Book review / The one that got away

The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison by Jenni Calder, Virago, pounds 20

What is it about Naomi Mitchison? There seems so much meat in her champagne-socialist life for a good, gutsy biography, pointing to her roots in the Fabianism and feminism of the first half of this century. But, like a female Laurens van der Post, Mitchison has attracted unquestioning awe rather than analysis. When she celebrates her 100th birthday in November, she should be thankful that for a century the critical hounds have been kept at bay.

In the first full account of her life, biographer Jill Benton confessed she was a "passionate student" of Naomi's, "bent on honouring the lives of those accomplished women writers short-changed by literary history" - on which list, of course, Mitchison was high. In Jenni Calder, the Scottish matriarch has another biographer who is also neither detective nor detractor but a devoted disciple. From the outset, Calder clearly draws the line between her subject and us ordinary mortals. "For Naomi Mitchison living has meant not existing, enduring, putting up with, compromising". For her, life has been "adventuring, protesting, galvanising others".

Naomi Mitchison's life is a testament to unbounded energy. She has written more than 80 books, as well as plays, poems, and articles. Her first novel, The Conquered, was reputedly drafted on a board resting on her son's pram as she pushed him along the Embankment. She had five surviving children by her patient husband, Dick. She collected lovers as other upper- middle-class women collect fine china. She fought for contraception, nuclear disarmament and fishermen's rights.

In her forties, she bought Carradale House on the Mull of Kintyre and became laird of a Scottish village; in her sixties, she became the "mother" of a Botswanan tribe.

This far-reaching life begs for a soupcon of analysis: a society hostess and committed socialist, both battling against and benefiting from class privilege. But any hint of such contradictions is glossed over. "Although professing a lack of interest in possessions," Calder writes, and said to share EM Forster's belief that ownership was "the wickedest thing in the universe", Naomi went to Sotheby's and Christie's to buy furniture for her new home. On this, Calder offers no comment.

But Calder's biggest blind spot is in refusing to question Mitchison's claim to be embraced by classes and cultures other than her own. At Carradale, according to Calder, the new laird immediately fell in with the local fishermen. Her evidence for this comes from Mitchison's own poetry, but was this truth masked as fiction, or simply wishful thinking?

In the early Eighties, I wrote to the laird of Carradale asking if I might visit. Like Benton and Calder, I wanted to meet a woman I admired. She invited me for the weekend, and I pitched my one-woman tent in her substantial grounds. During my stay, an expedition was organised to go salmon fishing. We were all issued with wellingtons and waterproofs and told to rendezvous at the back door. Naomi Mitchison, several members of her huge family and myself tramped down to the beach. We stood by while three local fishermen went out in their boat, trawled their net, caught a fish, and brought it back to the shore, where they bludgeoned it to death at their laird's feet. We all walked back to the Big House. Not even the tips of my wellingtons were wet. The next evening we ate the salmon at the grand table, congratulating ourselves on our fine catch. In the Eighties, people still dressed for dinner at Carradale. "Did you enjoy salmon fishing?" someone asked. No one seemed to be aware of the irony.

Such details are not dwelt upon by Calder. She outlines Mitchison's unfailingly successful attempts to be part of communities to which she is a natural outsider. This member of the distinguished Haldane family is said to have blended in beautifully with life at a village in Botswana: "She was soon one of them, a Mokgatla, and the `we' of all her writing about Botswana confidently asserts her African identity."

Buried in this hagiography, there is a tiny clue to another Naomi Mitchison, in a throwaway remark made by one of her children. She has never known her mother to go for a walk on her own. Above all, it seems, Naomi Mitchison - an irrepressible "I" - has wanted to be part of a "we".

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