Mitchison, Naomi (Margaret Haldane) 1897–1999

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MITCHISON, Naomi (Margaret Haldane) 1897–1999

PERSONAL: Born November 1, 1897, in Edinburgh, Scotland; died January 11, 1999, in Carradale, Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland; daughter of John Scott (a physiologist and philosopher) and Kathleen (Trotter) Haldane; married Gilbert Richard Mitchison (a lawyer and member of Parliament), February, 1916 (died, 1970); children: Denis Antony, Murdoch, Lois Godfrey, Avrion, Valentine Arnold-Forster. Education: Attended St. Anne's College, Oxford. Politics: British Labour Party.

CAREER: Writer. Labour candidate for Parliament for the Scottish Universities Constituency, 1935; member of Argyll County Council, 1945–1966; member of Highland Panel, Scotland, 1947–65; member of the Highland and Island Advisory Council, Scotland, 1966–76. Tribal adviser, and Mmarona ("Mother"), to the Bakgatla of Botswana, 1963–89. Military service: Served as a volunteer nurse during World War I.


AWARDS, HONORS: Palmes de l'Academie Francaise, 1921; named officer of Academie Francaise, 1924; D.Univ., Sterling U niversity, 1979; honorary fellowship, St. Anne's, Oxford, 1980, and Wolfson College, Oxford, 1983; D.Litt., Strathclyde University, 1983; named Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1985.



The Conquered, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1923.

Cloud Cuckoo Land, J. Cape (London, England), 1925, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1926.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1931, published as The Barbarian, Cameron (New York, NY), 1961, published under original title with a new introduction by the author, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 1990.

The Powers of Light, illustrated by Eric Kennington, Peter Smith (New York, NY), 1932.

(With Wyndham Lewis) Beyond This Limit, J. Cape (London, England), 1935.

We Have Been Warned, Constable (London, England), 1935, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1936.

The Blood of the Martyrs, Constable (London, England), 1939, McGraw (New York, NY), 1948, with introduction by Donald Smith, Canongate (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1988, edited and introduced by James S. Bell, Jr., Moody Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.

The Bull Calves, illustrated by Louise Richard Annand, J. Cape (London, England), 1947.

Lobsters on the Agenda, Gollancz (London, England), 1952, published with an introduction by Isobel Murray, House of Lochar (Isle of Colonsay, Argyll, Scotland), 1997.

Travel Light, Faber (London, England), 1952, with introduction by Elizabeth Longford, Virago (New York, NY), 1987.

To the Chapel Perilous, Allen & Unwin (London, England), 1955.

Behold Your King, Muller (London, England), 1957.

Memoirs of a Space Woman, Gollancz (London, England), 1962.

When We Become Men, Collins (London, England), 1965.

Cleopatra's People, Heinemann (London, England), 1972.

Solution Three, Warner (New York, NY), 1975, with afterword by Susan M. Squier, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 1995.

Not by Bread Alone, Marion Boyars (London, England), 1983.


When the Bough Breaks, and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1924.

Black Sparta: Greek Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1928.

Barbarian Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1929.

The Delicate Fire: Short Stories and Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1933.

The Fourth Pig: Stories and Verses, Constable (London, England), 1936.

The Big House, Faber (London, England), 1950.

Five Men and a Swan: Short Stories and Poems, Allen & Unwin (London, England), 1958.

Images of Africa, Canongate (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1980.

What Do You Think Yourself? Scottish Short Stories, Harris Publishing (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1982.

Early in Orcadia, Drew (Glasgow, Scotland), 1987.

A Girl Must Live, Drew (Glasgow, Scotland), 1990.


Nix-Nought-Nothing: Four Plays for Children (includes My Ain Sel', Hobyah! Hobyah!, and Elfen Hill), J. Cape (London, England), 1928.

Kate Crackernuts: A Fairy Play, Alden Press (London, England), 1931.

(With Lewis E. Gielgud) The Price of Freedom (three-act; produced in 1949), J. Cape (London, England), 1931.

