Jan Morris has spent her life travelling and writing, but has never considered herself a travel writer, on the basis that her books have tended to be about places (Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, Sydney) rather than journeys. In an interview for the review section of The Observer at the weekend, she told Tim Adams that her Pax Britannica trilogy on the rise and fall of the British Empire was “the centrepiece of my life, really, I hesitate to say intellectually, but certainly emotionally”.
Morris, who is 93 and doesn’t travel far these days from her home in Llanystumdwy, in Wales, is about to publish a second diary, Thinking Again. Its tone, says Adams, “is of someone who has seen the whole world and decided on this place as an ending”.
A few years ago, I invited Morris to contribute to a series, “Companion Volume”, in which writers nominated a favourite travel book. This is what she wrote:
“They order this matter better in France,” announces the narrator in the very first line of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1763).
It is one of the best-known opening lines in literature, and I love it because it cocks a merry snook at what is popularly called travel writing. The narrator has not yet set foot in France, he never does get to Italy and the whole inimitable work might better be described as un-travel writing.
To my mind travel is incidental to most of the best travel books. It is merely a peg on which authors can hang reflections, humours, regrets and irritations, set for effect against the passing scene. Such books are not intended to tell readers what they will themselves find if they chance to go that way. They record the state of an author’s own sensibility, on a particular journey, at a particular time.
Sterne does indeed travel through France, but his France is purely personal to himself. He describes no great sights, he offers no descriptive passages, and he really might just as well be travelling through Ruritania — where they may also order matters better, for all I know.