Jan Morris, the remarkably talented and prolific writer of history and travel narratives, is 83 years old today. She is the writer I enjoy reading the most -- her powers of observation, analysis, and description are unparalleled. I have very much enjoyed her historical travelogues such as Hong Kong, The World of Venice, The Venetian Empire, and Trieste; but her masterpiece, though, and a true one it is, is her trilogy on the history, ethos, and meaning of the British Empire, the Pax Britannica trilogy: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress (1973); Pax Britannica: The Climax of Empire (1968); and Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat (1978).
In Pax Britannica, writing as James Morris at the time, hers is history written as it should be, through the sensitive eye of a travel writer with the wordcraft of a poet, often through excerpts of apposite lines of poetry or etchings from gravestones in forgotten far-away cemeteries; sensual and rhythmic, her narrative evokes the sounds and smells of empire about you as you drift through the pages: "In one of the lonely cemeteries in which, buried where they died, the Anzacs lay lost among the Gallipoli ravines, the parents of one young soldier wrote their own epitaph to their son, killed so far away, so bravely we need not doubt, in so obscure a purpose: 'God Took Our Norman, It Was His Will, Forget Him, No, We Never Will' ... for all too often the sacrifices of the Great War, as its contemporaries called it, were given to a cause that was already receding into history, like those discredited grey battleships, their smoke-pall filling the sky, hull-down on the Aegean horizon."
Her narrative has all the stories, the wars (some obscure, like the British invasion of Tibet), the adventures, and of course all the characters (Curzon, once Viceroy of India, "died in 1925 after a career full of irony and vicissitude."). And humour abounds, subtle and dry: she writes of the last of the Moghul monarchs, who “believed himself to possess magic powers; for instance, he thought, wrongly as it proved, that in time of necessity he could turn himself into a house-fly.” Remarking on the work of Christian missionaries: “Not that such catechism training was always successful. The Hau Hau cult of New Zealand, though partially biblical in its beliefs, included among its rituals the sacrifice of Anglican clergymen.” Or: “Though mostly deserted [now], Mbau [in Fiji] is still a peculiar place to visit.... approaching it from the mainland by boat, the silence broken only by the swish of the paddles, the squawks of recondite water-fowl, and perhaps the chop of an axe from the hidden recesses of the island, is an experience partly Venetian but mostly Stygian.”
One's understanding of the world today is immeasurably nourished by her telling of the Imperial story. And as for the British themselves, she writes: "if Britain [is] to be prosperous and influential in the future it must be as an island Power off the coast of Europe. Now as always, it had not been the British Empire that the world really respected. It had not even been, as a matter of fact, Great Britain. It had been England, the heart of it all, England of Shakespeare and the Common Law, England of the poets and the liberators, Churchill's England of the white cliffs and the Cockney courage."
From her introduction to Pax Britannica: “I have fondly imagined my book orchestrated by the young Elgar, and illustrated by Frith; its pages are perfumed for me with saddle-oil, joss-stick and railway steam; I hope my readers will feel, as they close its pages, that they have spent a few hours looking through a big sash window at a scene of immense variety and some splendour, across whose landscapes there swarms a remarkable people at the height of its vigour, in an outburst of creativity, pride, greed and command that has affected all our lives ever since.”
She writes in the Prologue to Heaven’s Command: “I am, though, chiefly attracted to the aesthetic of empire: its feel, its look, its human passions, the metaphysics of its power, the sense of it, the intuition – its ships too, and its horsemen, and the dust of its high veld, and its distant trains streaming across the Punjab plain: and paramount for me in this jumble of suggestions is a sense of alter ego – as though the British had another people inside themselves, very different from the people that Dickens or Cobden portrayed, who yearned to break out of their sad or prosaic realities, and live brilliant lives in Xanadu…. I resolved to write a big, ornate, frank but affectionate work about Victoria’s empire, start to finish: an imperial trilogy, a pointillist portrait less of an age than of a conviction, in whose colours I would try to illustrate not only the extraordinary energies of the imperial generations, but also, suggested here and there in the shade or brush-stroke, some retrospective emotions of my own.”
Jan Morris, with a sensitive melancholy perhaps from her Welsh heritage, is a wonderful writer leading a remarkable life, and what treasures she has crafted.
Related Post: Writer Jan Morris Turns 85