Size / / /
Naomi Mitchison profile cover

I like to present my characters—whether they are in the past or in the future—with interesting moral choices, and it seems to me that science-fiction writers are, or should be, the prophets and moralists of today. I am fairly well up on the biological sciences, but I am deeply uninterested in gadgets. A writer's job is to write about people with sympathy and insight. [1]

"Perhaps she did not die," said Halla, "perhaps her nurse turned into a bear and carried her away into the forest. Perhaps she was brought up by bears and dragons. Perhaps it was better for her in the end than being a king's child."

"That was never the story," said Modolf.

"Forget the story," said Halla. (Travel Light, pp. 129-30)

There are so many points of fascination in the long life of Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999) that one could probably write any number of biographical volumes concentrating on different aspects of her experiences without much danger of overlap. She was a socialist activist and birth control campaigner, and also a county councillor and politician's (later peer's) wife. She was a well-brought-up young Edwardian lady and scion of the famous Haldane family, who became an advocate and practitioner of polyamory. In her twenties she was a naïve young Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, caring for injured soldiers during the Great War; in her sixties she was the adoptive mother and advisor to a tribal leader in what would soon become Botswana. There is all this and still Mitchison the writer has not been reached; and even this subject might be (and frequently has been) subdivided into the writer of historical fiction, the writer of contemporary fiction, the writer of genre fiction or poetry or biography or political theory, the Scottish Renaissance writer or the voice of interwar women. Above all, as Lesley A. Hall puts it in Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work, her slim, excellent literary biography for Aqueduct Press'sConversation Pieces series, Mitchison lived "an experimental life, trying out new ways of living and being that were only just becoming available to women" (Hall, p. 7). We might take this further, and suggest that Mitchison—in her reformist activism, in her political writings, in her time in Africa, and in her fiction—was interested more broadly in potential new and better ways of living for society at large. It is this thread that I shall follow through both Hall's biography and through a consideration of three of Mitchison's works: the fairy tale Travel Light (1952), Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), and Not By Bread Alone (1983).

Hall opens her biography with a useful introduction contextualising Mitchison for the contemporary reader and briefly discussing the publication fate of her work—woefully poor, although the past decade has seen some welcome reprints—and the critical responses to it. On the latter point Hall confirms the contention of Dan Hartland, in a review of Travel Light on this site, that Mitchison's work has suffered comparative critical neglect, arguing that this has much to do with the bewildering range of forms and genres that Mitchison produced. Scholarly attention has been very rare, and very atomised. As Hall notes, and indeed is somewhat guilty of herself, there has been a tendency to view Mitchison through one lens at a time. Recent enthusiasm for reassessing women's roles in and responses to WWII has placed Mitchison's early (historical fiction) work in the spotlight; elsewhere she has been lauded as a significant Scottish writer and, of course, as an important creator—if not as prominent as some—of feminist visions of the future in her science fiction. Hall devotes about thirty pages each to overviews of Mitchison's life and of her writing, followed by three category-specific analyses—historical fiction (the longest section, and the genre in which Mitchison both started and finished her writing career), fantasy, and science fiction—in which synthesising discussions of themes and style are anchored in discussions of particular books, some extensive, some shorter. Hall has chosen, fittingly given her own expertise and the remit of the Conversation Pieces series, to focus on Mitchison's experiences as a woman, and particularly as a woman writer, of affluent background and social-reformist conviction in the first half of the last century—her education, her social ideals, her complex sexual mores, her political activities, her campaigning for birth control—and how all these currents run through much of her fiction. What is repeatedly emphasised, however, is the diversity and multiplicity of her imaginings of women and of other ordinarily marginalised voices.

