Naomi Mitchison

Naomi Mary Margaret Mitchison (1897-1999) wrote over a hundred books and more than a thousand shorter pieces. Some of her novels had fantasy elements, like The Conquered (1923), which has a character who turns out to be Odin, and she wrote some fantasy stories and novels; indeed, most of her thirty books for children were fantasies. We Have Been Warned (1935) is a near future story about an attempt to oppress the left. Her most famous science fiction novel is Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), about a woman whose job is communication with aliens, on various planets. Solution Three (1975) is about a solution to Earth’s problems, involving clones. Not by Bread Alone (1983) looks at the problems created by the world-wide distribution of free food. For much more detail see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Naomi Mitchison at Scottish Arts CouncilNaomi was born Naomi Haldane: she married Dick Mitchison, a friend of her brother Jack, in 1917. (Dick Mitchison was a Labour MP from 1945 to 1964, and then became a life peer: Lady Mitchison never liked using her title.) The Haldanes were a Scottish family: her father was a physiologist, and her brother Jack (J.B.S. Haldane), a famous scientist, whose book Daedalus: Or, Science and the Future (1925) provided science-fiction writers with numerous plot ideas. She was born in Edinburgh, but brought up in Oxford, as her father was fellow of New College. Naomi followed her brother into the Oxford Preparatory School for Boys (later called the Dragon School), where she was from 1904-1911; her mother withdrew her from there and put her in the hands of a governess immediately she reached puberty.

She was able to use the lab her father had in the house, on occasion, and got to know many scientists and other friends of her parents. Aldous Huxley was one of her great friends: when he went almost totally blind over a period of 18 months (he had a staphylococcic infection in the eye: keratitis punctata) he used to play the piano for hours in a room at the top of the house. Naomi asked him to make love to her one day, but he declined.

In 1914 she went to a May Ball in New College with her brother’s friend Dick Mitchison. In 1914 she entered the Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne’s College, University of Oxford), where she studied biology sporadically until 1918. Her war experience and her marriage were interruptions.

Naomi Mitchison began her prolific career as a writer with historical novels set in classical or pre-classical times: The Conquered (1923) and The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) were two of the most successful. The latter discussed democracy and sexuality, among other things: as Elizabeth Maslen says, “Mitchison’s great strength in historical fiction was to offer sensitive material to a wide audience under the guise of entertainment: she was already championing issues such as birth control and abortion—she was on the founding council of the North Kensington Women’s Welfare Centre in 1924—but such topics were best accepted in fiction when cloaked in history.”

Mitchison threw herself into a number of political causes during her long life. In the 1930s she was involved in the Labour Party, though her husband did not win a seat until the great Labour victory of 1945. She visited the Soviet Union in 1932 to see communism in action, and she visited Austria in 1934 to help people victimised because of their socialism.

She moved to Carradale in Kintyre in 1939 with her husband and five children (a sixth died of meningitis in 1927, and a seventh died immediately after birth, in 1940). She was very active in Scottish local politics during the 1940s and early 1950s. She travelled in India, the Middle East and Africa, and a number of her later books were inspired by these visits. Judy and Lakshmi (1959) was a children’s book she wrote in India; When We Become Men (1965) is about a South African resistance fighter.

The information above comes from Elizabeth Maslen’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and from Jenni Calder, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (London: Virago 1997).

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