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Ariel: A Literary Life Of Jan Morris

Derek Johns

An appreciation of the work and life of the great historian and travel writer.

Date Published
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Jan Morris is one of the great British writers of the post-war era. Soldier, journalist, writer about places (rather than ‘travel writer’), elegist of the British Empire, novelist, she has fashioned a distinctive prose style that is elegant, fastidious, supple, and sometimes gloriously gaudy. For many readers she is best known for her candid memoir Conundrum, which described the gender reassignment operation she underwent in 1972.

But as Ariel demonstrates, this is just one of the many remarkable facts about her life. As James Morris she was the journalist who brought back the story of the conquest of Everest in 1953 and who discovered incontrovertible evidence of British involvement in the Suez Crisis of 1956. She has been described by Rebecca West as the finest prose stylist of her time, and her essays span the entire urban world. Her many books include a classic on Venice, a 1,600 page history of the British Empire, and a homage to what is perhaps her favourite city, Trieste. Her writings on Wales represent the most thorough literary investigation of that mysterious land.

Derek Johns was Jan Morris’s literary agent for twenty years. Ariel is not a conventional biography, but rather an appreciation of the work and life of someone who besides being a delightful writer is known to many people as a generous, affectionate, witty and irreverent friend. It is published to coincide with her 90th birthday.

Critic Reviews

An affectionate tribute to one of the finest and most sympathetic writers alive.

Colin Thubron
Critic Reviews

'Those unfamiliar with Morris's life will enjoy Ariel...Johns quotes copiously from the Morrisonian oeuvre. He catches his quarry well with adroit turns of phrase.'

Sara Wheeler, Observer
Critic Reviews

Johns is good at shedding light on Morris’s inimitable, evocative, highly descriptive style, identifying her trademark phrases, such as the words “incorrigible” and “mooched”, and explaining her quirk of giving the longitude and latitude whenever she enters a city. “It was as though, having been almost everywhere, Jan always needed to situate precisely the place she now happened to be in.”...As well as analysing her style, this book also reminds us that Morris was, fundamentally, a bloody good journalist.

Nigel Farndale, The Times
Critic Reviews

[an] elegant little volume, which is as much an anthology of excerpts from Morris's writings as it is a "literary life"...Derek Johns, who was Morris's agent for 20 years, has written an affectionate portrait, although not a hagiography...Her writings should be celebrated and enjoyed, and Ariel provides an admirable introduction to them and to Morris's peripatetic life.

Nick Rennison, The Sunday Times
Critic Reviews

Morris, on the basis that she doesn't do journeys, has never regarded herself as a travel writer, but she is undoubtedly one of the great conjurers of place. Anyone who has enjoyed that aspect of her work will enjoy Derek Johns's tribute.

The Daily Telegraph
Critic Reviews

Johns, a novelist in his own right, knits his materials elegantly, adroitly and with affection.

New Statesman

Derek Johns has been a bookseller, editor, publisher and literary agent. He is a former trustee of English PEN and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. His novel The Billy Palmer Chronicles was published in 2010. He lives in London.

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