Stories from the Sidelines: Travel Light

Travel Light cover

Unconventional outlooks are the dominant note in the charming, subversive picaresque fantasy Travel Light. Its protagonist, Halla, is a king's daughter who gets cast out by her wicked stepmother. Luckily, Halla's nurse Matulli is "from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time" (TL, p. 1), so she turns into a bear and takes Halla away to raise with her ursine brood. When hibernation time rolls around, however, human Halla presents a problem, "running around like a crazy butterfly" (p. 3) with no intention of sleeping. As luck, again, would have it, a passing dragon named Uggi offers to adopt Halla. He brings her up, explaining the way of the dragons, something which Mitchison has plenty of deadpan fun with: lots of collecting treasure, eating people's sheep and cows (when "over-production was threatened," they "disposed of the surplus"), and of course helpless maidens ("for everyone's good [...] It was said that the princesses enjoyed the experience. Certainly the dragons did" (TL, p. 10)). But as she gets older Halla's time among the dragons, too, draws to a close, because she is not dragonish enough:

"It is time, my child, that I told you something. Have you noticed, when you look at yourself in the shining mirror, that you are not like me or indeed any of the dragons?"

"Not very like," said Halla. [...] "Perhaps I shall be more like you when I am older. I think I can feel my wings growing." (TL, pp. 13-4)

When Uggi is killed by a "brutal gang of plunderers"—adventurers and king's chosen men, who consider their leader a "hero and dragonslayer" (TL, p. 31)—seeking his treasure, Halla moves on again. This time she enters the human—and, soon, the recognisably historical—world as she joins a group of villagers travelling to Constantinople, and becomes involved in their quest for justice for the misdeeds of a rapacious local governor. After further adventures, the story ends, splendidly, with her joining the Valkyries.

Mitchison begins the book with the authority-eschewing phrase "It is said," and her style throughout is that of fireside fairy tale, chatty and universalising ("Now, when anyone changes into a bear, it is bearish they become" (TL, p. 2)) and rhythmically suited to reading aloud; when Matulli leaves the king's hall with Halla, she travels "through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods" (TL, p. 1). But it is also a very sardonic voice. Mitchison delights in poking fun at fairy-tale conventions, particularly those that would idealise Halla as a fairy-tale girl and push her into a predetermined shape, like the "various unicorns which would keep following Halla about and soppily laying their heads down in her lap whenever she sat down, and eyeing her with their great golden eyes. As their heads were very heavy, this was a nuisance, especially when two of them did it together" (TL, p. 18).

Furthermore, Halla has an entirely justified suspicion of typical fairy-tale "heroes," partly as a result of her dragon upbringing (in which heroes are a tedious obstacle to princess-eating) and partly as a result of Uggi's murder, when she herself is dragged away as a warprize, and only saved from the "hero" by the intervention of another dragon. Thereafter, "hero" is always used in a derogatory sense, as a shorthand for (physically violent) masculine power—something that threatens even those it purports to rescue, if it is not obeyed. This power is inescapably dominant, however, as Halla realises late on, watching a (presumably Viking?) raider drag a girl away by her hair, and then get killed: a Valkyrie comes to take him away, "so she knew he must have been a hero" (TL, pp. 120-1). Here, as in the story of the villagers' journey to Constantinople to bring a complaint against the governor—by far their social and political superior—Mitchison subverts the conventional narrative, giving voice to the marginalized, the people whose names and concerns have traditionally gone unrecorded in historical accounts. Her lead character, "for whom all tongues were one" (TL, p. 52), does the same thing. Halla's ability to understand the speech of all animals and humans lets us see the less glorious side of things, through a heroine who will not settle for a single, narrow identity, whose thoughts "are a bear's thoughts" (TL, p. 114) and who would rather ride dragons than unicorns.

The novel's title holds its thematic and formal key: that it is about travels of many different types: Halla's transition from foundling child to self-reliant adulthood, via the many varying visions of possible selfhood she encounters, and absorbs into herself; her physical travels, from forest and mountain to cave to river to city; the world's transformation, as Halla travels, from a fairy-tale kingdom, with wicked stepmothers and shapeshifting bears and talking dragons, to a late antique metropolis, with slavery and Christianity and corrupt court officials. All this is reflected in the fact that Halla is named and renamed throughout the novel, for each of the different states she moves through and the things she represents: Bearsbairn, Heroesbane, Dragonweeper, Godsgift, and (finally, appropriately) Pathfinder.