An End and a Beginning, and Other Plays (includes The City and the Citizens, For This Man Is a Roman, In the Time of Constantine, Wild Men Invade the Roman Empire, Charlemagne and His Court, The Thing That Is Plain, Cortez in Mexico, Akbar, But Still It Moves, The New Calendar, and American Britons), J. Cape (London, England), 1937, published as Historical Plays for Schools, two volumes, 1939.

(With Lewis E. Gielgud) As It Was in the Beginning (three-act), J. Cape (London, England), 1939.

(With Brian Easdale) The Corn King (musical; book by Mitchison, music by Easdale; adapted from Mitchison's novel; produced in 1950), Samuel French (London, England), 1951.

(With Denis Macintosh) Spindrift (three-act; produced in 1951), Samuel French (London, England), 1951.

Also author of (with Lewis E. Gielgud) Full Fathom Five, produced in 1932.


The Laburnum Branch, J. Cape (London, England), 1926.

The Alban Goes Out, Raven Press (Harrow, Middlesex, England), 1939.

The Cleansing of the Knife, and Other Poems, Canongate (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1978.


The Hostages, and Other Stories for Boys and Girls, illustrated by Logi Southby, J. Cape (London, England), 1930, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1931.

Boys and Girls and Gods, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1931.

Graeme and the Dragon, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, Faber (London, England), 1954.

The Swan's Road, illustrated by Leonard Huskinson, Naldrett Press (London, England), 1954.

The Land the Ravens Found, illustrated by Brian Allderidge, Collins (London, England), 1955.

Little Boxes, illustrated by Louise Richard Annand, Faber (London, England), 1956.

The Far Harbour, illustrated by Martin Thomas, Collins (London, England), 1957.

Judy and Lakshmi, illustrated by Avinash Chandra, Collins (London, England), 1959.

The Rib of the Green Umbrella, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, Collins (London, England), 1960.

The Young Alexander the Great, illustration by Betty Middleton-Sandford, Parrish (London, England), 1960, Roy (New York, NY), 1961.

Karensgaard: The Story of a Danish Farm, Collins (London, England), 1961.

The Young Alfred the Great, illustrated by Shirley Farrow, Parrish (London, England), 1962, Roy (New York, NY), 1963.

The Fairy Who Couldn't Tell a Lie, illustrated by Jane Paton, Collins (London, England), 1963.

Alexander the Great, illustrated by Rosemary Grimble, Longmans, Green (London, England), 1964.

Henny and Crispies, New Zealand School Publications (Wellington, New Zealand), 1964.

Ketse and the Chief, illustrated by Christine Bloomer, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1965.

A Mochudi Family, New Zealand School Publications (Wellington, New Zealand), 1965.

Friends and Enemies, illustrated by Caroline Sassoon, Collins (London, England), 1966, Day (New York, NY), 1968.

Highland Holiday, New Zealand School Publications (Wellington, New Zealand), 1967.

The Big Surprise, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1967.

African Heroes, illustrated by William Stobbs, Bodley Head (London, England), 1968, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.

Don't Look Back, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1969.

The Family at Ditlabeng, illustrated by Joanna Stubbs, Collins (London, England), 1969, Farrar, Straus, 1970.

Sun and Moon, illustrated by Barry Wilkinson, Bodley Head (London, England), 1970, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1973.

The Danish Teapot, illustrated by Patricia Frost, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1973.

Snake!, illustrated by Polly Loxton, Collins (London, England), 1976.

The Little Sister (published with Pulenyane's Secret by Ian Kirby and What Is Better than Cattle? by Keetla Masogo), illustrated by Angela Marro, Oxford University Press (Cape Town, South Africa), 1976.

The Wild Dogs (published with The Animal That Hides in the Trees by Megan Biesele), illustrated by Polly Loxton, Oxford University Press (Cape Town, South Africa), 1977.

The Brave Nurse, and Other Stories, Oxford University Press (Cape Town, South Africa), 1977.

The Two Magicians, illustrated by Danuta Laskowska, Dobson (London, England), 1978.

The Vegetable War, illustrated by Polly Loxton, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1980.


An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents, Gollancz (London, England), 1932.

(With Robert Britton and George Kilgour) Re-Educating Scotland, Scoop Books (Glasgow, Scotland), 1944.

What the Human Race Is Up To, Gollancz (London, England), 1962.


