Book review / 100 years young
The Nine Lives Of Naomi Mitchison by Jenni Calder Virago pounds 20
Sunday 24 August 1997
Naomi Haldane was born in 1897 to an upper-class Scottish family of landowners, scholars, statesman and writers. Her parents lived in Oxford, where her father was a fellow of New College, but holidays were spent on the family estates in Perthshire and Lothian, in a peculiarly Scottish ambiance of romantic freedom and Presbyterian restriction, hill wandering and Sabbath ritual. Naomi and her cousins were imbued with an ideal of service to the community and responsibility to the less fortunate.
She learnt to read at the age of three, attended the Dragon School (for boys), kept mice and observed her father's laboratory experiments. She became aware that while her mother expected her to be resourceful, independent and intellectually enquiring, she was growing up into a world which cared little for such qualities in women; her brother Jack went on to Eton, to university, and the "common male destiny of achievement" while she and three other girls sat in the schoolroom sharing a governess. But she discovered adventurous literature by browsing in Blackwell's bookshop; she ran a guinea-pig stud and, in the spirit of scientific enquiry, performed post mortems and dissections. She took the stud with her to London when she worked as a VAD at St Thomas' Hospital in the war.
Her biographer is uneasy about this, suggesting that Naomi may have been "unhealthily close" to her guinea pigs. "Unhealthily close" is the sort of tedious phrase which creeps pointlessly into certain biographies; here we have also "intellectually-prestigious" (dig that crazy hyphen) and, of course, "burgeoning sexuality". How close dare one get to a guinea pig?
Within the family circle Naomi knew a degree of social freedom; the house was full of her brother's friends, among them Aldous Huxley, whom the 16-year-old Naomi tried unsuccessfully to persuade to become her lover, doubtless again in the spirit of scientific enquiry. In 1916, aged 18, she married another staunch friend, Dick Mitchison, admitting later that she would have agreed to marry anyone in uniform. Nonetheless this union proved lasting and loving, while doubly unorthodox in that it swiftly, by mutual agreement, became an open marriage and yet survived, producing seven children.
From early childhood Naomi had kept journals; now she began to write fiction, transferring issues of her own life to a classical or legendary setting. Her early books deal with women's suppression or marginalisation, and the violently contrasting world of male bonding, comradeship and glory. She was an instant literary success and went on to publish eight books in six years, despite the demands of a huge household in Hammersmith comprising children, friends, animals and a substantial domestic staff whose presence was a mild embarrassment for an employer of radical political views. Naomi had an exceptional ability to write in unfavourable surroundings - the baking rocks of Africa, a rainswept fishing boat, a crowded drawing room and, most wondrously, while pushing a pram.
She joined the Labour Party and crusaded for women's rights, birth control, freedom in marriage and a social revolution whose ideal would be comradeship, both intellectual and physical, a loving and ceremonious communality, as expressed in the early Christian ritual meal known as Agape. She campaigned for a new work structure where jobs would be fitted to women and not women to jobs. On a trip to Russia, she saw Stalin as a sort of Boy's Own hero; her impulsive enthusiasms now make for poignant reading. Of communism she writes: "through this system of belief, death and hardship lose their terrors, there is no such thing as boredom or individual fear, general love is made possible and happiness such as is very rare in other countries becomes a matter of course..."
Many of her friends echoed her views, for others she was too extreme. At this point her own comrades included E M Forster, the Huxleys, W H Auden, Krishna Menon, Indira Nehru, J D Bernal and Gerald Heard. In the states she took up the cause of Alabama share-croppers, in Vienna she championed the politically oppressed. In the late Thirties, her writing began to meet with a cooler reception and her manifesto The Moral Base of Politics was virtually ignored. Exasperated by what she saw as an apathetic or anti-feminist literary establishment, Naomi withdrew to the Mitchisons' recently acquired house in Argyll, where she still lives. There she practised enlightened socialism, working the land, stooking corn and driving tractors, and started a local branch of the Labour party, suspecting the while that people were only joining because she and Dick were the lairds in the Big House.
During and after the war she was deeply involved in local politics, both on Argyll County Council and on the Highlands & Islands Advisory Panel. She worked tirelessly for economic regeneration, re-population, transport and education in rural areas, and later for nuclear disarmament. Not all her causes prospered; an attempt to rally people into gathering sphagnum moss for bandages was notably unsuccessful, and she was often disheartened by Celtic inertia and the Highland characteristic of enthusiastically welcoming a project while inwardly determining to have nothing to do with it.
Yet perhaps at Carradale Naomi came closest to achieving her community, with family, politicians, fishermen, refugees, foresters, friends and lovers all assembling to bask in her "passionate tenderness". A splendid entry in her diary one Christmas reads: "I wonder if I am normal for my age, or over-polygamous. Difficult to get data. I don't believe in promiscuity through the year: one hasn't time and it takes the mind off the things that matter, one's job and one's duty to one's neighbours. But at the life-giving seasons?"
After the war Dick became Labour MP for Kettering and Naomi flung herself into campaigning for him with habitual energy, fervour and recklessness, tempered by a degree of irony. In the Sixties she became obsessed with Africa, especially Botswana. In tribalism she saw again a realisation of her communal ideal. For the next 30 years she visited her adopted country annually; she set up libraries and community centres, she gave talks on educational methods and birth control; she initiated dam-building. Her efforts to stir women out of submission did not catch on; she came to realise that they had their own ways of coping. As in Scotland, she came upon apathy and inconsistency. She wanted to read Shakespeare aloud to her adored chieftain while he wanted to get drunk in the liquor store. She became a proscribed immigrant in Rhodesia and South Africa, a notorious "career boat-rocker" "anti-establishment gadfly". But in Botswana she was given the status and title of Mother of the Chieftain. "I have learnt to slip into an African skin," she said. "I cling like an old lizard to the rocks of Mochudi."
And all this time she continued to write plays, stories, poems, articles and reviews: she has published more than 80 books. Her last two novels came out when she was 93. In her late eighties she went on lecture tours in the States and Canada. Life upon life indeed.
Her story is extraordinary and deserves to be celebrated, not least because beyond all her adventures and battles and achievements she has remained, as her husband said, "true and brave and infinitely kind". But this biography is sadly sparse, colourless and cautious. It is not often that one wishes a biography to be twice as long, but one does here. There is no sense of place, very little characterisation. Indeed, at times it is just plain boring, which, given the material, is outrageous. Such life as there is rushes sudden and vivid from Naomi's own words. Only in the last chapter, when Calder allows herself to speak personally, does she give any indication that she is capable of the rich, luminous treatment her subject deserves. If she won't do it, someone else must.
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