Lady Naomi Mitchison, CBE, nurse, writer, freelance journalist, novelist, politician, county councillor, keen botanist, gardener, practical farmer, amateur archaeologist, and notable feminist activist, was born in Edinburgh on the 1st of November, 1897.
Naomi Mitchison, who lived to the grand old age of one hundred and one, was a prolific and popular author who wrote over ninety books in a life and career that spanned the 20th Century. She was, above all, a writer of fiction who wrote many types of novels in an extraordinarily wide range of styles and genres. Her books may not have been always fashionable, but somehow, they keep coming back for more. She wrote historical novels covering Arthurian legend, Scottish history, and social history, and variously set in Celtic, Hellenic or Byzantine times, such as ‘The Bull Calves’ in 1945. She wrote collections of fairy tales, and science fiction or fantasy novels, such as ‘Graeme and the Dragon’ in 1954. Neil Ascherton, in his Guardian obituary, called her ‘the Virginia Woolf of science fiction’, because she was able to transcend the technical stuff of the likes of Asimov and others in a hitherto male dominated genre. She wrote documentary novels set in Scotland or Africa, such as ‘Swan's Road’, also in 1954. And in addition, she wrote a whole range of plays, short stories, poetry, essays, children’s fiction, travel books, history, autobiography, several volumes of memoirs, book reviews, and articles; political and otherwise. She also wrote innumerable articles and reviews for the old ‘Time and Tide’ magazine and the ‘New Statesman’. She was also good at bullying editors or baiting them in their den, having discovered that was often the best way to get an article published.
Many of her short stories have become classics and it is generally agreed that her finest novel, and perhaps the best historical novel of the 20th Century, is ‘The Corn King and the Spring Queen’, which appeared in 1931. The immeasurably readable and moving story, with its theme of defeat, loss and terror, is based on Scythia and the kingdom of Sparta. Its message is one of warning and encouragement for all reformist movements. The Spartans failed in their attempt to introduce the ‘New Age’ and there remains the implication – or a prophecy – that time after time, others will also fail – unless they change their ways. She was a busy bee for sure and crammed a lot into her life, apart from her writing, which was always stamped by her feminist, socially relevant, and socialist perspective. There is always a social commentary in her fairytales and fantasy titles in particular, which is intended to provoke the reader. Somewhere within every title, be it a historical or science fiction tale, you can find her radical ideas. Over and above everything, the purpose of both her writing and her political activities was to try to “make the world a better place”. The theme of ‘New Times’ runs though Mitchison's books, based on some form of ‘Christian Socialism’. She was not a dogmatic socialist, but rather focused on allegory involving themes of ‘discipleship’, ‘brotherhood’ and ‘triumph through sacrifice’ by way of illustration or commentary.
True to her lifelong Fabian socialist principles, her approach was always gradual and reformist, rather than revolutionary. Mitchison was also a Scottish Nationalist and an active campaigner for feminist issues and social reform. As stated in her memoirs, her lack of knowledge about birth control led to her advocacy on the then taboo subjects of contraception and abortion. She was a pioneer of the North Kensington family planning clinic; the first such in the United Kingdom and wasn’t afraid to tackle the subjects in her writing. Her 1935 novel, ‘We Have Been Warned’, tackled abortion and birth control head on. It was censored. Interestingly, Mitchison was a Life Fellow of the ‘Eugenics Education Society’, which was founded in 1908, became the ‘[British] Eugenics Society’ in 1926 and, since 1989, has been known as the ‘Galton Institute’. Because of the connotations surrounding the association of eugenics with Nazi Germany, that mantle seems to sit a little strange on a peace loving, feminist, socialist, anti-Nazi campaigner. However, the institute’s aims appear to be laudable as it aims ‘to promote the public understanding of human heredity and to facilitate informed debate about the ethical issues raised by advances in reproductive technology’. At this point in time, at the beginning 21st Century, developments in genetic, genomic, and reproductive technologies have raised many new questions and concerns about the meaning of eugenics – genetic engineering by any other name – and its ethical and moral status.
Naomi Margaret Haldane was born in Edinburgh on the 1st of November, 1897. Much of her young life was spent at Oxford, where she taught herself Latin and Greek, and went to Dragon School. She studied science at St Anne's College at Oxford University where later, she became an Honorary Fellow. However, in 1915, she left to become a Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) nurse during the First World War. Later, Mitchison stood as a Labour candidate for the Scottish Universities in 1935 and sat on the Argyll County Council as a Labour representative from 1945 to 1966. And for ten years, from 1966-76, she was a member of the Highlands and Islands Development Council. Mitchison was also a peace campaigner who was totally opposed to nuclear weaponry and feared that science would destroy, rather than enrich, mankind. In the 1930s, she campaigned in the United States, because she was worried about sharecroppers. She went to Vienna in 1934, when the Nazis reared their ugly heads and she smuggled letters to Switzerland in her knickers. She was a fervent supporter of the Spanish Popular Front during the Civil War and wrote passionately in 1937, “There is no question for any decent, kindly man or women, …We have to be against Franco and Fascism and for the people of Spain, and the future of gentleness and brotherhood, which ordinary men and women want.” And in 1952, she went to Moscow as a member of the ‘Authors' World Peace Appeal’. Her frank memoirs and her ’39-’45 wartime diary are actually important historical and social documents.
Her life was full of surprises. She once starred in a movie called ‘The Road to Hell’, playing a desperate housewife in a production of the short lived ‘Socialist Film Council’. And extraordinarily in 1963, because she was stranded while travelling – and due to her keen interest in African affairs – she was made ‘Tribal Adviser’ and ‘Mmarona’ (‘Mother’) to the Bakgatla of Botswana. Lady Naomi Mitchison died at her home at Carradale in Kintyre on the 11th of January, 1999.