Anna Comnena, Howe (London, England), 1928.

Comments on Birth Control, Faber (London, England), 1930.

The Home and a Changing Civilization, John Lane (London, England), 1934.

Naomi Mitchison's Vienna Diary, H. Smith & R. Haas (New York, NY), 1934.

(With Richard H. S. Crossman) Socrates, Hogarth (London, England), 1937, Stackpole (Harrisburg, PA), 1938.

The Moral Basis of Politics, Constable (London, England), 1938, Kennikat Press (Port Washington, NY), 1971.

The Kingdom of Heaven, Heinemann (London, England), 1939.

(With Denis Macintosh) Men and Herring, Serif Books (Edinburgh), 1949.

Other People's Worlds, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1958.

Presenting Other People's Children, P. Hamlyn (London, England), 1961.

(With George W. L. Paterson) A Fishing Village on the Clyde, Oxford University Press (London, England), 1961.

Return to the Fairy Hill (autobiography/sociology), J. Day (New York, NY), 1966.

The Africans: A History, Blond (London, England), 1970.

Sunrise Tomorrow: A Story of Botswana, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1973.

Small Talk: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood (also see below), Bodley Head (London, England), 1973.

A Life for Africa: The Story of Bram Fischer, Carrier Pigeon (Boston, MA), 1973.

Oil for the Highlands?, Fabian Society (London, England), 1974.

All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (also see below; autobiography), Bodley Head (London, England), 1975.

You May Well Ask: A Memoir, 1920–1940, Gollancz (London, England), 1980.

Mucking Around: Five Continents over Fifty Years, Gollancz (London, England), 1981.

(With John Parker and John Saville) Margaret Cole, 1893–1980, Fabian Society (London, England), 1982.

Among You Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939–1945, edited by Dorothy Sheridan, Gollancz (London, England), 1985.

Naomi Mitchison (autobiography), Saltire Society (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1986.

As It Was, Drew (Glasgow, Scotland), 1988.

Small Talk; with All Change Here, House of Lochar (Isle of Colonsay, Argyll, Scotland), 2000.

Work represented in anthologies, including The Year 2000, Collier Macmillan, 1970; Scottish Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1970; and Nova 1, Dell, 1971.

SIDELIGHTS: Naomi Mitchison was an extremely prolific writer, whose career spanned eight decades and included the publication of novels, several collections of short stories, and dozens of children's books and nonfiction volumes. In addition to her literary achievements, Mitchison was also noted for her active life and her many social and political activities, such as her lifelong devotion to women's rights and her strong opposition to nuclear weapons. Her fiction is considered by many to be her most significant literary achievement. Among her best-known works are The Corn King and the Spring Queen and To the Chapel Perilous.

Mitchison was born in 1897, in Edinburgh, Scotland. She studied at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and subsequently worked as a nurse during World War I. It was at this time that she became increasingly involved with social and political causes. In 1916, she married Gilbert Richard Mitchison, a barrister and political figure who shared her liberalism. The two had an unconventional, open marriage, but had six children together and remained legally wed until his death in 1970. Mitchison eventually helped establish the first birth control clinics in London, and she became involved in such far-away events as the 1934 counterrevolution in Austria and the Depression-era sharecroppers' plight in the United States. On two occasions her activities even took her to the Soviet Union. Her 1935 book We Have Been Warned espoused her controversial ideas about birth control and sexual behavior. Because of her frank treatment of these subjects, Mitchison had difficulty finding a publisher for the volume. We Have Been Warned was rejected by two London publishing houses before the author reached an agreement with Constable, agreeing to edit a few of the more risqué sections.

Mitchison began her career as a novelist in the early 1920s with The Conquered, a story set in Gaul, or ancient France, during the time of the Roman conquest. A Saturday Review critic was enthusiastic about the book, saying that the author "has, as it were by miracle, got back into the air and mood of the time she writes about: she creates and re-creates. The splen-dour and the mystery come easy to her…. And she rises without effort to eloquence and, beyond eloquence, to poetry." More praise came from a New York Times reviewer, who affirmed that Mitchison "has made an interesting story against a colorful background, a background that in its essentials seems as accurately as it is graphically pictured." The theme of conflicting loyalties that animated The Conquered is also prominent in Mitchison's next novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, in which inhabitants of an Aegean island find themselves drawn into the war between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece. In Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, Geoffrey Sadler contended, "Cloud Cuckoo Land marks an advance on The Conquered, its insights more skillfully developed, its psychology more subtle."

