Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides, by Paul Clements

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Review by Liz Dexter

My hope is that this biography will send readers back to Jan Morris’s books, to either reread them of, for those who have yet to discover them, to ignite interest in her work. She left the world with a large canon of books, many of which assuredly will live a long time, while the ramifications of human nature in them will continue to enlighten and entertain readers.

In the Afterword to this book, we discover that Paul Clements counted Jan Morris as a personal friend for 30 years, and his affection and respect for his subject are clear, while maintaining enough of a distance to, I think, see her clearly and with a biographer’s eye, not just a friend’s. It’s notable that he only includes this information once we’ve worked our way through her long life and many publications. 

This is very much an old-school literary biography, something that hasn’t existed before, a “Life and Works of”. We get Morris’s life history but, very valuably, lots and lots of information about the preparations for, writing of and publication of her books, both from the writing and, where possible, from the publishing side of things, and then a collection of reactions from critics and readers both at the time and later, especially if new editions were published, as they often were, and also often Morris’s own thoughts on the books. Clements has a very good command of his material and this is all impeccable. It makes for a long book, but we’ll forgive that. 

We open with Morris’s 90th birthday celebrations which cements her firmly in her beloved Wales, then we’re on to longish chapters covering a range of years in traditional chronological order, although there is a little skipping backwards and forwards later in the book when particular projects or events need to be covered in full. There’s a set of black and white plates which depict Morris through the stages of her life. We concentrate mainly on Morris’s life, works and opinions, with the basics on her wife Elizabeth and her children and some details later on the latters’ relationship with her. But there’s nothing prurient or intrusive. 

Morris rather famously was a trans woman. Clements can’t help but get himself into a rather difficult situation with how to refer to her during the half of her life she lived as outwardly male, obviously not wishing to mis-gender or dead name her. What he does is try to refer to her as “Morris” as much as possible, and sometimes goes round the houses and refers to her as “the youngest child,” but there are points at which it is inescapable to become a little clumsy. I can’t think what else he could have done in the circumstances, so I just got on with it and it’s a small issue. 

Morris had a varied, well-travelled (though don’t call her a travel writer!) and adventurous life. In her long life, she revisited quite a few places and it’s interesting to read of her changing opinions on America and Australia in particular. The Welsh aspect of her life and interests is treated in detail, including her support of the Welsh language campaigns. 

Morris’s decline is treated carefully and respectfully and there is an interesting summing up of a life Clements sees as being spent in “flight” from various things. He’s careful not to attribute anything to Morris or her commentators that he can’t reference, even when introducing his own point of view, and I feel this is a strength of the book. 

This is a very carefully referenced book, with even telephone conversations footnoted with a date. There are what I call proper footnotes (it’s a very proper book and that’s a good thing). There’s a bibliography of works consulted and an extensive index. This book will stand as a work of record and rightly so.

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Liz Dexter has loved Jan Morris’ writing since her early forays into reading about other lands. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Paul Clements, Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides (Scribe, 2023). ‎ 978-1914484773, 598pp., ill. paperback.

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1 comment

  1. Morris is one of my favourite writers, though I’ve only read about half a dozen of her books.
    Thanks for such a detailed review, which has bumped it up my TBR list.

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