Mitchison, Naomi (1897–1999)
Mitchison, Naomi (1897–1999)
Scots-English novelist, poet, and playwright who sought to delineate women's adventure-quest in fiction as well as in private and political life, voicing women's issues in the socialist wing of the Labor Party in London during the 1930s, in Scotland as a major writer in the Scottish Renaissance, and as a Scottish nationalist during the 1940s and 1950s. Pronunciation: MIT-chi-son. Name variations: Lady Mitchison from 1964 but preferred to be called Naomi Mitchison. Born Naomi Margaret Haldane on November 1, 1897, in Edinburgh, Scotland; died at age 101 on January 11, 1999, at her home on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland; daughter of Louisa Kathleen (Trotter) Haldane and John Scott Haldane, known as J.S. Haldane (an eminent physiologist and philosopher); sister ofJ.B.S. Haldane (a geneticist and philosopher); niece of Elizabeth Haldane (1862–1937); attended Oxford Preparatory School for Boys (renamed Dragon School) until age 12, followed by private education at home, and one year of study at St. Anne's College in Oxford; married Gilbert Richard Mitchison (CBE, QC, created a Baron [Life Peer], 1964), in February 1916 (died 1970); children: Geoff Mitchison; Dennis Mitchison; Murdoch Mitchison; Lois Mitchison; Avrion Mitchison; Valentine Mitchison.
Palmes de l'Academie Française (1923); D. Univ., Sterling (1976); D. Litt. Strathclyde (1983); D. Univ., Dundee (1985); made honorary fellow at St. Anne's College, Oxford (1980) and Wolfson College, Oxford (1983); awarded Order of the British Empire (1985); Regents' Lecturer, University of California, San Diego (1984).
Elected to Argyll County Council (1945–48 and 1953–65); appointed to Highland and Island Advisory Panel (1947–65), and to the Highlands and Islands Development Council (1966–76); tribal mother to the Bakgatla, Botswana (1963–1999).
Selected publications—historical and political fiction:
The Conquered (1923); When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories (1924); Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925); Black Sparta: Greek Stories (1929); Barbarian Stories (1929); The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931); The Delicate Fire: Short Stories and Poems (1933); We Have Been Warned (1936); The Blood of the Martyrs (1939); The Bull Calves (1947); Lobsters on the Agenda (1952); Early in Orcadia (1987).
Selected science and fantasy fiction:
Beyond This Limit (illustrated by Wyndham Lewis, 1935); The Fourth Pig (1936); Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962); Solution Three (1975); The Vegetable War (1980); Not By Bread Alone (1983).
The Laburnum Branch (1926); The Alban Goes Out (1939); The Cleansing of the Knife and Other Poems (1978).
Nix-Nought-Nothing: Four Plays for Children (1928); (with L.E. Gielgud) The Price of Freedom (1931); An End and a Beginning and Other Plays (1937); (with L.E. Gielgud) As It Was in the Beginning (1939); (with Dennis Macintosh) Spindrift (1951).
Selected children's literature:
Boys and Girls and Gods (1931); The Big House (1950); Travel Light (1952); Graeme and the Dragon (1954); The Swan's Road (1954); The Land the Ravens Found (1954); The Far Harbour (1957); Judy and Lakshimi (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 (1963); Ketse and the Chief (1965); Friends and Enemies (1966); The Big Surprise (1967); African Heroes (1968); The Family at Ditlabeng (1970); Sunrise Tomorrow: A Story of Botswana (1973); Snake! (1976); (with Dick Mitchison) The Two Magicians (1979).
Selected history, biography, edited work:
Anna Comnena (1928); Comments on Birth Control (1930); An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents (ed., 1932); Socrates (with Richard Crossman, 1937); Reeducating Scotland (ed., 1944); What the Human Race Is Up To (ed., 1962); The Africans: A History (1970); A Life for Africa: The Story of Bram Fischer (1973); Margaret Cole 1883–1980 (1982).
Selected social commentary:
The Home and a Changing Civilization (1934); The Moral Basis of Politics (1938); Men and Herring (with Dennis Macintosh, 1949); Oil for the Highlands? (1974).
Vienna Diary (1934); Return to the Fairy Hill (1966); Small Talk: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood (1973); All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (1979); You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920–1940 (1979); Mucking Around: Five Continents over Fifty Years (1981); Among You Taking Notes: Wartime Diary 1939–45 (ed. Dorothy Sheridan, 1985).
