Saturday, 6 July 2013

Morris: A Writer’s House in Wales

Jan Morris (2002) A Writer’s House in Wales National Geographic Directions, Washington; 168 pp.; ISBN 978-0-79226523-8

Jan Morris is a prolific author, though probably best known for her travel literature. Her works have an understated, sometimes detached quality that for me never quite captures the essence of a place, but they are well written and thoroughly researched. In this short but neatly structured book she focuses on her house, Trefan Morys, in the north of Wales. It sits in the Pennant Valley where the river Dwyfor runs from the mountains of Snowdonia to Cardigan Bay. The original large house nearby, Plas Trefan, was built in the 12th century then greatly renovated and extended in the 18th century, but by the early 20th century it had fallen into disrepair. Morris converted the outbuildings of Plas Trefan, and christened the new abode Trefan Morys.

Although she was born in Somerset, England, Morris had a Welsh father and she identifies as Welsh. One of her children who writes poetry in Welsh lives nearby. Morris says that she lives in a ‘Wales of the mind’ and is taken by the landscape, the brooding mountains and fickle weather, the deep dark and lovely woods that separate her house from the Dwyfor River, and the trees, plants and animals that surround her dwelling and form an important backdrop to her writing life.

While she enjoys her dual English-Welsh heritage, she admires the tenacity of Welsh culture and the ways of Welsh people, even if her views are tinged with more than a little romanticism. Though she has only a basic grasp of Welsh, she senses the richness of the language, its amenability to poetry and being read aloud, and the way that it has survived – indeed, revived – despite sustained attacks from successive English governments through the education system.

The two central chapters take us through the house itself, first into the kitchen which Morris sees as the hearth. Tea, bread and cake, those staples of Welsh hospitality, are offered to visitors and Morris likes to entertain, even if she shies away from staying or dining in other people’s homes. She has formed an attachment to the local community and many of them spend time at the kitchen table here. During the summer holidays the place rings with the voices of visiting grandchildren.

In the subsequent chapter we move to the two floors of the house given over to Morris’s work – writing. She has an enormous library, most of it arranged thematically but with an unsorted tower of books glowering like a dark Welsh mountain upstairs. There is a sofa, a wood-burning stove and a desk, and Morris has produced over thirty books in this room. She loves the feel and smell of books and the thrill of browsing, but also has collections of model ships, maps, travel guides and pamphlets from her extensive travels. This part of the house is a mix of memory, inspiration and meditation and is clearly dear to Morris’s heart.

The final part of the book focuses on the mystical dimension of the house and its surroundings. She feels an ancient presence here and the spirit of the god Pan. There are also ghosts, apparitions moving down the nearby lane at night and the pervasive sadness of a female spectre – the 18th century woman who lost her fortune in Plas Trefan.

Jan Morris was born a man and in 1949 married Elizabeth, who still lives in Trefan Morys. Morris underwent surgery in 1972 to become a woman and consequently she and Elizabeth had to divorce. Despite the change of sex, the old gender roles have obviously remained firmly in place. Elizabeth does the cleaning, cooking and gardening, and keeps the house in order. Jan is the breadwinner, often away on travels, and still has a fondness for hard whiskey and fast, flashy cars. Their domestic life is a salutary reminder of the need to think about sex and gender as quite different things.

Morris is now well into her eighties and in a touching passage towards the end of the book she recounts how she and Elizabeth have chosen a small islet in the river to be the spot where their ashes will be scattered after death. Morris has already written some lines that have been engraved on stone in anticipation:
Here are two friends,
Jan and Elizabeth Morris,
At the end of one life
Friends? It seems far too inadequate a word to describe their relationship. However, six years after this book was published, Jan and Elizabeth entered into a civil partnership, the closest thing to marriage then legally available in the United Kingdom. I wondered whether Morris has since altered the epitaph.

This book is part of National Geographic’s Directions series, where authors write about a place of personal significance. I only discovered the series recently so this is the first volume I have read. Morris writes about her house like a slightly dotty great aunt showing you around and reminiscing about the meanings and connections of place. The style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it gives you an endearing glimpse into a small and remarkable household.

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