The shift in the world around Halla is not just one of landscape, but of time and collective imagination. There is a strong suggestion that the legendary elements of the world are in decline, being pushed back, like the men gaining the courage (or greed) to take on dragons, or the basilisk that tells Halla "that its old stamping-grounds were full of men and women who had no respect for basilisks. Even when they migrated into the Egyptian deserts, they had found hermits who exorcised them, most uncomfortably, and made their eyes useless for days" (TL, p. 116). Yet a number of these journeys are incomplete, or not quite so clear-cut in the first place; Halla retains, and draws strength from, her bear and dragon selves, and her final choice of career is far from mundane. Even at the end dragons are not wholly gone, at least from the imagination ("Not here. I expect you'd find plenty in China. Or Arabia. Only not just round the corner, the way there were once" (TL, p. 133)). Travelling lightly, in the context of the narrative, means not being weighed down or held back by burdens and clutter; perhaps it also means never investing any journey with too much of the weight of finality: many possibilities can co-exist.

Early Life and Social Activism

The biographical section of Lesley Hall's study is lively, and probably the part of most interest to anyone who has not read any of Mitchison's books. Hall makes economical, insightful use of the details of Mitchison's life to evoke her social milieux: affluent Edwardian Oxford, interwar left-wing and feminist activism in the UK and Europe, post-war Labour government, and the experimental farming community for wartime refugees in Carradale, Kintyre. The strictures of female adolesence in the Edwardian period, and the mixed messages of her comparatively progressive (agnostic, scientifically-inclined) parents are especially striking here. Naomi's mother Louisa was a feminist who nevertheless disapproved of suffragette militancy as "unladylike," and in the end extreme protectiveness, and a preference for Naomi to grow as a lady, won out: unlike her brothers, and despite Louisa's avowed desire for her daughter to study medicine, Naomi was taken out of school and consigned to a (reputedly inadequate) governess as soon as she entered puberty. She did eventually begin to study at Oxford University, as a home student and largely on her own initiative, but WWI put paid to her formal education. By the end of 1918 she was married—to a soldier friend of her brother's—and a mother. Shortly afterwards she was even allowed to move out of the parental home for the first time in her life, to be with her husband.

The early years of the Mitchison marriage were an emotional disaster, but coincided with the first flowering of Mitchison's social activism. Hall shows how, for example, Mitchison's campaigns for better birth control and more sensible social attitudes to sex were intertwined with her own experiences. With hindsight, Mitchison considered the problems to have stemmed in large part from both parties' complete ignorance of sex, things having improved dramatically with the young couple's discovery of Marie Stopes's advisory book, Married Love, which—in her chapbook-length essay Comments on Birth Control (1930)—she called "a light in great darkness to many of us" (Comments, p. 31). (Presumably, although it is never stated directly, Naomi's suffocating parents and the enforced separation of wartime did not help matters). Mitchison thus became a firm believer in both the value of education as an improver, and more particularly in the harmful impact of many social constructions surrounding sexuality. A little later, she and her husband also embarked upon an open marriage, in which each of them were able to pursue other, serious relationships (or get "entangled," as Mitchison rather ruefully put it (Hall, p. 30)) while remaining committed to the central partnership of their marriage. Her output on the subject of birth control included the fictional and controversial We Have Been Warned (1935)—which featured a description of an abortion, inspired by one witnessed during a trip to Russia, but was rejected by numerous publishers, and was heavily censored when it did appear [2].