In 1910, Naomi Haldane, aged 13, squeaked and chittered to her 300 guinea pigs; she was convinced she had learned their language and imagined she could think like one of their own. Together with her older brother, J.B.S. Haldane, she had carpeted the front lawn of their Oxford home on the Banbury Road with cages for guinea pigs, plus fast-breeding rats and mice. Brother and sister were gathering data about genetic change, even dissecting dead creatures in order to measure their young; as teenagers, separately, they published their scientific findings. Objectively observant, yet empathizing, Naomi was practicing skills that would contribute to her artistry as a novelist who could dispassionately imagine herself in the skins of creatures vastly different from her upper-middle-class, Scots-English origins. In 1962, in her sciencefiction novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Mitchison invents a female hero, a scientist gifted with empathy, who surmounts the biological determinants of her bipartite structure (two arms, two legs, and so on) which frame her thinking in mere human, bipolar categories; she is on the frontier of universal, sentient life, a peace maker.
Between 1923 and 1995, Naomi Mitchison produced over 80 books, many of which place her squarely in the wave of 20th-century women writers striving to invent paths for women's psychological development and creative participation in culture. In the historical novels and short stories which established her earliest reputation, she explored conflicts between loyalties and between such concepts as myth and history, idealism and materialism, socialism and individualism; she also explored the possibilities, sometimes honestly gloomy, for women's self-determination in history. In The Conquered (1923), she kills the sister and sends the brother into the world to witness Caesar's conquest of Gaul; in Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925), she creates a main woman character who dies gruesomely during a self-inflicted abortion; finally in The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), she develops a woman hero, Erif Der (Red Fire when read backwards), who traverses three Hellenic societies in the 3rd century bce, successfully questing for self in history and community. In her agricultural community of origin, Erif Der rebels against dutifully playing the Spring Queen to her husband, the Corn King, to regenerate the seasons in patriarchal ritual:
It was [her father] who would sweep aside [her husband]'s rags and show himself, [her father] who would plunge down on her, [her father] who was the image of God and Man and her possessor and master! … [S]he flung up her arms against the rhythm, and jumped clear out of it, off the booth, into the furrow ankle-deep.
Disillusioned and alienated, Erif Der journeys first to Sparta where she participates in a secular and socialist revolution and then to decadent Egypt, where she is an agent of a new mystery religion, the likes of which, according to James Frazer in The Golden Bough, would eventually provide a model for Christian sacrifice. The Corn King and the Spring Queen is a significant as well as artistically successful achievement. Alexander Scott in Contemporary Novelists praises Mitchison's work without even mentioning its importance for women's issues: "This novel is unsurpassed in 20th-century British historical fiction for range and variety of scene and characterization, for political awareness, and for religious depth."
In the early 1930s in her political novel We Have Been Warned, Mitchison delineates a contemporary woman hero who is a spiritual descendent of The Corn King and the Spring Queen's Erif Der. This woman hero lives in the ideological turmoil generated by the conflict between socialism and communism in the British Labor Party. She frankly uses birth control devices and rationally, rather than passionately, chooses lovers. Without historical distance to obfuscate, the lineaments of the woman hero were more visible and distressing to readers in the mid-'30s. We Have Been Warned was something of a scandal when it was published in 1935. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, refused to comment extensively because the novel caused such continuous embarrassment, ostensibly provoked by descriptions of sexual intimacy between middle-class women and working-class men. Undaunted, Mitchison continued to write women's quest romance in historical novels, children's books, and science fiction for another 65 years.
Born in her maternal grandparents' home in Edinburgh on November 1, 1897, Naomi Margaret Haldane was the second child of Louisa Trotter Haldane and John Scott Haldane whose main place of residence was Oxford where he was a fellow and then a reader at New College. Known as J.S. Haldane, he maintained a laboratory in his home where he performed experiments that informed his work in the physiology of respiration. Although J.S. was politically liberal and humanitarian, Louisa was an ardent imperialist, often speaking for the Victoria League. As a child, Naomi lived during the academic year in Oxford, inhaling the fumes of scientific rationalism exuding from her father's laboratory. Each summer, she lived near the ancestral Haldane Gleneagles, at Cloan, her paternal grandmother's estate in Scotland, where she imbibed Celtic mythology and magic along with the Haldane family's high standards for achievement. Mitchison was greatly influenced by her Haldane grandmother who encouraged her writing, especially her detailed descriptions of plants, and by her Aunt Elizabeth Haldane 's example as a writer and public figure; Elizabeth Haldane was the first woman in Scotland to be appointed Justice of the Peace.