In her novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (later published as The Barbarian), Mitchison continued to probe the notion of loyalties, this time by depicting a three-way clash of cultures among Sparta, other Greek city-states, and a mystical country called Marob. The Spring Queen, Erif Der, is instrumental to the survival and the culture of Marob; she is a powerful, independent being with magical powers. Her life is in sharp contrast to that of the Spartan women; in that culture, even the highborn women are suppressed and subjugated. "Themes treated in this exceptionally rich work include the Stoic philosophy and the Spartan attitude to unwanted children. The reader unfamiliar with ancient history will be grateful for the summaries that the author adds after each of the five parts of her book," wrote Margaret Crosland in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Alexander Scott, a writer for Contemporary Novelists, contended that The Corn King and the Spring Queen is "unsurpassed in 20th-century British historical fiction for range and variety of scene and characterization, for political awareness, and for religious depth." Writing in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, Sadler likewise observed that The Corn King and the Spring Queen "is without doubt one of the most significant historical novels," and he hailed it as "Mitchison's masterpiece." Mitchison's other historical fiction includes The Blood of the Martyrs, which details the trials and tribulations suffered by Christians during the brief reign of Nero in Ancient Rome, and Behold Your King, which relates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Mitchison is further credited with being one of the first writers to venture into the field of feminist science fiction. She saw writing in this genre as an excellent opportunity to proclaim her radical ideas about women's roles in society and sexual relationships. Her book Memoirs of a Space Woman, according to Scott, demonstrates "a deep imaginative comprehension of extraterrestrial modes of existence, and a compassionate reverence for life." The interconnectedness of all life is one of the primary themes of the novel, and a mother-child relationship detailed in the book is "memorable for its intensity and sensuality," noted Crosland. In a Dictionary of Literary Biography article about Mitchison, Salvatore Proietti described the novel as centering around "a joyous, panoramic description of a dozen encounters with alien species, including sentient echinoderms, centipedes, dolphinoids, giant butterflies, hermaphroditic Martians, and symbiotic invertebrates. These meetings are recounted in the first-person retrospective narrative of Mary, a communication expert in many missions of space exploration." Racial and gender equality have been achieved in this world, and the inhabitants of Earth are beginning to explore the galaxy, aided by the Martians. The story examines the growth of individual character.

Mitchison also penned two other science-fiction novels, Solution Three and Not by Bread Alone. "In both, humanity is incapable of self-determination and can save itself only under the firm guidance of an enlightened caste, the scientific elite," reported Proietti. "This pessimism is transparently a result of the crisis of 1960s hopes in the age of transnational capitalism and environmental havoc." Solution Three concerns itself specifically with population policy, examining gay and lesbian relationships and cloning, among other ideas. Not by Bread Alone shows a world whose comfortable capitalist system begins to collapse, giving way to famine. Scientists then attempt to create a utopia in Australia, with the assistance of a community of aborigines. In the fantasy realm, Mitchison wrote To the Chapel Perilous, in which journalists with modern sensibilities travel to the world of King Arthur in order to investigate claims that the Holy Grail has been found.

In addition to her many novels, Mitchison published several volumes of short stories. Isobel Murray wrote in Reference Guide to Short Fiction: "The short stories often mirror the concerns and settings of the novels. Early collections are mainly concerned with history, especially the ancient world." Murray added, "Most of the best short fiction is historical, or science fiction." Among Mitchison's many stories are "The Wife of Aglaos," in which prominent citizens of ancient Greece suddenly find themselves enslaved by conquering forces; "Beyond This Limit," wherein a woman discovers her lover's plans to wed someone else; and "The Coming of the New God," which relates the pleasures enjoyed by the various wives of an African chieftain prior to the intervention of Christian missionaries. Noting Mitchison's versatility as a short-story writer, Murray wrote: "The stories often have first person narrators, most but not all female, most but not all human. Their voices are urgent or gentle; insistent or comic."