Mitchison also lectured, although her experiences make it little wonder that she increasingly turned to fiction to explore her ideas. One conference that she attended, that of the World League for Sexual Reform in 1929, covered a range of related topics, including sex education, unmarried motherhood, prostitution, venereal disease, and eugenics. Mitchison and other birth control advocates focused on social attitudes to contraception and its advantages for women, and the beneficial effects of sex when conception was out of the equation. But although the speakers comprised a mixture of professional physicians and social reformists, the former sought to marginalise the latter (one of the organisers, Haire, emphasised his scientific message over "impassioned" feminist politics), and contemporary reports suggest that this was successful. The Lancet, for example, noted that "a number of distinguished literary men" had been involved in the discussions, but mentioned none of the reformist women, and in general the efforts to consider sexuality in its social framework, rather than the purely medical issue of sex and reproduction, were largely ignored [3].

Having Both Worlds: Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Memoirs of a Spacewoman cover

Intelligent and truly feminist women want two things: they want to live as women, to have masses of children by the men they love and leisure to be tender and aware of both lovers and children: and they want to do their own work, whatever it may be. [...] [T]hey insist—as I think they should—on having both worlds, not specializing like bees or machines; but they must give up something of both. [...] Adequate contraceptive methods are an essential part of this compromise. (Comments, p. 25)

The most searching exploration of these themes comes in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, a deeply humanist imagining of what a life lived largely in space might be like, both practically and emotionally: in essence, what the possibilities and the compromises might be. Fitting the title, the form of the novel is discursive, structured around the reflections of our first-person narrator, Mary, on her life (so far) as a "space explorer" (MoS, p. 16), travelling to distant planets with the aid of time dilation and making contact with other lifeforms. Rather than follow a strictly linear or unified narrative, Memoirs homes in on certain incidents—missions gone wrong or right, episodes in Mary's personal relationships—with an implicit rather than explicit sense of progression, all the while exploring the obstacles to communication across cultural divides, different permutations of social networks and personal interaction, collective parenthood, and the complex joys and pains of a life lived in continual fast-forward relative to the rest of human society. Its tone is conversational, often irreverent ("Their atmosphere produced some very peculiar complexes, which left our dull old carbons in the stone age. I can't find this very enjoyable myself, but to some people it's jam" (MoS, p. 35)), and intimately reflective. Above all, there is an appealing lack of pomposity. Mary talks at length about her loved ones—the book opens with, "I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children" (MoS, p. 15), sounding a different note from the average male-authored SF of the day—and is matter-of-fact about both her sexual relationships and the less edifying experiences of her job. These include what happens when, as she must, she opens herself to even the most intrusive and difficult of communications:

And then another chrysalis began to split and more communication of pain and distress and need for assistance came throbbing out, affecting me with a fresh attack of vomiting, due to my feeling of uselessness and consequent contempt of myself. (MoS, p. 98)

Mary's role is to immerse herself in alien cultures ("there must be no barriers between oneself and other entities. Disbelief must always be suspended. Humiliation" (MoS, pp. 45-6)), without judgement, for the sake of better communication:

I went on to explain how the uncovered and mobile sexual organs, which Olga had barely brought herself to look at, were not unnaturally particularly sensitive, and could communicate fine shades of meaning. I myself communicated through these organs for the finer shades; no, I had no sense of revulsion; that would be most unethical. (MoS, p. 60)

Of course, there is a constant tension between empathy and objectivity, both for her and for the explorer crews more generally, and the brilliant central crisis of the novel is built around the twin mistakes of our explorers' over-identification with an alien species and their complete misreading of the cultural backdrop, leading one character to interfere, in an attempt to prevent what she believes is a great injustice, with terrible consequences.

