There are many downsides to being the child of a highly talented, charismatic, and driven parent.
Perhaps a feeling of inadequacy. Living in the shadows and away from the light. Failure to live up to their expectations.
Sadly, according to Suki Morys, the daughter of the great late writer Jan Morris — who died in 2020 at the age of 94 — her childhood had all that, and worse.
While Jan was feted around the world for her exquisitely warm and vivid prose, her sense of romanticism, her ground-breaking travel books, for being the first to report that Edmund Hillary had reached the top of Everest in 1953, and for her courage and conviction in embracing the ‘real Jan’ in her pioneering transition from male to female — at home she was rather different.
While Jan Morris (pictured) was feted around the world for her exquisitely warm and vivid prose, and for her courage and conviction in embracing the ‘real Jan’ in her pioneering transition from male to female — at home she was rather different
Suki, who published yesterday a scathing account of Jan’s terrible parenting in Sunday Times, said that Jan was a selfish, neglectful and sexist parent.
But perhaps her worst crime was being so unforgivably blind to the impact of her 1972 sex-change operation — at a Casablanca hospital, by a dashing young French surgeon called Dr Georges Burou — on those closest to her.
Suki wrote that Jan shot her down if she had any questions about the transition. “I quickly learned that it was taboo within and outside the family.
Suki, the youngest of Jan’s five children, was conceived in 1964, the year her father James made the transition to a new era with strong female hormones, a bit of dabbling in dresses, and strong female hormones.
Today, she has just one memory of James — whistling as he mowed the lawn. It’s a beautiful vision that I cherish because it’s so peaceful, calm, and familiar.
Everything changed for Suki when she was just six years old.
Suki writes, “I was told that I shouldn’t call my dad Daddy anymore, but that I should call him Jan.” ‘I said Jan was a name of a woman and was immediately informed that the name Jan is used for both men as well as women in Scandinavia.
And that was it. From Eventually, he would not respond if she called her father Daddy.
Suki, the youngest of Jan’s five children, was conceived in 1964, the year her father James began his transition with strong female hormones, and a little bit of dabbling in dresses. Pictured: Jan Morris, Elizabeth’s first year of marriage.
There was never a family discussion, and no explanations from either parent to their confused children. Suki and her older brothers never had a discussion about it.
The family home was sold to buy a cottage in the hills of Monmouthshire. Jan also moved from their large home to a flat in Bath where she experimented with jewellery, make-up, and dresses. Or when she had rhinoplasty surgery on her nose to improve its appearance and began wearing women’s clothes to family home. Or when their parents divorced and lived together. Or when they were told to refer to Jan as their ‘aunt.
Suki writes that he used to worry that he might one day wake up and want to become a man because nothing had ever been explained.
It is hard to believe that there has been so little discussion. Children are extraordinarily adaptable to new circumstances — new extended family, even — but they need help, guidance, some form of explanation.
Suki must have felt very hurt to learn that Jan’s transition was taboo in her family home, but she had lots to say publicly about it.
Indeed, in 1974, she wrote a book, Conundrum, charting her change from James Morris — a former soldier and derring-do reporter, who climbed mountains and crossed deserts — to Jan.
The book — the first under her new name and the first autobiographical account of a sex-change — caused a massive stir of incomprehension and hostility.
Jan’s book Conundrum — the first under her new name and the first autobiographical account of a sex-change — caused a massive stir of incomprehension and hostility
It was a pioneering effort, was brave, and is still highly relevant today in the fight for transgender rights.
Jan’s career was already on the rise at this point. Her sexy act only increased her fame. She was also subject to the demands of others. She was happy with this because she loved being busy.
In an interview with The Financial Times, she said that three-quarters of her time was spent abroad: wandering around and having a wonderful time.
Even when she was at home with Elizabeth and the children, she’d be glued to her typewriter writing at least 3,000 words a day — even on Christmas Day.
“My chief fault, my chief fault, is an utter self-centeredness. She once said that it wasn’t always good. ‘Fortunately the children have forgiven us all, but not always. And definitely not Suki, who seemed to get the brunt of it, suddenly finding herself alone with her mother, while her brothers were away at boarding school, her father gone and Jan swinging in at the weekends in her floral dresses — but without any maternal instinct.