Naomi attended Oxford Preparatory School for Boys, renamed Dragon School, where she was often the only girl. She was privileged to receive the best education available for boys of her class, including tutelage in the classics. She was, however, removed from school the day she began to menstruate, thereafter to receive her education at home and to be restricted by Edwardian standards for girls. In Small Talk, she remembers: "It was all very discouraging and I acquiesced in it, as indeed in other discouragements, but no doubt resentments and determinations built up inside." After age 12, she was essentially self-educated, although her brother, J.B.S. Haldane, and Aldous Huxley, then a
teenager living with the Haldanes, were influential intellectual companions. She yearned to be a scientist, the valued masculine activity of the Haldane household. Although she would later take science classes at St. Anne's in Oxford as a day student, she did not matriculate.
In 1913, when she was 16, Mitchison wrote her first play for performance, which was followed by another in July of 1914 before the First World War began in August. In the summer of 1915, she was allowed to work as a volunteer auxiliary nurse at St. Thomas Hospital in London don before scarlet fever returned her home. She married Dick Mitchison, a calvary officer at the time, in February 1916, when she was 19 years old; he returned to the war front and she to her parents' home for three more years, there to give birth to her first son Geoff in 1918 and her second son Dennis in 1919.
In London during the 1920s, while Dick established his law practice, Naomi began to write in earnest, receiving the Palmes de L'Académie Française for her first novel, The Conquered, which she later remembered writing on a desk attached to the handle of the baby carriage in which she pushed her third son Murdoch, who was born in 1922. (He was followed by Lois in 1925, Avrion in 1928, and Valentine in 1930.) Throughout the 1920s, Naomi Mitchison was becoming famous as a writer, publishing at least a book a year, most of which was fiction set in Classical Greece and Rome. After her first son Geoff died of spinal meningitis in 1928, she wrote her 700-page opus, The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), in which she incorporated and critiqued the dominant androcentric systems of knowledge of the political economist Karl Marx, of the anthropologist James Frazer, and of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
The nearer we get to the human side of truth and especially to art, which is intensely human—a Sabbath made for men—the more we find that the sex of the seeker or researcher or writer makes a difference in the result.
In the '20s, Mitchison participated on a committee that oversaw a birth-control clinic in North Kensington modeled on one begun by Marie Stopes , author of Married Love. Mitchison advocated empowering women to control spacing of babies, if they chose to have them at all. She perceived that a woman was biologically prevented from adventure-questing in the wide world so long as she was subject to undesired pregnancies, the dangers of childbirth, and the responsibilities of lactation and nurturing. Her involvement in the birth-control movement is clearly reflected in her writing about women in Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925), The Corn King and the Spring Queen, We Have Been Warned (1935), and in sociological tracts such as "Comments on Birth-Control" written for Criterion Miscellany (No. 12, 1930) and The Home and a Changing Civilization (1934). She lectured for Norman Haire's World Sexual Reform League in 1929 and wrote magazine articles about sexology and the family during 1932 and 1933. She and her husband practiced a philosophy of open sexual option within a committed marriage. She was influential in the lives of the writer and politician Elizabeth Longford and the artist Gertrude Hermes .
Between 1929 and 1932, Mitchison wrote critical essays about D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Gerald Heard, and Sigmund Freud for Time and Tide, a magazine whose editorial intention was to sponsor women intellectuals who wrote about international politics and literature; it advocated a form of equal-rights feminism which coincided with her own. In an unpublished book about feminism that she started to write in the late 1920s, Mitchison begins:
If one is in this curious position of being a woman, one cannot unquestioningly accept the ordinary historical point of view about the values of civilisation. Why not? Because up to the last few years all historians have been men. … And so far we have only the man's view of civilisation and the trend of human thought and culture.
The Mitchisons shifted their political allegiance from the Liberal to the Labor Party in 1930; Dick stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in King's Norton in Birmingham, as he would again in 1935. He became an insider in the socialist wing of the Labor Party, participating with Douglas and Margaret Cole (1893–1980) in organizing the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda, then bringing the New Fabian Research Bureau and its Quarterly into being. Having electioneered in Birmingham in 1930 for her husband, in 1935 Naomi stood unsuccessfully as Labor Candidate for Parliament for the Scottish Universities.