Mary emerges as a little weary ("I wonder sometimes how old I would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration" (MoS, p. 15)), but also radiantly contented with the full and active life she is living. She does not regret that her choices mean leaving her children behind to grow up without her, because that is what she remembers from her own youth: "For me and my friends," she says, "parents and grandparents came and went" (MoS, p. 17). This is the unpossessive way of familial relationships in her future society; among the explorers, the more significant connections, both sexual and non, are between peers:

It is odd, nowadays, for a parent to have so much responsibility towards a child. If anything, it is likely to be the other way. One does not yearn tenderly, owningly, over one's children, not at least after the first few months. One treats them as human beings, individuals, with the inalienable right not be owned, to have their own space and their own time. (p. 140)

When a member of her crew is punished for interference in a culture they are studying, by being "bound to time," the idea that the woman will live at the same speed as her children is a horrible one: "By the time her children are adolescents, she will be old. They will feel she is far off, in some impossibly distant group. She will have nothing to help them with." This is not to say that this social arrangement is presented as wholly perfect; there is a note of doubt, of the necessary compromise, as there is when Mary recalls her mother only as an "ageless, beautiful person—but was she really beautiful or is it just my memory?" (MoS, p. 126). Nor does it preclude Mary's deep attachment to her daughter, Viola ("not only a lovely, delicate and many-coloured flower, and a musical instrument, but also as near a two-sexed person as we get on earth" (MoS, p. 66)), the result of an accidental pregnancy triggered by a Martian. Viola is an embodiment of the novel's thematic concern with communication, cultural divides, and learning through embracing the Other. So, too, is Mary's (ultimately unsuccessful) participation in an experiment wherein she "incubates" an alien graft, and finds her mind taken over by the object of the "pregnancy" to a degree that shakes her.

Memoirs has been charged with biological determinism and (by Sarah LeFanu) "normative and fairly unthinking heterosexuality" [4]. Hall disputes this, citing the attitudes of the day, which mitigated against including homosexuality in stories about the present or future in anything other than a negative way, and noting that Mitchison did feature unproblematic gay relationships in her historical fiction and, in the 1970s and 1980s, in her other SF. However, another equally plausible explanation for this is surely that Mitchison's own outlook changed later in her life. In Comments on Birth Control, some thirty years before Memoirs, she posited beneficial emotional effects from same-sex relationships, but only before puberty, concluding that "those who practice them must take care to grow up at the right moment and turn to the other sex when their bodies are fully developed, and that is sometimes difficult" (Comments, p. 11).

The Good Society: Not By Bread Alone

Not by Bread Alone cover

You will always find certain elements in all the visions of a good society. Later people have had it too, Lenin, H. G. Wells, Stapledon, G. D. H. Cole, and John Strachey, and indeed it is at the back of the thinking of all the worth-while political leaders. Its content is always the spread of power in an educated community where nobody has a much better standard of living than everybody else: justice: a fair chance for every man and woman to develop their full capabilities and sensitivities: enough leisure for happiness and the practice of democracy: above all, I suppose, brotherhood. [...]

It would be exciting if, after all this European thought and vision, which has never yet succeeded in producing what it hopes for, the good society were to come into being in Africa. Above all, it would be wonderful if we could be the ones to start it consciously, using all the powers of our minds and hearts to make it happen among the Bakgatla. Are we perhaps beginning now? [5]

Of necessity, Hall's biography is a primer rather than an exhaustive chronicle, and certain areas receive shorter shrift than others: for example, while there is plenty about Mitchison's childhood and upbringing, there is very little about her own relationships with her children, which would have been especially interesting in light of Memoirs and its keen interest in parenthood. We are shown the effects of the death by meningitis of the Mitchisons' firstborn son, Geoff, in 1927—which caused long-term rifts with both Naomi's beloved brother Jack, perhaps partly due to his then-wife Charlotte's strong Views about motherhood [6], and with family friend Aldous Huxley—and we learn that in adulthood Mitchison's surviving offspring were scattered to all the corners of the world. Yet in general this part of her life feels under-discussed as a possible influence upon the writing.

Hall also gives relatively little space to Mitchison's interest in political theory and her ideas of social reform, keeping the focus on her actions and experiences: her time on Argyll county council, the way she supported her husband's political life in the Labour party, and the couple's dilemma over their desire for a more progressive education for their children. Mitchison's later life, apart from her African travels, is likewise not so fully explored as her early years, despite the fact that she was still publishing important works of both fiction and non-fiction in these decades.

