Jan Morris: Writing a Life
Horatio Clare examines how the pioneering writer Jan Morris authored her own life, from her nationality to her sexual identity, trying to get behind the myths and masks she created.
Jan Morris wrote more than fifty books but also constructed her life to a degree rarely seen in one individual. She created a glittering career, invented a writing style, chose her nationality and most famously, transitioned. Horatio talks to Michael Palin, travel writer Sara Wheeler, and Jan's biographer Paul Clements, and visits Jan's home in North Wales to meet her son Twm Morys. Hearing interviews she recorded throughout her long life, he attempts to find out who Jan Morris really was.
James - as she was then - Morris knew from a very young age both that he was in the wrong body and that he wanted to be a writer. Through a combination of self-confidence, determination and what Jan herself describes as her ‘insufferable ambition’, she achieved what she set out to, becoming one of the most successful journalists of her generation and then a world-famous author of books about places like Venice, Oxford, Trieste and Manhattan, which re-invented travel writing.
At the same time as these professional and literary achievements, however, Jan was also undergoing a deep crisis of personal identity. In one of her books, Conundrum, she described how the conviction she’d had as a child that she was in the wrong body had never left her, but by her thirties she was in despair and had even considered killing herself. Conundrum describes how she succeeded in making the transition from man to woman in 1972. She said the sex change brought her the happiness she’d always sought. She also claimed that her decision had made little impact on the happiness of her four children, but that claim is put to the test in the programme.
Michael Palin talks about the Jan Morris he met - witty, generous and inspirational, but also a challenging interviewee who used a variety of techniques to deflect difficult questions about her private life. Paul Clements suggests she 'played hide and seek with the facts'. Archive on Four considers how much she constructed and presented her whole life, with determination, guile and skill.
Produced by Gareth Jones for BBC Wales