TThere were two things that bothered Jean Maurice. One of them was called a “travel writer”. It is true that she wrote a shelf full of books on the atlas of places – Oman, Trieste, Sydney, the most famous of which is Mount Everest – but that was not the point. She went to these places to learn more about the people, the architecture, the history and art (not nature, although she always preferred trains over trees). By contrast, “travel writing” evoked Baedeker-type tourist brochures, and it wasn’t the effect you seek. The second thing that bothered her was that she was always referred to as someone who moved (no one was quite sure what the term was correct in 1972 when she underwent surgery in Casablanca at age 46 – and “transvestite” as well as “transgender” is often used). But it maintains its fragility She passed away in 2020 at the age of 94It was hardly the most exciting or most important thing about her.
In fact, she has had a very productive career in which she has written about everything that caught her eye or fancied her, from the World Bank to Abraham Lincoln, and made it something intimate and lively. It was precisely her eclecticism that earned her thousands of fans around the world. She’s become the perfect lover of the benevolent philanthropists, a bunch of thoughtless frivolity that has turned her into lyrical art in newspapers and magazines ranging from Encounter to Rolling Stone. For those beginning to tire of her longevity—she produced so many books in her life that her agent wasn’t always sure of the latest stats—she became a weary streamer who replaced impressions with hard facts and could never resist making everything about herself.
In this meticulously researched biography, Paul Clements is careful to steer a wise path between these two theories of Morris. While he quotes at length the critical reviews that came its way, especially once it became a brand in the ’80s, he is careful to remind us of its extraordinary accomplishments. There is Boy’s Own’s sensational account of how Maurice, a Times reporter who joined the British team that conquered Everest in 1953, managed by sending a coded telegram, to be the first to send the message to London in time for the Queen’s coronation. .
The entire derring-do episode was an elegy for an empire that was already enjoying its last fun. Morris’ great genius, though, was to realize that although sane Britons accepted that their country was now a frivolous island in Northern Europe, their hearts were still stuck in its glory days. Morris’ three-volume book, Pax Britannica, published between 1968 and 1978 and generally regarded as her masterpiece, was an attempt to populate the empire from within, in order to Feel Its trappings and trivia, whether through the gaze of a heavily pressed subordinate employee of the East India Company or the vacillating General Gordon at the siege of Khartoum.
What isn’t in Pax Britannica, of course, are the experiences of the thousands of displaced, enslaved, and persecuted people who were pushed out of the way in order for the Empire to have its temporary influence. And you won’t necessarily read it to discover what people were thinking in 1897, the year Morris considers the height of Britain’s influence around the world. But as an explanation of what empire meant to the generations that followed, it remains a wonderful primary source.
The fact that Maurice lived so long and wrote so much means that she can be very difficult to define, which is undoubtedly as she wanted it to. She was born in Somerset to an English mother in 1926, but became closely associated with Wales, her father’s land. Even then, her position continually changed as she moved from Anglo-Welsh patriotism in the 1970s to full Welsh separatism in the 1980s, eventually what she described as a “Utopian Welsh-European” attitude. It was, as its critics never tire of pointing out, a fierce republic that accepted the CBE in celebration of the Queen’s birthday in 1999.
She was adamant that she didn’t want to write an autobiography, at least not in her life. In her polite disapproval she made it clear that she had written so much about herself that another book would be redundant. She had a point. In late 2020, in think again, gives a fascinating account of her Christmas experiences as a dancer at Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford, in the late 1930s. Clements’ treatment of this substance after only two years felt like a drain on all vitality. Sometimes though, that might be the price we have to pay for his subtle style even at times. Morris was a writer so steeped that her biographer is obligated to tie his book to solid ground, in part to avoid the suggestion that he fell under the spell of her.