Mitchison's interest in the good society—expressed in the extended quotation above, from an open 1964 letter to her African "son," Linchwe, and in the societal ramifications of scientific advances—find expression in her late SF novel, Not By Bread Alone. Biologist Anne Tomlin—like Mitchison, the scion of a scientific family—and her lab partner Saranjit Singh make a breakthrough in the manipulation of plant growth and development (morphogenesis) that, they soon realise, might allow the cultivation of a virtually unlimited world food supply. Even before they make their discovery public, Anne has misgivings, torn between the obvious possibilities for good and the potential unforseen consequences. Saranjit brings up the parallel of Rutherford and the atom, but concludes, "I cannot think that what we have succeeded in doing can ever be hurtful" (NBBA, p. 9).

Famous last words. The complications, when they arrive, are twofold. The first comes in the shape of PAX, the corporation to whom the breakthrough is taken for research funding and implementation. The board members swiftly begin to consider the egoboo attendant upon marketing Anne's work: "[W]e could feed the world," observes one, leading another to declare, "Which should be grateful to us! Which shall be!" (The sensible woman in the room, Lady Martin, naturally, "frowned. These men!" (NBBA, pp. 18-9)). Immediately upon the heels of this is, of course, the profit potential once people no longer have to spend so much of their income on food, and are accordingly grateful: the "Freefood" brand will be accompanied by encouragement to purchase PAX's other, manufactured goods. While a certain amount of this is led by naked greed, to a degree it is also an unavoidable practicality, if research—on both Freefood and for future breakthroughs—is to be funded. As sympathetic Board member Marie puts it, "[W]ithout money, our money, [it] would not happen. And that money will come from the profits on the new wants of the once hungry. It is clear" (NBBA, pp. 26-7).

Stylistically, Not By Bread Alone is undoubtedly one of Mitchison's more minor works, being largely a vehicle for the discussion of its ideas. The rollout of the technology and the ensuing social changes are seen mostly through an awkward omniscient narration, reporting events at a sketchy remove that affords a broader perspective—and ensures the reader takes home the right message—while robbing us of much of the individual, human-level impact that Memoirs does so well. This is punctuated by stilted dialogue and slightly artificial debates on the issues raised between Anne and Marie (who embark on a relationship, which is very lightly sketched but emerges as tender nonetheless).

In broad terms, the novel's title once again proves to be entirely accurate: bread alone, even free and unlimited bread, cannot solve all ills, especially not when introduced almost overnight—or when forced upon societies that do not even eat bread, and prefer to maintain their traditional diets and habits of production. People no longer starve, but having been given no opportunity to adapt to the new situation, and with most of the structures of social and cultural life—built around working, after all, to eat—undermined by it, their sense of purpose in their daily lives is removed at a stroke, and all that there is to fill the gap are PAX consumer goods. Anne worries that "bored people can get very nasty to one another. And look what we have: millions of men and women not knowing what to do next" (NBBA, pp. 86-7). Mitchison-as-narrator likewise notes the difficulties of adaptation and—although she never really explores this within the human dimension, through the direct experience of a viewpoint character—how the shock might be taken out on the more vulnerable, less powerful members of society:

Yet social patterns could not change at once among the peoples who had been doing the same things for centuries or longer. They took the Freefood, but still worried about ploughing their own rice fields or planting their own yams. What were the women to do if they did not go to their gardens? They might get into mischief. (NBBA, p. 64)

Ameliorating technology unaccompanied by social revolution, in other words, only creates more problems. Curiously, although her theme is the impact of technology upon human social life, Mitchison mostly ignores individuals—with Anne as the partial exception, there are no well-rounded characters with fully drawn emotional and imaginative lives in the manner of the other books—in favour of social theorizing, in terms that recall her The Moral Basis of Politics (1938). Her arguments therein that the ideal social and political system was based in "right relationships between people" [7] finds echo in her narratorial observation that food alone is not enough; "chang[ing] people's feelings towards one another [...] was always and only done by working together" (NBBA, p. 40).

