Obituary: Naomi Mitchison

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF THE word had not acquired such disagreeable connotations of bossiness, I would sum up the author Naomi Mitchison as the Platonic idea of the matriarch. Everyone who knew her wanted in some sense to belong to her clan.

She came of a distinguished Scottish family, the Haldanes, which made her conscious of the meaning of family all her life. That meaning changed for her with the development of her own ideas. She became the matriarch of a splendid tribe of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lived to be over 100 and her light brown hair had become pure white, but her blue-grey eyes were penetrating as ever and her charming pink complexion was scribbled over by the interesting lines of old age.

In youth she was remarkable for her short resilient figure, which she never bothered to compress into stays though, as she narrated in her memoirs, Richard Crossman's wife Zita did eventually persuade her that a bra was not to be despised. She loved wearing loose hair and loose robes like a woman of ancient Greece, with a fillet and chunks of raw amber to hold them together. Her sandals could be regarded equally as emblems of classical Greece or between-the-wars socialism.

Finally, her special views of the family as an outgoing rather than a nuclear unit led her to an extraordinary relationship with an African tribe. She was invited to become the Mmarona (mother) of the Bakgatla of Botswana. The adventure had begun accidentally when she was stranded while travelling. A chief offered her hospitality; in time a filial relationship toward her grew up. Even in her nineties she travelled out to visit and advise her African "children" and shared a bedroom with the chief's daughter, where they talked and laughed together far into the night.

Naomi's sense of humour - wry, ironic, witty - was one of her most endearing characteristics. In later years she wrote of authorship and publishing with typical amusement: "Today, if one wants to write about something special [she always did!], one has to persuade a publisher that this was something he had already thought of." Another delightful trait was her voice: slow and emphatic with a lilt that was definitely not a drawl; more like what I imagine to have been the kind of voice possessed by a Celtic prophetess reading the runes. Yet at the same time she was amazingly light in the hand. Her 1952 novel Travel Light was an imaginative metaphor for her own life style.

Married to a wealthy and successful barrister, G .R. (Dick) Mitchison MP (later Lord Mitchison), she never allowed herself to be weighed down by possessions. A superbly generous and entertaining host to her friends who visited her at Carradale House in Argyllshire, she was always deeply interested in establishing family-type relationships with the Scottish workers, her neighbours, the lord-of-the-manor or lady-bountiful concepts being utterly repugnant to her.

Despite a trace in her of romanticism (she liked jumping over bonfires at midnight and sallying forth with a gun to shoot a sheep for dinner), her attitude to the local farm workers and fishermen was not in the least sentimental. She showed her practical spirit by standing as Labour candidate for the Scottish universities in 1935 and by sitting on the Argyll County Council as a Labour representative, from 1945 to 1966. She was a member of the Highlands and Islands Development Council, 1966-76.

Meanwhile she had worked devotedly for her socialist husband in his constituencies, first King's Norton, Birmingham, and then Kettering, Northamptonshire, where she was admired by the comrades for the brilliance of her intellect and the sincerity of her character. At the same time she was writing the provocative novels of her middle years, one of which, We Have Been Warned (1935) was said by some of Dick's Conservative opponents to have made their task easier rather than harder, on the principle of "Oh that mine enemy would write a book!"

She was a prolific writer of poetry, plays, short stories, stories for children, historical and contemporary, as well as novels despite or because of her busy life, and she always said she felt specially creative when pregnant. She had six children, four boys and two girls, the eldest son dying in childhood of meningitis in the days before antibiotics, a sorrow she never forgot. The close mystical link between political rebirth and physical birth is made clear at the end of We Have Been Warned: the heroine Dione says these words - "and it was as though a steel spring had suddenly loosened and vibrated inside her. The baby was coming alive and moving in her for the first time."

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 (1931). The exciting and moving story is based on her knowledge of ancient Greece, Egypt and the lands around the Black Sea. Living with her family in Oxford, she had set herself to learn Latin and Greek as a girl, later attending St Anne's College of which she was to become an honorary fellow. The book obviously had the Labour Party in mind, containing as it did a message of both warning and encouragement for all reformist movements. The Spartans failed in their attempt to introduce the "New Times". The implication was that the British would fail too, unless . . .

The aim of her writings and her politics was to make the world a happier place. A short story dedicated to the socialist economist G.D.H. Cole in The Fourth Pig (1936) is very relevant. We are left with the image of a sandcastle destroyed by the tide. "Yet this was of no consequence to me, for tomorrow I should build another and better castle which would in its turn come to destruction and a levelling out of walls below the salt quick water." The Blood of the Martyrs (1939) is set in Nero's Rome, and the unwritten end of the quotation is meant to haunt us: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" - the Church being one particular form of goodness that is ready to oppose evil.

The quest for New Times runs through all Naomi Mitchison's books and some kind of Christian Socialism often seems to be the solution; the Christianity, however, usually appears as half-heard echoes from the New Testament story of discipleship, brotherhood and triumph through sacrifice. Her style is nearer to William Morris than Karl Marx. The advance toward New Times is never dogmatic or dictated; always a slow uneven progress through the thoughts of many epochs, many individuals. "With time and questioning rights become wrongs and wrongs right."

Her imaginative writing, particularly for children, sometimes carried her into realms of sheer magic or science fiction. The Big House (1950) and Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) remind us, if only indirectly, that her father, J.S. Haldane, and her brother J.B.S. Haldane were both outstanding scientists, and there are professors of science among her gifted children.

The mixture of scientific with sociological and even magical invention in her case was a potent one. In the early days of her marriage her friends were mainly academics as well as London writers, artists, doctors and psychiatrists, including several of the Bloomsburys. The Mitchisons' family home was Rivercourt in Chiswick, from which they annually invited their friends to watch the Boat Race.

After Dick Mitchison's death (he had become a respected Labour minister and peer, though I never knew Naomi to call herself Lady Mitchison), she continued her writing, diversifying into documentaries and more than one volume of her own memoirs. Honours came her way from four Scottish universities, two Oxford colleges and the French Academy.

Having been brought up by an intensely Conservative mother, it had seemed at first that Naomi was destined for a conventional upper-class life. However, there was soon a chink of light. In the next street to the Haldanes' spacious house and garden in Oxford was the famous Dragon School, a prep school to which select girls were admitted. In her first volume of memoirs, Small Talk (1973), she remembered inspiring tea parties given by the headmaster "Skipper" Lynam: "Presumably the real thing he did was to treat us as equals, something we didn't get at home." Naomi's literary talents first appeared along with buttered toast, anchovy paste and fudge.

A lifetime later, in her 90th year, she was giving a memorable television interview, when at moments she would suddenly shut her eyes and screw up her face (a gesture familiar to her friends) as if in an agonised effort to conjure up and drag out her memories of the past. Next moment she would be all smiles.

Naomi Margaret Haldane, writer: born Edinburgh 1 November 1897; CBE 1985; married 1916 Dick Mitchison (created 1964 Baron Mitchison, died 1970; three sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Carradale, Argyll 11 January 1999.