A lovely and scrupulous biography ... [Clements] absents himself entirely from the narrative, as if to counterweight his subject’s fondness for the first person, which magic-carpeted her right into the bloggy internet era, and pitches a generous tent for her ambiguities and contradictions — even her self-centeredness ... Any intriguing domestic snapshots in Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides...are crowded out by the constantly whirling carousel of her adventures. She ranged so widely and richly that questions about a certain looseness with facts, or whether her prose style changed after transition, seem almost beside the point ... This biography is a boon companion to Morris’s sprawling oeuvre, even if her complex psyche, like her physicality, might be impossible to corral.
One can’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for Clements and the challenge he has taken on here ... For all Clements’s access to Morris, however, one comes away from this book feeling no closer to her. She’s like a compelling figure seen across the square of some exotic city that you long to know more about ... At times you wonder if Clements’s tendency to veer toward minutiae...is his grasping to bring some—any—level of detail to Morris’s life. But there are random details, and then there are essential details that burn in one’s mind, and the book most springs to life when Clements leans on Morris’s own writing ... Clements’s best writing covers Morris’s early years, where he unpacks the early forces of wanderlust that formed the aspiring writer.
He begins this book with understandable, almost lawyerly care, piling up the grounded facts of an existence that aspired above all to airiness ... When it comes to the middle act, the question of how to understand Morris’s decision – as devoted husband to Elizabeth and father of four – to go to Morocco, aged 46, to take the enormous risk of gender reassignment surgery, Clements changes tone somewhat. The cause and effect chronology of the early years give way to more textured description ... Judicious, richly researched.
A work worthy of its complex and much-admired subject, and one that is unlikely to be surpassed ... Clements mixes warm appreciation with candid, critical insight. His biography admits to many flaws ... A worthy biography of a truly epic life.
Meticulously researched ... Morris was such a compellingly flighty writer that her biographer is obliged to tether his book to solid earth, in part to avoid giving the suggestion that he has fallen too hard under her spell.
If those commentators hoped for illumination in Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides, they will be disappointed. Morris, who died in 2020 aged 94, feared being remembered as 'that writer who had a sex change' and Clements has clearly determined to honour her professional legacy. Over 500 pages, he presents an exhaustive account of an illustrious career which, for anyone interested in world history, makes absorbing reading ... What we don’t get is much insight into the psychological turmoil that was apparently going on beneath the surface ... But after reading the book, I felt no closer to understanding what led Morris along the extraordinary – and, in the 1970s, risky and expensive – path to transitioning ... In flawless prose, Life From Both Sides confirms Suki’s assessment of Morris as a complex individual whose persona shifted with the company she kept. And Clements is surely right to resist reducing his subject to a sex change.
It is an offence to biographical and historical accuracy to use the female pronoun to describe experiences and settings that were exclusively male. Above all, it dilutes the scale of what James Morris did. As I read I found that the use of the pronoun 'she' undermined my respect for the transition that I knew was coming up in the pages ahead ... Clements dutifully records the many published books and gives a sample of the reviews for and against. He rarely offers his own opinion. Morris did not want a biography to be written, and that accounts, presumably, for the cuttings-file nature of the commentary.
It is inarguable that Morris emerges from this even-handed biography as profoundly selfish ... Elizabeth is key to Morris’s story, yet she is an empty space at the core of the book. She never discussed their relationship and Clements either chose not to or wasn’t able to explore this invisibility ... Clements seems sure posterity will remember Morris . I’m not quite so certain. But she led an extraordinary life and this is a measured and elegant biography that Morris aficionados will find fascinating.
It is lively and well written, but it’s not the finished product. It lacks access to the private papers of its subject and her wife Elizabeth ... In the meantime, Clements deserves plaudits. He has worked his personal knowledge and existing sources well ... There is nothing particularly revealing, for example, about the family tensions her globe-trotting or transition caused ... Clements sums up his subject, not entirely convincingly, as in continuous flight – from family, country and gender. Whatever the metaphor, Jan Morris’s extraordinary journey is still being retrospectively charted.