Such plot as there is centres on Anne's ongoing efforts to deal with the problems that arise (and the intractable Board), and on Australia, where the independent Aborigine state of Murngin stages a protest, refusing Freefood despite the poverty of its citizens. They do so for reasons that are culturally-specific—all sources of food, they believe, should be respected, since they give life ("All kinds foods. Plants. Animals. Given away it is nothing" (NBBA, pp. 73-4))—and at the same time more general. They object to "the taking away of individual responsibility for something basic. Going back to the beginning of man as a social animal. Handing it over to—others" (NBBA, p. 120).

In both cases the ideal society is in question. Concomitant with this are Mitchison's urgings that more intuitive, socially aware thinking be brought to bear upon technology—what might an advance come to mean, for the people using it or affected by it?—her message since her 1920s days of birth control campaigning. She notes that her scientist characters are "thinking all the time only in terms of the next step, not of its further consequences" (NBBA, 11), and all the novel's crises come from insufficiently considered actions, from top-down reform attempts that pay no heed to context, culture, or human feelings, assuming a one-size-fits-all solution will do the job. She has Saranjit Singh express this in gendered terms—"Men are so practical, so shortsighted. Women see further, see where the paths divide. Or may divide" (NBBA, 25)—but it is clear that Mitchison is pitching intuitive, nuanced approaches, which pay attention to the particular, the diverse, and the marginalised, as a universal goal to strive for. As she noted in the open letter to Linchwe:

I am one of your tribe and I have myself experienced the cohesion and delight of tribal solidarity. I am proud to be a Mokgatla, and it is different from the way I am proud to be a Haldane or proud to be a writer or a Socialist. Or even, sometimes, proud to be British, as when our D.C. in Francistown refused to be one of the white club and instead started an integrated club for Bechuanalanders of all colours. Perhaps it is just as valid, yet, because I am a writer and so stand away a little, watching, even standing away from myself, I am 10 per cent laughing at all this—and myself in it. Most people have to have these various kinds of pride—or is that the right word? It is the giver of confidence, so that one can do things easily, without taking thought. I don't mean just physical things, though they are important too. I mean making moral and aesthetic judgments. I'm not so sure about intellectual decisions; they may be done best by the lone mind. Yet I could be wrong. Perhaps what is needed there is a different group: the group of fellow-workers. [8]

Final Thoughts

Lesley Hall appears, not unnaturally, to have relied a great deal on Mitchison's various published memoirs (predominantly Small Talk (1973), All Change Here (1975), and You May Well Ask (1979)) for her biographical account. Speaking as a historian with a historian's wariness about sources, I would have preferred to see a little more consideration of their reliability and usefulness at the outset. The memoirs' emphases are, after all, very much on the earlier parts of Mitchison's life—thus perhaps contributing to the slight feeling of imbalance in the biographical portrait—while their perspectives are unavoidably coloured by decades of hindsight. Hall acknowledges this, commenting that the memoirs "are not linear accounts but impressions, snippets, vignettes and essays. They provide vivid insight, but are also meditations on history, change, and social practices" (Hall, p. 11)—leading one to wonder how far Mitchison was engaged in fictionalising her younger self for the sake of creating a picture of an age. In one instance we are shown how this might skew our portrait of the author as a young woman: Mitchison blames the stifling awkwardness and discomfort of the first years of her marriage on her lack of sex education, but at the same time admits that she is unsure whether she simply does not remember it due to "a depth of embarrassment" (Hall, p. 18). In her 1984 foreword to the publication of her WWII diaries, too, Mitchison wonders, "Was I as I appear in the diary? I rather hope not as I don't like myself much" [9]. In light of all this, we might wonder, for example, how much of Mitchison's expressed distaste for much of what she witnessed on her visits to the USSR was down to hindsight. Hall also uses the two pre-existing biographies of Mitchison, but notes that they "were written during [Mitchison's] own lifetime and with her cooperation," and thus presumably not unproblematic themselves (Hall, p. 11). Such issues and limitations are to be expected in literary biography, but it would have been interesting to read Hall's thoughts on the matter, and what correctives (if any) were available to her.

