The greatest distance travelled by Jan Morris, who has died aged 94, was not across the Earth’s surface but between extraordinary identities: from being the golden-boy newspaper reporter James Morris to the female voyager and historian Jan Morris. James became Jan when what was then called a sex change was unexplored territory, from which she boldly sent back an early dispatch in 1974.
The 70s reaction to that transformation was at best incomprehension, at worst hostility, especially literary hostility, but Morris wrote on – publishing more than 40 books, many still in print, even though the places they describe have metamorphosed too. She became an institution after having experienced the world, and herself in it, change radically in a lifetime.
James Humphrey Morris came from a house not of words but of music, in Clevedon, Somerset, as the youngest of three sons of an English mother, Enid (nee Payne), a church organist, and a Welsh father, Walter Morris, an engineer by training who had never really recovered from being gassed in the first world war. James’s brothers, Gareth and Christopher, went on to have long careers in music – Gareth as a flautist and Christopher as an organist. James went at nine as a chorister to Christ Church Cathedral school in Oxford, then to Lancing college in Sussex.
Jan Morris on her travels in 1988. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media via Getty Images