In 1932, Mitchison participated in a Fabian Society expedition, led by Beatrice Webb , which journeyed to the Soviet Union. There she observed women's lives in a Communist regime. One of her characters in We Have Been Warned concludes that women would have less than men to gain from a socialist revolution: "I'm not so far from praxis as you are, Tom, after having had four children; modern medicine hasn't got far enough to prevent childbirth being devilishly alike for all women."
Meanwhile, Mitchison's opinions about women's issues and the family were generating criticism and hostility from those in established positions of authority. In 1932, she edited An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents, a collection of essays written by various left intellectuals about all areas of knowledge; it was denounced by the archbishop of Canterbury and the headmasters of Eton and several leading boys' schools and castigated for its presumed attack on the institution of the family because one of its essayists had praised child-care centers in the Soviet Union. Lady Margaret Rhondda , editor of Time and Tide, defended An Outline: she maintained that these gentlemen, attempting to "bracket atheism, anti-theism and the destruction of the family," were speaking for the threatened patriarchy. In 1935, Mitchison's novel, which incorporated her experiences in Birmingham's working-class neighborhoods and her travels to the Soviet Union, was published; We Have Been Warned, a woman's quest novel situated in the historical present, was condemned by Conservative, Socialist, and Communist reviewers alike. "Feminism" was becoming a term of disparagement. In We Have Been Warned, she creates a woman hero who is accused of belonging to the "squawking sisterhood," then boxed on the side of her head by a "gentleman" wearing a public school tie: "You haven't time to teach her now, said the words; you haven't time to rape her now said the tone."
In March 1934, Mitchison was an emissary of the British Labor Party to Vienna, where she witnessed the suffering aftermath of the violent suppression of Austrian socialism by fascist forces. Her observation of the counter-revolution, recorded in Vienna Diary (1934), made her one of the first voices in Britain to sound a warning about European fascism building toward another world war. In February 1935, she traveled to the United States where she joined the Share-croppers Union, an organization of black and white tenant farmers who were protesting landowner exploitation; she helped lead public demonstrations in Arkansas when such activities were quite dangerous. In Vienna and Arkansas, Mitchison had witnessed poverty, injustice, and intense suffering. These experiences, together with her recognition that Britain was on the brink of another catastrophic war, inspired her to write The Moral Basis of Politics (1938), a sociological search for the Just Society in which people are free to seek "security, status, and fun," themes which she explored in her subsequent historical novels, The Blood of the Martyrs (1939) and The Bull Calves (1947). In her private life, Mitchison also sought this Just Society.
During the Second World War, Mitchison, now in her 40s, settled in Carradale in the Scottish Highlands; she was pregnant with her seventh child, who died after birth. Dick Mitchison remained in London and Hendon, working with Douglas Cole on Labor policies which laid the foundation for the welfare state implemented after the war. Amicably, he and Naomi would seldom share domiciles during the 30 years that remained of their married life. Scotland was now Naomi's home. During the war, she harbored refugees; arduously, she learned to farm, grow turnips, raise sheep, and run a dairy; for fun, she poached with the local fishermen for whom she wrote a play that they performed. Her frequent contributions to the New Statesman and Nation record these rural experiences. Practicing socialism, she opened her feudal lands to all her neighbors, providing a place to construct a Village Hall, the first secular meeting place in the community. She kept a war journal for Tom Harrisson's Mass Observation survey, over a million words that were reduced to 150,000 for publication in Among You Taking Notes: Wartime Diary 1939–45 (1985). She also wrote The Bull Calves (1947) about her Scottish Haldane ancestors; it is a love story in which middle-aged forgiveness shapes a private Just Society. Politically, while initiating a local chapter of the Labor Party, Mitchison gravitated toward the Scottish National Party, which was vitally committed to addressing Highland problems of fishing, crofting, and depopulation. As vice-chair, she helped organize the Scottish Convention Movement whose non-political agenda was congenial to her Labor affiliation; through the Convention, she became a close friend of the Scottish writer Neil Gunn.
At the end of the Second World War, Dick Mitchison was elected to Parliament, representing Manchester during the ensuing 19 years until 1964 when he was made a Life Peer. Naomi Mitchison was elected to the Argyll County Council, serving between 1945 and 1948 and then again between 1953 and 1965. She was also asked to represent Argyll on the Highland Panel, an advisory group appointed by the Labor government; she participated between 1947 and 1973. A valued expert on fishing and crofting, she nevertheless took greatest pleasure in sponsoring the establishment of village halls. Her novel Lobsters on the Agenda (1952) incorporates her Highland political experiences. In 1959, because of her influence gathering matching funds from the national government, Carradale was able to construct a new harbor.
