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Mitchison, Naomi (Margaret)

MITCHISON, Naomi (Margaret)

Nationality: British. Born: Naomi Haldane in Edinburgh, 1 November 1897; daughter of the scientist John Scott Haldane; sister of the writer J. B. S. Haldane. Education: Lynam's School, Oxford; St. Anne's College, Oxford. Military Service: Served as a volunteer nurse, 1915. Family: Married G. R. Mitchison (who became Lord Mitchison, 1964) in 1916 (died 1970); three sons and two daughters. Career: Labour candidate for Parliament, Scottish Universities constituency, 1935; member, Argyll County Council, 1945-66; member, Highland Panel, 1947-64, and Highlands and Islands Development Council, 1966-76; tribal adviser, and Mmarona (Mother), to the Bakgatla of Botswana, 1963-89. Lives in Campbeltown, Scotland. Awards: D. Univ.: University of Stirling, Scotland, 1976; University of Dundee, Scotland, 1985; D.Litt.: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1983. Honorary Fellow, St. Anne's College, 1980, and Wolfson College, 1983, both Oxford. Member: Officer, French Academy, 1924. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1985.


Short Stories

When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories. 1924.

Black Sparta: Greek Stories. 1928.

Barbarian Stories. 1929.

The Delicate Fire: Short Stories and Poems. 1933.

The Fourth Pig: Stories and Verses. 1936.

Travel Light (novella). 1952.

Five Men and a Swan: Short Stories and Poems. 1958.

Images of Africa. 1980.

What Do You Think Yourself? Scottish Short Stories. 1982.

Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction of Mitchison, edited by Isobel Murray. 1986.

Early in Orcadia. 1987.

A Girl Must Live, edited by Isabel Murray. 1990.

Sea-Green Ribbons (novella). 1991.


The Conquered. 1923.

Cloud Cuckoo Land. 1925.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen. 1931; as The Barbarian, 1961.

The Powers of Light. 1932.

Beyond This Limit. 1935.

We Have Been Warned. 1935.

The Blood of the Martyrs. 1939.

The Bull Calves. 1947.

Lobsters on the Agenda. 1952.

To the Chapel Perilous. 1955.

Behold Your King. 1957.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman. 1962.

When We Become Men. 1965.

Cleopatra's People. 1972.

Solution Three. 1975.

Not by Bread Alone. 1983.

The Oath Takers. 1991.


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

Kate Crackernuts: A Fairy Play. 1931.

The Price of Freedom, with L. E. Gielgud (produced 1949). 1931.

Full Fathom Five, with L. E. Gielgud (produced 1932).

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, American Britons). 1937; as Historical Plays for Schools, 2 vols., 1939.

As It Was in the Beginning, with L. E. Gielgud. 1939.

The Corn King, music by Brian Easdale, adaptation of the novel by Mitchison (produced 1951). 1951.

Spindrift, with Denis Macintosh (produced 1951). 1951.


The Laburnum Branch. 1926.

The Alban Goes Out. 1939.

The Cleansing of the Knife and Other Poems. 1978.

Other (for children)

The Hostages and Other Stories for Boys and Girls. 1930.

Boys and Girls and Gods. 1931.

The Big House. 1950.

Graeme and the Dragon. 1954.

The Swan's Road. 1954.

The Land the Ravens Found. 1955.

Little Boxes. 1956.

The Far Harbour. 1957.

Judy and Lakshmi. 1959.

The Rib of the Green Umbrella. 1960.

The Young Alexander the Great. 1960.

Karensgaard: The Story of a Danish Farm. 1961.

The Young Alfred the Great. 1962.

The Fairy Who Couldn't Tell a Lie. 1963.

Alexander the Great. 1964.

Henny and Crispies. 1964.

Ketse and the Chief. 1965.

A Mochudi Family. 1965.

Friends and Enemies. 1966.

The Big Surprise. 1967.

Highland Holiday. 1967.

African Heroes. 1968.

Don't Look Back. 1969.

The Family at Ditlabeng. 1969.

Sun and Moon. 1970.

Sunrise Tomorrow. 1973.

The Danish Teapot. 1973.

Snake! 1976.

The Little Sister, with works by Ian Kirby and Keetla Masogo. 1976.

The Wild Dogs, with works by Megan Biesele. 1977.

The Brave Nurse and Other Stories. 1977.

The Two Magicians, with Dick Mitchison. 1978.

The Vegetable War. 1980.


Anna Comnena. 1928.

Comments on Birth Control. 1930.

The Home and a Changing Civilisation. 1934.

Vienna Diary. 1934.

Socrates, with Richard Crossman. 1937.

The Moral Basis of Politics. 1938.

The Kingdom of Heaven. 1939.

Men and Herring: A Documentary, with Denis Macintosh. 1949.

Other People's Worlds (travel). 1958.

A Fishing Village on the Clyde, with G.W.L. Paterson. 1960.

Presenting Other People's Children. 1961.

Return to the Fairy Hill (autobiography and sociology). 1966.

The Africans: A History. 1970.

Small Talk: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood. 1973.

A Life for Africa: The Story of Bram Fischer. 1973.

Oil for the Highlands? 1974.

All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (autobiography). 1975.

Sittlichkeit (lecture). 1975.

You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940. 1979.

Mucking Around: Five Continents over Fifty Years. 1981.

