Morris found early success as a journalist, scooping the world on Edmund Hillary’s and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Everest while nearly climbing the entire mountain herself. She was a distinctive, elegant, formidable and wickedly snobby historian and travel writer and occasional novelist.
She wrote a fair amount of doddle later in her life; not all of her stuff is worth the investment. (If you can make it through her books on Lincoln and Canada, you are a hardier person than I am.) But “Venice,” “Oxford,” “Spain,” “The Matter of Wales,” “Manhattan ’45” and “Hong Kong,” to name a few, are her true gravestones. Even in her lesser work, you always feel a real intellect weighing and discarding ideas and objects; she made unexpected links between things. When she was good, she was very good indeed.
Her most approachable book — Jan Morris for beginners — is “Pleasures of a Tangled Life,” published in 1989. It’s a memoir in the form of short, sharp, fond essays. I recommend it as a gateway drug.
It’s a book about principles as much as pleasures. Morris enjoyed, for example, detesting “all aspects and symptoms of authority, anywhere in the world: the conceit of school prefects, the sarcasm of teachers, the arrogance of customs officials, the rudeness of post-office assistants, the self-satisfaction of Social Security clerks, the sanctimony of magistrates, the busybodiness of inspectors, the smugness of prison wardens, the insolence of censors, the bossiness of security men, the self-importance of cabinet ministers, the hypocrisy of policemen, the general impertinence of all kinds of second-rate, overblown, swollen-headed and humorless petty functionaries. It is a positive pleasure to dislike them so, and to feel that at least life has spared me the degradation of being set in authority over anyone else.”
She made it a practice, wherever she traveled, to attend court proceedings. These offered insights into “the social, political and moral condition of a place,” she wrote, but better than that, there is the “pure pleasure of offering the accused a smile of sympathy, while eyeing judges, court clerks and self-satisfied barristers with a deliberate look of mordant ridicule.”