Naomi Mitchison ~ Poet and Writer

Naomi Margaret Haldane Mitchison a highly talented and creative writer of poetry and prose was born in Edinburgh in 1897. Her family had owned land near Gleneagles since the 13th century and Naomi was brought up only a few miles from Auchterarder. Her mother Louisa Kathleen Trotter was a suffragist and her father John Scott Haldane a physiologist. Naomi’s brother Jack became a well-known biologist and her uncle Richard Burdon Haldane was twice Lord Chancellor – the second time in Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Government of 1924. Her Aunt Bay became Scotland’s first woman Justice of the Peace.

The Haldane’s owned Cloan country house by Auchterarder, Foswell and estates around Gleneagles. Naomi grew up mainly at Cloan:

“The journey from Oxford to Perthshire was by train, arriving at Auchterarder in the cold early morning after traveling overnight. There was always a sense of anticipation. a carriage and horses took them out of the little town, which had once sustained dozens of hand-loom weavers, and south the couple of miles to Cloan.”

Early life in Perthshire is reflected in Naomi’s poetry; The Glen Path details walks taken around Cloan sitting on he father’s shoulders. The one below is a reminiscence:

Next Stop Perth

That was my place that I am far from.

Those were my hills I climbed all over.

Through the tunnel I went under

My now over-passing railway line.

That was my love I burned for the touch of.

That was my faith I worked and lived for.

In those dreams was painted foreknowledge

Of the chilling age-years that now are mine.

Those were my ghosts that I gave way to.

Now from within the shape of terror

I see my young and in frozen fear of

My fetch that is giving the counter-sign.

Mitchison, like her brother, was a committed Socialist in the 1930s. She visited the Soviet Union in 1932, and wrote We Have Been Warned about her experiences during that trip. The book was not successful, nor was her fictionalizing of stories about Jews living under the Nazi regime in Germany and Austria. She stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for the Scottish universities in 1935, at a time when universities were allowed to elect MPs. Eventually, as her political candidacy and her pro-Left writings both failed, she gradually became disenchanted with the Left. In 1939, when World War II broke out, Dick and Naomi Mitchison moved to Carradale (Kintyre) in Scotland where they spent the rest of their lives.

“When Lady Naomi Mitchison died at the age of 101 she was mourned as the doyenne – the “grand old lady” – of Scottish literature. In a life that spanned the 20th century she wrote more than 80 (actually nearer 90) novels – from historical to science fiction to children’s books – and she was remembered as a woman who championed the causes of the people of the west coast of Scotland.

Those who knew her – and there were many hundreds from every corner of the world – remember a woman of supreme intellect, a radical and free thinker, a gracious hostess, someone who possessed knowledge and mischief in equal measure. She was all these things and a lot more. But to regard Naomi Mitchison as simply another author is to miss out on a fascinating life story, one that is crying out for a Hollywood scriptwriter.

In her book of memoirs entitled Among You Taking Notes, she wrote: “It is always a bore being ahead of one’s time”. She was most certainly a woman ahead of her time – but never boring. How many other 20th-century Scots have been adopted as adviser and tribal mother to an African people?

She was born into a dynasty – the Haldane family – in 1897. Her father was the noted physiologist John Scott Haldane, and her uncle Richard Burdon Haldane was Lord Chancellor in the first Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. (He was later created Viscount Haldane of Cloan.) Although born in Edinburgh, she spent most of her school years in Oxford. It was a life of extreme privilege; there were servants to look after her and as a young teenager she was presented at court. In 1916 she married Gilbert “Dick” Mitchison, a member of an equally well-to-do family who was on leave from the wartime battlefields of northern Europe.

The marriage was not quite “arranged” but it suited both families very well. Dick Mitchison was removed from active service during the First World War, turned to politics and became a Labour MP. Naomi passionately shared his desire to make the world a better place in the wake of the war and both were members of the left-wing Fabian Society.

