There was an inexpressibly sad story reported a few weeks ago. Helen Jackson died in December 2020 at the age of 101. She had been a teenager in Missouri in the 1930s, one of ten children in a desperately poor family. She took to running chores on her way home from school for a 93 year old neighbour, James Bolin. To pay back her kindness, Bolin made an unusual suggestion: recognising the deep poverty of the Jacksons, he suggested that he and Helen marry so that after his death she could, as his widow, collect his US civil war pension. They married, but were never intimate and never lived together. Three years later, Bolin died. At this point, Bolin’s daughter from his first marriage told Helen that if she ever tried to claim the pension, or mentioned the marriage she would use it to create a scandal. Helen Jackson never entered another relationship for fear of what people would think of her for having married Bolin, and did not speak about the marriage at all until 2017, when she was ninety-six. When she told her local pastor that she was the widow of a veteran of the 1860s American civil war, he did not believe her, but once the facts were checked her story was corroborated. In the last three years of her long life, she was reconciled to the descendants of her husband – “the only man”, she said, “who ever really loved me”.
The news of Helen Jackson’s death coincided with the deaths of two long-lived authors whom I’ve written about before – the traveller and writer Jan Morris and the great novelist John le Carré. Both, though in different ways from Helen Jackson, had remarkable stories. Morris grew up as James Morris, served in the British Army during the second world war and as a journalist accompanied the expedition which conquered Everest in 1953. The despatch from Everest – famously arriving in London on the morning of the queen’s coronation – made Morris a global name. Morris married and fathered five children with Elizabeth. In the 1960s, she began to live as Jan, and wrote Conundrum, an account of transition in the early 1970s. The law as it was then required Morris to divorce the mother of their children following surgery, but Jan and Elizabeth stayed together. When the law changed, they entered a civil partnership in 2008.
Jan was pre-eminently a travel writer. She has been called perhaps the most widely-travelled human being in history, being fortunate enough to begin her writing career just as aeroplane travel made widespread journeys feasible, and as her global fame from the Everest story unlocked doors everywhere. It was, however, Pax Britannica,her trilogy of books about the British Empire which formed the centrepiece of her writing. Pax Britannicais not her best work, but it was her best-selling. She described the imperial world with imagination, deep humanity – and a fair number of blind spots.
Morris might have been celebrated as a standard bearer for diversity given her personal story and her extraordinary geographical range over a world before globalisation. This did not happen. She played little on her own identity. She wrote that her transition from James to Jan did not in define her and that her neighbours in north Wales, she said, never batted an eyelid. In a world increasingly shaped by questions of identity, this made her unusual. And, observant though her writing was, her attitudes were often constrained by her upbringing: an early twentieth century upper middle-class public school background. Even so, the quality of her writing and her breadth of her sympathy always shine through, and nowhere more so than in her early book on Veniceor her late book on Trieste, called Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.
Le Carré’s obituaries called him ‘the cold war novelist’, but that’s not right. He did define the espionage novel, in books such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyand The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but his work ranged wider. It concerns motivation, alienation and betrayal. It’s about the lies his characters lived by and the damage these lies did to those who told them. Almost all of le Carré’s novels have an ambiguous ending. He had a sure-footed gift for characterisation and an exceptional narrative gift. His father was a conman, in and out of bankruptcy. His mother left the family when he was just five years old – he was told she had died. He essentially ran away to Switzerland at the age of sixteen. There, as a language student, he was recruited as a spy – a story he tells in his deliberately misleading autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel.
Helen Jackson’s sad story is of well-intentioned acts of kindness which backfired appallingly because of too little openness and honesty, and of the deep unhappiness of personal secrets. Morris was stirred by spectacle, le Carré dealt with the failure of Britain to come to terms with post-war decline. Morris and Le Carre are authors I return to repeatedly. If I’m not sure what book to read next, I know I can lose myself again in their books. I am drawn back by the range of their psychological insight, the depth of their vision, and their fluency in expressing it. Their assumptions were, of course, of their time and place. Morris was at heart conservative in temperament, le Carré increasingly radical. We can find things to criticise in them, in what they chose to write about and what they neglected to see in the world around them, how their perspectives were shaped by their own backgrounds. But, no doubt, in decades’ time, our own views will be found wanting by our successors.
There’s a lesson here for any complex community. There are always differences of view – sometimes because we are different, sometimes because we have different views despite our apparent similarity of background. We will often disagree, and sometimes profoundly. We all have our stories. Perhaps everyone’s story is remarkable if we listen hard enough. Perspectives differ and may be difficult to reconcile – that’s the nature of communities and society. But whatever our own perspectives, we can approach the world, with engagement and humanity which, in different ways I find in Helen Jackson, Jan Morris and John le Carré.