Margaret Cole 1893-1980. 1982.

Among You, Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison 1939-1945, edited by Dorothy Sheridan. 1985.

Naomi Mitchison (autobiographical sketch). 1986.

As It Was. 1988.

Editor, An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents. 1932.

Editor, with Robert Britton and George Kilgour, Re-Educating Scotland. 1944.

Editor, What the Human Race Is Up To. 1962.


Critical Study:

Mitchison: A Century of Experiment in Life and Letters by Jill Benton, 1990; "Difference and Sexual Politics in Naomi Mitchison's Solution Three " by Sarah Lefanu, in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donawerth, 1994; "Sizing Up: Women, Politics, and Parties" by Elizabeth Maslen, in Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sarah Sceats, 1996.

* * *

Naomi Mitchison has been writing short fiction since the 1920s, along with a flood of other genres: novels (mainly historical), plays, poems, biography, documentary, and a wide range of books for children, from the openly didactic to the richly entertaining. Just as her adult novels can approach epic sweep at times, her short stories tend to be longer than some, and she has written fine novellas, from Travel Light to Sea-Green Ribbons.

The short stories often mirror the concerns and settings of the novels, so early collections are mainly concerned with history, especially the ancient world. Mitchison characteristically uses earlier time periods for investigation of the contemporary and topical human issues close to her heart—conflicts of loyalties, the justice of political systems, and the way people obtain and use power over each other in relationships, openly, obliquely, or unconsciously. The ultimate image here is slavery: this is the ultimate test of civilizations, even her admired Athens at its best.

A good example is "The Wife of Aglaos," one of a series of stories set on "Lovely Mantinea" in The Delicate Fire (reprinted in Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction). All five of these stories concern Greek citizens brought up with every refinement of luxury, culture, and learning, pitched suddenly into slavery and violent oppression when the city is conquered by the Macedonians. Kleta is sold, raped, ill-treated; she bears a child by her owner before escaping with her firstborn and a fellow slave to the mountains, where a band of male fugitives are hiding. She learns to adapt to the needs of the situation. On the run she gives her superfluous breast milk to her fellow slave, and in the mountains she cooks for and sleeps with all the men and has two more children by them. She begins to understand the political implications of her former life. This story is characteristic of Mitchison's work. It is told in a very direct conversational tone by Kleta to her niece, while the reader eavesdrops and gradually begins to understand the issues.

Most of the best short fiction is historical or science fiction. But in 1935 Mitchison produced a contemporary fantasy, "Beyond This Limit," in a unique collaboration with artist Wyndham Lewis. Set in Paris, Oxford, and London, it deals with Phoebe Bathurst's experience of loss and betrayal when her lover is to marry someone else. Lewis produced the illustrations. Mitchison tells how the fantasy grew: "What we did was that one or other of us would get ahead. He would do a picture and I would say, what's that of?—perhaps what was going to happen, and then I rushed ahead … and so on." The major characters are so clearly in some sense Lewis and Mitchison themselves that she did not bother to say that: "He was acting as the guide of souls and with this great black hat that he always wore, and I was wearing this headscarf that I always wore…. It was a bouncy book, and I think the way we both enjoyed doing it is reflected." The fantasy is satiric, light-hearted, and allusive; it could be described as Mitchison's flirtation with modernism.

Mitchison comes from a very distinguished Scottish family, accustomed to great houses and public affairs, and her values include Scottish nationalism and a particular sense of responsibility, as well as feminism and socialism. Her work is always widely approachable, but she writes often with special messages for "the intelligentsia, the people who should be giving a lead." In the 1930s she began to give Scotland a greater place in her writing concerns, and the stories of Five Men and a Swan (written in 1940 but published in 1958) adopt a kind of Scottish English, the intonations she learned after making her home in Carradale, Kintyre, in 1937. "Five Men and a Swan," one of her best stories, is a modern fairy tale of a traditional type, about a swan who could be mastered if a man found her shed feathers at full moon. It is a story of good intentions hopelessly failing as one after another of a fishing boat crew goes to meet the swan and responds to her beauty with brutality and violence. Both local fishermen and novelist Neil Gunn praised it highly, but it was rejected by New Writing in London in 1941. Mitchison had to learn that her increasing Scottishness would not endear her to London publishers and media.

Mitchison has strong ties to Africa and is mother to a tribe in Botswana. Stories like "The Coming of the New God" can shift the reader's perspective dramatically; the story is about how the multiple wives of a chief enjoy happiness in community, and how the women are totally dismayed by the acceptance, from political necessity, of a missionary regime that deprives the wives of status, home, role, and function.

Mitchison also uses elements of science fiction to disorientate the reader and disrupt expectations. "Mary and Joe" is a tense story of the future in which Joe learns that their daughter Jaycie is in fact biologically a clone of Mary only. In "Conversation with an Improbable Future" children outgrow their mother; they live in natural time, while her growing-processes are suspended during space journeys.

Other important qualities of Mitchison's work include an impish sense of fun and her frequent use of irony. Brought up in a scientific family, she was writing urgent environmental messages before ecology was a word in common usage. The stories often celebrate science and logic as well as the irrational, the religious, or the magic. Frequent consideration is given to ancestral gifts and powers and to future generations, mutant or naturally evolved. The importance of communication and understanding is central. 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—voices that seem to be heard, not read.

—Isobel Murray

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