The Mitchison’s marriage followed a philosophy of open sexual freedom within a committed marriage. The family home in the Hammersmith section of London was the venue for large parties which, during the 1920s and 30s, were considered outrageous. The regular guests included authors Aldous Huxley and EM Forster.

“She was Bohemian, a child of the 20s, she had an open marriage and sexual freedom, taking off corsets, not wearing brassieres long before the 1960s,” notes Mitchison biographer Jill Benton, a professor at Pitzer College in California. “She believed herself to be part of an intellectual elite and felt empowered to do and be any way she felt.”

The disapproval of London society persuaded Naomi to move to the small Argyll village of Carradale, on the Kintyre peninsula, where she bought the local mansion, Carradale House. Typically she threw herself into local community life and served as a member of the former Argyll County Council from 1947 to 1964. She became a self-appointed spokeswoman for the people of the western isles who she believed were often unfairly treated.

By this time she was an established author in a variety of genres. She wrote political and historical novels, books about her beloved Scotland and science fiction. Her books that touched on racism in South Africa were banned in that country during the apartheid regime, as was she. Mitchison also wrote children’s literature, largely because she felt there was a need to educate young minds about the dangers of nuclear power.

Her most controversial effort was her 1935 book We Have Been Wanted, which explored sexual behaviour, including rape and abortion. The work was rejected by several publishers.

In the early 1960s one of the young students that Mitchison had let out her attic bedroom to was a young African man, destined to become Lynchwe ll, Chief of the Bakgatla Tribe, whose people lived in Botswana and South Africa. When – in 1966 – Botswana emerged as an independent republic out of what was formerly the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, Lynchwe had succeeded to the title and turned for advice to the woman who had made such an impact on him as a student.

The young chief, whose Western education helped him into a position as a diplomat to Washington, rewarded Mitchison by giving her the title of Mmarona – honorary grandmother of the tribe.

Naomi Mitchison – who was known as Nou to her friends – was still campaigning and marching against nuclear establishments well into her 80s and 90s. Benton, the biographer, got to know her at that time, saying:

“She was an amazing person, even at that age she traveled with just a knapsack and a pair of sandals.”

The above is reproduced from the Scotsman. Other Information on Naomi Mitchison:

  1. Her first novel, The Conquered, was published in 1923 and was based on her wartime experiences.
  2. In addition to her writings, Lady Mitchison was also a vocal women’s rights campaigner, actively lobbying for birth control.
  3. Born in Edinburgh in 1897, she began a science degree at Oxford University, but gave up her studies to become a nurse. She married Dick Mitchison in 1916. He later became a member of Parliament for the Labour Party, and was eventually made into a life peer.
  4. Lady Mitchison was also made a life peer in 1964 for her literary contributions. She never used the title.
  5. She was survived by five children. Her husband died in 1970.
  6. She was a friend of Tolkien and proof-read Lord of the Rings.
  7. She acted as a spokeswoman for the island communities of Scotland as well as being an advocate for indigenous people in Botswana.

See also:

  1. Naomi Mitchison: The Feminist Art of Making Things Difficult by Susan M. Squier, afterword in Solution Three 1995
  2. Naomi Mitchison: A Biography by Jill Benton (London: Pandora, 1990)

Literary Work of Naomi Mitchison:

Saunes Bairos: A Study in Recurrence (1913)

The Conquered (1923)

When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories (1924)

Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925)

The Laburnum Branch: Poems (1926)

Anna Comena (1928)

Black Sparta: Greek Stories (1928)

Nix-Nought-Nothing: Four Plays for Children (1928)

Barbarian Stories (1929)

Cardiff A. D. 1935 (1929)

The Hostages, and Other Stories for Boys and Girls (1930)

Comments on Birth Control, Criterion Miscellany No. 12 (1930)

Boys and Girls and Gods (1931)

Kate Crackernuts: A Fairy Play for Children (1931)

The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931)

The Price of Freedom (1931)

The Powers of Light (1932)

An Outline for Boys and Girls and their Parents (1932)

The Delicate Fire: Short Stories and Poems (1933)

Archaeology and the Intellectual Worker in Twelve Studies in Soviet Russia (1933)

