Today is author Jan Morris’s 90th birthday. What a treasure trove of writing she has given us. She has been as prolific as she has been masterful, and I have read much of her work though far from all. She mixes history and culture and travelogue into most interesting evocations, and of these I have especially enjoyed, many times over, her treatments of Venice, Trieste, and Hong Kong. But I believe her masterpiece is her trilogy of the history of the British Empire – the Pax Britannica Trilogy. History it is, but really a pointillist portrait of the sights and sounds, the ethos and the pathos, the glory and the tragedy, of that remarkable historical phenomenon.
I have reread that work many times, and I always find something new to reflect on, to marvel at. I often pick up a volume and begin reading on a randomly-opened page, it’s that good. I can’t think of another book, three actually, that have enjoyed more, or learned more from. Formally prose, so many passages reach the poetic that it is as pleasurable to read, for those who enjoy the English language, as it is informative and stimulative.
Jan Morris wrote these volumes as a young man, as James Morris before her gender change. She writes in the Introduction to the last volume:
Mine is an aesthetic view of Empire, and there is no denying that as the flare of the imperial idea faded, so its beauty faded too. It had not always been a pleasant kind of beauty, but it had been full of splendor and vitality, and when the Empire lost its overweening confidence and command, its forms became less striking and its outlines less distinct.... My book is therefore sad without being regretful. It was time the Empire went, but it was sad to see it go; and these pages too, while I hope they are not blind to the imperial faults and weaknesses, are tinged nevertheless with an affectionate melancholy.... I hope my readers will discover in themselves ... at least some of the mingled sensations of admiration, dislike, amusement, pity, pride, envy and astonishment with which I have watched and pictured the passing of the British Empire.
Morris is very witty, and I have captured a few examples of such in my two previous posts, the first seven years ago now. One more: The early British West African trading firm Swanzy’s, later to form a part of the conglomerate Unilever, at one point gave its historic, ceremonial staff, an important totem at one time, to the British Museum, “and thus [it] disappeared from human knowledge.” Yet another (it’s hard to stop): The appointed successor to Tennyson as Poet Laureate was one Alfred Austin, and enthusiast of Empire and of mixed reputation, who, writes Morris, “was apparently impervious to criticism, and this is lucky, for nobody has had a good word for him since his death in 1913.”
Morris visits cemeteries. She reads the stones, she sits and soaks in the sights and sounds, she finds the stories that end there. I’ve also walked among the stones, wondering about the stories untold, or half-told. Near one of my family’s graves there is a four-grave plot, with a large monument. The ‘darling beloved” James Jr. died in the early 1930s at the age of six. One ponders for a moment the inestimable sorrow of the parents, and then one sees that a second grave is that of James Sr., who died just a few years later. The other two plots are unfilled. What became of the mother? Were there other children? Did she remarry and does she now lie a thousand miles away next to her second husband, leaving the first joys of her life lying together without her?
Morris visited the southern England grave of the enigmatic romantic T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) in 1976 on the anniversary of his 1935 death, and found the grave covered with flowers. In South Africa she visited the graves of the British killed there in the Second Boer War, writing “when I was there in 1975 I thanked the gardener for tending the British graves with such care. ‘So long as you’re satisfied,’ he gently replied.” She found the grave in Bermuda of a young lieutenant who died in 1837, buried under the epitaph “Alas he is not lost / But is gone before.”
One last clip, which I have quoted before, for me one of the most touching. In the southeast tip of Europe, she visited a cemetery holding the bodies of the many young Australians and New Zealanders whose lives were thrown away there through the criminal incompetence of the British military leaders in an especially senseless and horrific war:
"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."
The most beautifully evocative writer I have ever read.
After supposedly retiring, two years ago she published “Ciao, Carpaccio! – An Infatuation,” a personal appreciation of the 15th century Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio who populated his carefully detailed paintings with whimsical animals and objects. Morris tells us that she is no scholar of art and that her “infatuation” with the painter is “largely affectionate fancy.” One day while looking through a book with photographs of his work she saw in a small, curiously perched bird, overlooking a great scene, the spirit of the artist himself, writing “that before I went to bed I resolved to write, purely for my own pleasure, this self-indulgent caprice.” Would that she will have more such caprices in the coming years.