As the Cold War with the Soviet Union began, Mitchison helped organize and then was elected vice-president of the Authors' World Peace Appeal (AWPA), an organization of over 70 writers who wished to encourage international peace. Together with Doris Lessing , she visited the Soviet Union in 1952 to establish communication with Russian writers. The Labor Party disassociated itself from the AWPA in 1953, proscribing it along with 40 other organizations because of fears that they were fronts for the Communist Party. This charge infuriated Mitchison who had debated her brother J.B.S.'s Communism for two decades. Mitchison was now writing children's literature, including The Land the Ravens Found (1954), a literary effort to avoid the war she feared was brewing between the United States and the Soviet Union. She was particularly concerned about hydrogen bombs, as NATO installations were established in Scotland. In 1959, she was a main speaker at a mass nuclear disarmament rally, and in 1961 in Glasgow she helped lead a march of 10,000 opponents of the Polaris missile base planned for the Holy Loch.
Mitchison began to write science fiction in 1962, galvanized by her anxiety about human survival. Her future utopias are inhabited by women whose communicative gifts will insure peace in the sentient universe. In Memoirs of a Spacewoman, women choose to conceive children from different fathers, including some who are non-human. In Solution Three (1975), Mitchison posits a utopian state which privileges gay and lesbian sexualities.
In 1963, Mitchison, aged 65, was adopted as the tribal mother of the chief of the Bakgatla in Botswana. As she made quite clear in The Return to Fairy Hill (1966), in the Botswanan city of Mochudi, in her mind, was like the agricultural community she had imagined in her historical novels. Visiting Botswana over 18 times between 1963 and 1988, Mitchison tried to help the Bakgatla avoid what she considered the pitfalls of individualism and capitalism. She is described by Lois Picard , in The Politics of Development in Botswana (1987), as a key influence on Linchwe II, "a young and able chief convinced that a bridge could be built between socialism and traditionalism."
In her 80s and 90s, Naomi Mitchison retained her vital interest in global issues, speaking and writing against apartheid in South Africa and sponsoring FREEZE, an international organization lobbying governments to stand against nuclear war. Although she preferred not to be labeled feminist in her later years, she lent her support in 1983 to the women at Greenham Common who lived in tents protesting against the placement of yet another cruise missile on British soil. Naomi Mitchison died, at age 101, on January 11, 1999, at her home on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. In Britain and the United States, interest in the writing of Naomi Mitchison surged during the feminist movement of the later part of the 20th century. Moreover, she continues to be honored in Scotland as one of the country's major writers.
Mitchison, Naomi. All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage. London: Bodley Head, 1979.
——. Mucking Around: Five Continents over Fifty Years. London: Gollancz, 1981.
——. Naomi Mitchison's Vienna Diary. London: Victor Gollancz, 1934.
——. Return to the Fairy Hill. London: Heinemann, 1966.
——. Small Talk: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood. London: Bodley Head, 1973.
——. You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920–1940. London: Gollancz, 1979.
Benton, Jill. Naomi Mitchison: A Biography. London and San Francisco: Pandora, 1992.
Lefanu, Sarah. "Politics in Naomi Mitchison's Solution Three," in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Eds. Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
Longford, Elizabeth. The Pebbled Shore. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.
Sheridan, Dorothy, ed. Among You Taking Notes: Wartime Diary 1939–45. London: Gollancz, 1985.
Squier, Susan. "Afterword," in Solution Three. Reprint. NY: The Feminist Press, 1995.
Vickery, John. The Literary Impact of "The Golden Bough." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
"Naomi Mitchison" (60 min. film), aired on BBC, 1988.
Correspondence and manuscripts located in the Haldane Archive, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Correspondence located in the Julian Huxley papers, the Fondren Library, Rice University, Texas.
Manuscripts and correspondence located in the Mitchison Archive, the Harry Ransom Research Center, the University of Texas, Austin.
Second World War diary and essays located in the Tom Harrisson Mass Observation Archive, the University of Sussex.
Jill Benton , Professor of English and World Literature, Pitzer College, The Claremont Colleges, California