‘She Suki writes that she was unable to hug her children and then stiffened to a board when she tried.
While there were fleeting moments of levity and snatches of normality at home — silly jokes and routines — Suki claims that Jan could also be deeply unkind, destructive and unpredictable. She stopped asking her friends to come home when she was a teenager because Jan’s behavior was causing her to stop asking them.
Jan’s career was already successful, but her sex changes only magnified her fame. She was also subject to the demands of others. This was fine with her because she loved to be active. Pictured with the Duke of Edinburgh during a reception to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the ascent of Everest in 2013
“I didn’t know if she would be rude, flirty, coy, or completely indifferent. It was almost always very embarrassing,” Suki writes in Sunday Times.
It didn’t help that, while her brothers were sent off to the best schools in the country, poor Suki was shuffled between schools — moved on six times, she explains, at Jan’s insistence, but never told why.
She stopped trying to make friends. Finally, Suki read Conundrum — and a selection of Jan’s other books — to better understand this enigma who had once been her father.
It was jarring and confusing. Facts didn’t stack up. Recollections, as they say are varied.
Jan describes in Conundrum, in lyrical prose the horrible night in which Suki’s older sibling, Virginia, died in infancy. She Writes movingly about a ‘great Moon’, a singing nightingale and how Elizabeth and she lay in bed, holding hands, crying, all night.
Suki claims that Jan refused to visit baby Virginia at the hospital, and then insisted that Suki be Virginia’s substitute when Suki was born.
Jan also believed that she believed “in the religions of kindness”, but Suki said she was anything other than kind.
“There was a drip, drizzle of unkindness with me, undermining every, making it look and feel inferior, worthless,” Suki is quoted as saying in Paul Clements’ biography of Jan Morris, The Life From Both sides.
While there were fleeting moments of levity and snatches of normality at home — silly jokes and routines — Suki claims that Jan could also be deeply unkind
Jan was always trying to get her daughter to size up. Promising treats and then whisking the children away. “Wouldn’t it be great to do this? Oh, sorry. You can’t.’ She can’t.
Ironically, Jan was anything but supportive or ‘pro-women’ to her only surviving daughter — she even failed to mention Suki in her will — or her wife, of whom she demanded outrageous sacrifices.
Elizabeth is actually a strangely compliant domestic angel that mopped up all Jan didn’t like.
So she ran the house wherever Jan fancied living (mostly North Wales), raised their children and put up with everything from extended absences during Jan’s travels, to becoming a single parent when she was experimenting with a new wardrobe in Bath to — later — the full surgical sex change.
Elizabeth ran the house wherever Jan fancied living (mostly North Wales- pictured)
Jan’s view of women should be sexisted and outdated is perhaps the most bizarre thing about her. Perhaps a home-maker or secretary. Please, only a mother.
Jan didn’t apply these outdated principles to herself. No, Jan continued to excel in her career. She loved the attention, fame, excitement of being a woman working in a man’s world.
All of this sounds quite alarming. It is mostly Suki’s story. Jan is no longer here to defend herself and Elizabeth — still alive and forever loyal (the couple stayed together and entered into a civil partnership in 2008) — has never spoken out.
There were clues that Jan had to find his way through Jan’s extraordinary journey.
Her Love of attention. Her palpable discomfort at discussing anything personal in interviews — ‘I am not enjoying this bit at all,’ she said crossly, when Sue Lawley touched on her sex change during her second appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2004.
It was her decision to make her famous book on Venice her guide to island life when she appeared on the same Radio 4 radio show with Roy Plomley.
Not to mention her comments to Michael Palin (2016)
“I’ve completed all of my books to make a long autobiography. She said that her life was a self-centered exercise in self-satisfaction.
Jan Morris was an extraordinary, highly talented woman. She He wrote beautifully, was a pioneer in the trans movement, and gave joy and hope to so many.
It is a shame that she was so cruel to her own family, despite the 58 books, the nominations and the adulation.