could be further from the Morris fantasy of a British Empire of “innocent bravado” which was also, in one of her more perplexing judgments, “staunchly feminist”. Naipaul was not woke. He was not nice. He did tell the truth.
Morris lacked those most attractive qualities in people and in writers — cynicism, self-deprecation, realism about one’s own flaws. Conundrum is unusual among writers’ memoirs for its total absence of doubt, its wearying self-endorsement of a life of “grand adventure”. Morris’s flawed books and her flawed life are a reminder to see the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.
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