Anger Against Books in Contemporary Essays (1933)

Naomi Mitchison’s Vienna Diary (1934)

The Home and a Changing Civilisation (1934)

We Have Been Warned (1935)

Beyond This Limit (1935)

The Fourth Pig (1936)

And End and a Beginning (1937)

Socrates (1937)

The Moral Basis of Politics (1938)

The Alban Goes Out: 1939 (1939)

The Blood of the Martyrs (1939)

The Kingdom of Heaven (1939)

Historical Plays for Schools (1939)

Re-Educating Scotland (1941)

Nix-Nought-Nothing and Elfin Hill: Two Plays for Children (1944)

The Bull Calves (1947)

Men and Herring: A Documentary (1949)

The Big House (1950)

Spindrift (1951)

Lobsters on the Agenda (1952)

Travel Light (1952)

Graeme and the Dragon (1954)

The Swan’s Road (1954)

Highlands and Islands (1954)

To the Chapel Perilous (1955)

Little Boxes (1956)

Behold Your King (1957)

Five Men and a Swan (1957)

The Far Harbour (1957)

Other People’s Worlds (1958)

Judy and Lakshmi (1959)

A Fishing Village on the Clyde (1960)

The Rib of the Green Umbrella (1960)

The Young Alexander the Great (1960)

Karensgaard: The Story of a Danish Farm (1961)

Presenting Other People’s Children (1961)

Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962)

The Young Alfred the Great (1962)

What the Human Race is Up To (1962)

The Fairy Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie (1963)

Alexander the Great (1964)

A Mochudi Family (1965)

Ketse and the Chief (1965)

When We Become Men (1965)

Return to Fairy Hill (1966)

The Big Surprise (1967)

African Heroes (1968)

Don’t Look Back (1969)

The Family at Ditlabeng (1969)

The Africans (1970)

Solution Three (1970)

Mithras My Saviour in Penguin Book of Short Stories (1970)

Mary and Joe in Nova One (1970)

Miss Omega Raven in Nova Two (1971)

Cleopatra’s People (1972)

The Factory in Nova Three (1972)

The Danish Teapot (1973)

A Life for Africa (1973)

My Brother Jack in J.B.S. Haldane Reader of Popular Scientific Essays (1973)

Small Talk: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood (1973)

Sunrise Tomorrow: A Story of Botswana (1973)

What do You Think Yourself in Scottish Short Stories (1973)

Oil for the Highlands? (1974)

All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (1975)

The Hill Modpipe in Scottish Short Stories (1975)

Out of the Waters in Nova Four (1976)

The Red Followers in Scottish Short Stories (1975)

As It Was: An Autobiography 1897-1918 (1975)

Call Me in Scottish Short Stories (1976)

The Little Sister in Pulenyani’s Secret (1976)

Sittlichkeit (1977)

Snake (1978)

The Cleansing of the Knife and Other Poems (1978)

The Sea Horse in Modern Scottish Short Stories (1978)

The Two Magicians (1978)

You May Well Ask: A Memoir, 1920-1940 (1979)

The Vegetable War (1980)

Images of Africa (1980)

Mucking Around: Five Continents Over Fifty Years (1981)

Margaret Cole 1883-1980 (1982)

What Do You Think Yourself (1982)

Not by Bread Alone (1983)

Words in Jen Green‘s and Sarah Lefanu’s Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind (1985)

Among You Taking Notes:The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison 1930-1945(1985)

Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction (1986)

Saltire Self-Portraits 2 (1986)

Early in Orcadia (1987)

A Girl Must Live: Stories and Poems (1990)

The Oath-Takers (1991)

Sea-Green Ribbons (1991)

Why Do We Write? in Haldane papers, The National Library of Scotland, Acc. 7219.

Apart from the body of work listed above, Naomi Mitchison also wrote for many journals and newspapers: Manchester Guardian, The Observer, Glasgow Herald, The Scotsman, Time and Tide, the Nation and The New Statesman as well as many overseas’ publications.