Late November brought news of the death, after nearly a century of life, of the historian and literary geographer (“travel writer” sells her short by a long shot) Jan Morris. Among her many splendid books are The World of Venice, one of the richest portraits I know of that oft-portrayed city; Conundrum, an account of her midlife gender transformation; Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere; and her trilogy on the rise and fall of the British Empire: Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica, and Farewell the Trumpets.
I included Pax Britannica in 1,000 Books. In that book, Morris tells her readers, she tries “to recall what the Empire was, how it worked, what it looked like, and how the British themselves then saw it.” She does this, I write,
through an imaginative historical “tour” that leads from Ireland to India, Canada to Rhodesia, highlighting events, themes, and ideas—Victoria’s reign, shipping routes, the dissemination of seed and stock, economic imperatives, caste, law, art and architecture, military matters, the idea of fair play—that are reflective of both the adjective and the noun in “British imperialism.”
Although Morris is not blind to the dark side of imperialism, I continue,
her primary focus is to capture Victoria’s realm “at the height of its vigour, in an outburst of creativity, pride, greed and command.” Her cadenced prose is pure pleasure to read—her inspirations can capture a panorama in a sentence she will then unpack through a dozen informative and entertaining pages.
Nowhere is the evocative power of her inspiration on better display than in Hav, which remains my favorite among her books, even though I bypassed it in making the list for mine (sometimes I am a mystery to myself). In this beguiling novel, Morris invents her own city and sends us letters from it, detailing its fabled history and curious customs before bringing the story up to date with a report on her invention’s faceless twenty-first-century makeover. Steeped in the culture of a wholly imaginary place, Hav is filled with the palpable sense of expectation—of some discovery lurking just around the coming corner—that age-old distant cities hold, and alert as well to the horrific erasures that modern economies encourage. May its creator rest in peace.