“My life itself is one long allegory”: Jan Morris

A strain of pleasurable naughtiness runs through Jan Morris’s work

The travel writer teaches us to have fun intelligently, revelling in food, architecture, music and sunshine
January 27, 2022
Jan Morris
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The author and historian Jan Morris writes in the opening section of her posthumous book Allegorizings that she has two moral principles: “the supreme importance of kindness as a universal guide to life” and “the conviction that almost nothing is only what it seems—everything, in fact, is allegory.” “My life itself,” she says, is “one long allegory.” So are America and trains and indeed “perhaps the whole damned caboodle is itself no more than some kind of majestically impenetrable allegory.” Morris’s first principle is one of those clichés that is nonetheless both important and true; the second is in no way obvious.

When I first read Allegorizings, the assertions about allegory made little sense to me. I thought I must have forgotten or misunderstood what the word means, but when I looked it up I’d had the right idea. Morris herself cites the OED: “the description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance.” Animal Farm, one might think, but trains? America? Life itself? The difficulty is that allegories usually have one veiled meaning. They are a “guise” for the real story, the Platonic shadow of the tale not told. Life and America are more complicated than that, carriers of multitudes of stories and meanings with no obvious structure or lesson. A train, I suppose, could be an allegory in the right story (Anna Karenina, maybe, and there is the neo-fascist world of Thomas the Tank Engine), but in general allegory is low on the list of uses for trains. I don’t get it, I thought. But I think there are clues.

Two funny and cheerful essays follow, one about watching children playing in a square in Trieste and the other about having a wallet stolen in Venice—typically, Jan and her partner Elizabeth are consoled by being given dinner on the house at Harry’s Bar. And then the theme returns in “Transcendental Town”: “complexity, of course, is an aspect of allegory, which is why whenever I’m in France I try to stop off at Tournus… most of all I like the suggestive complexity of its Frenchness.” Morris’s Tournus is a divided town, at the north end a “firm, privileged look… fit to be embroidered by gentlewomen,” while to the south “the skyline grows more raggety, red tiles predominate, glass-enclosed verandahs appear, bright blue shutters…” 

Walking this way, Morris is “submitting to the liberating summons of the south,” typically delicate and intriguing phrasing: the attentive traveller is transformed by geography. In this clause is exactly why we travel: to be changed in ways which we cannot initiate but to which we acquiesce. It is the traveller’s fantasy, lightly sketched in half a sentence, glancing towards the northern European’s longing for a beakerful of the warm south: “…when the river passes under the bridge it is celebrating, with a sensuous welling of its waters, just the complicated frisson that I am feeling too, as I walk out of one sensibility into another.” 

That “complicated frisson” is characteristic; the interest in pleasure and sensuality is part of what makes Morris an exemplary guide and writer. Her books about travel and place delight because she teaches us to have fun intelligently, gives enthusiastic permission to the postwar generation to revel in food, architecture, music and sunshine. The movement of the rising river gestures towards, stands for, the northerner’s dream of la France profonde, the hard-working Protestant’s fantasy of dancing and eating and taking siestas beneath a Mediterranean sun. It is beautifully crafted writing—but not exactly allegory.

article body image FF86DR MOUNT EVEREST EXPEDITION. /nThe successful 1953 British expedition to scale Mount Everest.

High hopes: The successful British Mount Everest Expedition in 1953, which Jan Morris reported on for the Times. © Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo 

Puzzling over what Morris means, I remember her famous telegraph from Everest. Then called James (she had gender re-assignment surgery in Casablanca in 1972), Morris was reporting for the Times on the British Mount Everest Expedition, which reached the summit three days before the coronation of Elizabeth in June 1953. Speaking to Radio 3 in 2013, Morris remembered scrambling down from 6,700m in snow and ice as night fell to send her scoop by runner, radio and telegraph before anyone else broke the news: “the excitement of it. The romance of it.” Her dispatch had to be coded: “Snow conditions bad. Advance base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All well!” “That’s what the message said but that isn’t what it meant,” she explained.

Morris’s delight in her code resonates with some of her glee in a sentence in the US edition of Allegorizings: “this is a very intimate book… no revelations at all in it… unless you read between the lines.” She teases her reader, promises one thing and delivers another, keeps us in doubt. Do I not know what an allegory is? Am I failing to read between the lines? Can other readers find the intimacy? The harder I look, the more elusive these revelations seem. The allegories may be a wild goose chase, a last literary game. 

Some of the anecdotes have appeared in Morris’s earlier work, sometimes in revealingly different form. Here there is an Irish woman who produces an aphorism when accosted outside the GPO. “You’ve made that woman up, I hear you saying, that woman is pure invention. Ah yes, and so she is, so she is—but only just.” Indeed, in Pleasures of a Tangled Life almost the same aphorism is delivered by a man, who presumably also exists only allegorically. There are other examples. I don’t think it matters—most forms of non-fiction have fictional elements and I’m sure Morris is accurate where accuracy is a moral issue—but these light-fingered moments show priorities that are not necessarily associated with journalism’s model of integrity. “Allegory” may be about playfulness, the substitution of one form of truth for another, more than a theological justification for storytelling.