Mitchison also made significant contributions to the field of children's literature. Her earliest books in this genre include Nix-Nought-Nothing: Four Plays for Children, which are derived from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mitchison also wrote a great deal of historical fiction for children, including The Hostages, and Other Stories for Boys and Girls. Discussing this book, which recounts the coming-of-age stories of several youths, Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Carol Y. Long wrote, "What is so compelling about the stories in The Hostages is Mitchison's presentation of individual lives of Greek, Roman, and Gaelic boys in their struggles to come to terms with their physical and emotional surroundings, while pointing out the obvious resemblances to present time." Another of Mitchison's children's books is The Young Alexander the Great, which won praise from a Horn Book reviewer as a work with "much to offer the student of ancient history." The Horn Book critic proclaimed The Young Alexander the Great "authentic and interesting." And a contributor to St. James Guide to Children's Writers acknowledged, "Naomi Mitchison's books have brought to many children in our epoch what feel like direct experiences of living at other times, in other places, and in alien cultures, among people with strange customs, clothes, festivals, beliefs, and assumptions about the world; people who yet remain vivid characters, with recognizable, sharable feelings—love, grief, homesickness, fear, anger, loyalty, and conflicts of loyalty."

Africa features prominently in many of Mitchison's children's writings. "She wrote about Africa in the same way that she wrote about Scotland," contended Jenni Calder in New Statesman and Society, "and perhaps to English readers her descriptions of lifting potatoes in the rain … were as exotic as her accounts of drought-bound Botswana." Calder noted that "over a dozen of [Mitchison's] books—fiction, history, the retelling of traditional African tales—were inspired by Botswana." In her life, Mitchison became so closely associated with one African tribe, Bakgatla of Botswana, that she was asked to be a tribal advisor.

Aside from her many volumes of fiction, Mitchison generated an impressive number of nonfiction volumes before her death at the age of 101. Among these works is Mucking Around: Five Continents over Fifty Years, an autobiographical volume in which she related some of her experiences in various remote and exotic locations. In the Times Literary Supplement, Nesta Roberts stated that Mitchison "writes enviably, with the kind of apparently casual precision which though, if rarely, it can be achieved by effort, far more often comes by grace; but what gives [Mucking Around] its quality is the author's capacity for relating to her fellow creatures, irrespective of differences of language and culture."



Benton, Jill, Naomi Mitchison: A Century of Experiment in Life and Letters, Pandora (Boston, MA), 1990.

Calder, Jenni, 100 Years Young: The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, Virago Books (London, England), 1997.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 160: British Children's Writers, 1914–1960, 1996, Volume 191: British Novelists between the Wars, 1998, Volume 255: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers, 1918–1960, 2002.

Mitchison, Naomi, Mucking Around: Five Continents over Fifty Years, Gollancz (London, England), 1981.

Mitchison, Naomi, Among You Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939–1945, Gollancz (London, England), 1985.

Murray, Isobel, Scottish Writers Talking 2, Tuckwell Press (East Linton, Scotland), 2002.

Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.


Horn Book, June, 1961.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 2001, Gavin J. Grant, review of Travel Light, p. 162.

New Statesman, May 13, 1983, Jonathan Mirsky, review of Scottish Radical, p. 13; July 19, 1985, Nina Hibbin, review of Among You Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939–1945, p. 26; November 27, 1987, Angus Calder, review of Early in Orcadia, p. 32.

New Statesman and Society, December 16, 1994.

New York Times, October 28, 1923.

New York Times Book Review, May 28, 1961.

Publishers Weekly, July 8, 1983, review of Not By Bread Alone, p. 57; March 30, 1990.

Saturday Review, May 26, 1923.

Times Literary Supplement, June 5, 1980; July 24, 1981.


Camelot Project at the University of Rochester, (April 15, 1989), Raymond H. Thompson, interview with Naomi Margaret Mitchison.

Guardian Unlimited, (January 17, 1999), Nicholas Wroe, interview with Naomi Margaret Mitchison.



Independent Sunday, January 17, 1999, p. 14.

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Mitchison, Naomi (Margaret Haldane) 1897–1999

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