To the extent that Morris’s work has dated, it’s because of an attitude to empire that seems flippant to modern taste. When it was published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, her magisterial historical trilogy on the British Empire was contrarian and provocative; now it appears beautifully written but misguided. For the statue-toppling generation there can be no defence of imperialism. 

“Readers who love Morris’s work do so not because she is a historian, but because she celebrates her intellectual and aesthetic pleasures in grammatically gorgeous prose”

In 2018 Morris reflected in a programme for Radio 4, The British Empire: An Equivocation, on the good intentions of most colonial rulers and administrators and on the beauty of imperial pomp and circumstance. She may well be right, and the trilogy is lively and thoughtful, but it fails to take seriously obvious truths. Morris wanted, she said, to leave a record of the British Empire that would be equivalent to a description of the Roman Empire written by a centurion, but the equation of the two empires itself is born of a mindset that was already dated when she wrote the first volume: the Roman Empire lasted at least four times as long as the British Empire, had a death toll nowhere near the scale of British genocide, caused much less environmental devastation and involved none of the curses and gifts of industrialisation. Only those with a vested interest—usually public schoolboys with Classics degrees—find meaningful similarity between the two. 

Readers who love Morris’s work do so not because she is a professional historian or because she moves with the times, but because she celebrates her intellectual and aesthetic pleasures in deeply considered and grammatically gorgeous prose. Contemporary with Elizabeth David’s books on Mediterranean food, published when the ingredients were inaccessible to almost everyone in Britain, Morris’s writing revels in the pleasures of travel to places that most people could not visit. It seems important to add, in the winter of 2022, that these pleasures are physical, coming from embodied, real-life presence in unfamiliar places. 

Still, it is easy enough to find problematic elements in her approach. The essay “Paradise Somewhere” describes the inhabitants of a village in Kathmandu—“the hilarious laughter of children, the shrill merry gossip of Sherpa women” mingling with the noise of a rushing river. When she leaves, a “coven of urchins” escorts her “prancing and tumbling and laughing… they provided a properly dreamlike envoi to a transcendental interlude.” And yet in that interlude, waking from a feverish sleep, she writes: 

It was still raining, but life was in full fling all around me. Outside my door the fields stood green, fresh and gleaming in the wet, and a marvellously suggestive vegetable smell reached me—part fertile, part rotten, part bitter, part sweet, past its best but already renewing itself, like a subliminal and oddly comforting text of existence.

The rain and verdure could not be more vivid. The writer holds herself open to the experience of place, writing with her body in its attention to sight and smell but also her memory of both the village experience and the cycles of life. These are words that could not have been written in the moment of the experience but also could not have been written without the closest attention to that moment—the rare fruit of sensibility and long remembrance. It’s a Wordsworthian trick, the ambition of most nature or travel writing—it was Wordsworth who defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”—and not many others pull it off.

A strand of naughtiness runs through this collection. “A Patron Sinner” argues that in remembering Princess Diana, “the nation mourned a martyr when it should have been celebrating a miscreant.” Morris imagines the fallen princess being given “the all but superannuated royal yacht Britannia… and invited to rollick her way around the world on the national behalf.” She adds: “The usual Royal Marine band would be supplemented by a rock combo” and “Diana, wearing a summer dress of flaming crimson and an amazing hat, goes ashore attended by the Admiral in full dress uniform.” There is all-night partying in the streets of the old town on a Mediterranean island, the charming of local dignitaries, a vision of an alternative version of Englishness in the late 20th century. In a piece on “the joylessness of the word ‘maturity’” she writes: “Give me callowness every time, give me fizz, give me irresponsibility, and if ever I feel maturity creeping in, crack a bottle, put out more flags and ring the bells!” 

Morris’s  interest in politics and history is always sweeping and focused on the aesthetic. Later essays celebrate nose-picking, sneezing and the author’s habit of travelling with a hot water bottle: “it is my modest equivalent of the grander eccentricities our forebears flaunted… It displays my contempt for every kind of trend or fashion… for all dullard bureaucrats and safety experts, for the whole miserable world of authority and counselling and suitable precaution.” The sentence reaches a rolling boil in an odd moment of simultaneous flair and conformity to stereotype—aren’t the Boomers forever moaning about health and safety? And yet the hot water bottle is a (knowingly) absurd emblem of rebellion. More than most, Morris is a writer who knows what she’s doing. If some of it is out of date, I suppose we might all hope to go on writing and thinking and being read for so long that we can speak in the accents of a lost age.