Such caveats aside, there can be no doubt that Hall's study is illuminating and very readable, a welcome guide to both the life and the books. It's perhaps unlikely that a single small press volume could be the trigger for renewed attention to Mitchison's work; but such attention, from both readers and critics, is richly deserved. Re-reading her work now, Mitchison's interest in the many possibilities of what women could become, and of how they might achieve this potential, remains compelling.

Throughout, the keystone of these examples of Mitchison's writing—as of her "experimental life," in all its multiplicity—is variety. Whatever its genre or ostensible subject, Mitchison's work explores different ways of being human, and of human relations on both an individual and a societal level. Halla's journey to discover who she is, on her own terms, resonates with Mary's balancing of her commitments to her family, the subjects of her communication, and herself, or with Anne's long struggle to offset the bad and augment the good in society's reception of her discovery. Often, Mitchison's protagonists end up proving to be many things at once, greater than the sum of their parts. In their relationships, the variety is of degree, of type, of orientation, and of commitment: there are always many kinds of love and friendship, many genders, many expectations, and ultimately the most desirable is not a nuclear family Happily Ever After, but what is the most equable for all in a given situation.


1. Naomi Mitchison, quoted in Anthony Wolk, "Challenge the Boundaries: An Overview of Science Fiction and Fantasy," The English Journal 79 (1990), p. 27.

2. Naomi Mitchison, We Have Been Warned (1935), p. 259; Hall is probably right to assume that the emotions expressed in this passage are based on Mitchison's own, although she makes it seem as if there is no distinction between author and character.

3. Ivan Crozier, "'All the World's a Stage': Dora Russell, Norman Haire, and the 1929 London World League for Sexual Reform Congress," Journal of the History of Sexuality 12 (2003), pp. 20, 30, 34.

4. Sarah LeFanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine (London, 1998), p. 77.

5. Naomi Mitchison, "Open Letter to an African Chief," The Journal of Modern African Studies 2 (1964), p. 72, a letter that begins "My dear Son" and calls its addressee, Linchwe, "an African socialist."

6. Charlotte Haldane believed that women should receive an income for raising their family, freeing them of the need to work for a living and thus enabling them to devote their lives to their children. S. Squier, "Conflicting Scientific Feminisms: Charlotte Haldane and Naomi Mitchison," in B.T. Gates and A.B. Shteir, Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science (Madison, 1997), pp. 181-4.

7. J. D. Mabbott, review of The Moral Basis of Politics by Naomi Mitchison, Philosophy 13 (1938), p. 356.

8. "Letter," p. 71.

9. Naomi Mitchison, Among You Taking Notes (rpt London, 2000), p. 12.

Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.

Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle University. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
Current Issue
29 May 2023

We are touched and encouraged to see an overwhelming response from writers from the Sino diaspora as well as BIPOC creators in various parts of the world. And such diverse and daring takes of wuxia and xianxia, from contemporary to the far reaches of space!
By: L Chan
The air was redolent with machine oil; rich and unctuous, and synthesised alcohol, sharper than a knife on the tongue.
“Leaping Crane don’t want me to tell you this,” Poppy continued, “but I’m the most dangerous thing in the West. We’ll get you to your brother safe before you know it.”
Many eons ago, when the first dawn broke over the newborn mortal world, the children of the Heavenly Realm assembled at the Golden Sky Palace.
Winter storm: lightning flashes old ghosts on my blade.
transplanted from your temple and missing the persimmons in bloom
immigrant daughters dodge sharp barbs thrown in ambush 十面埋伏 from all directions
Many trans and marginalised people in our world can do the exact same things that everyone else has done to overcome challenges and find happiness, only for others to come in and do what they want as Ren Woxing did, and probably, when asked why, they would simply say Xiang Wentian: to ask the heavens. And perhaps we the readers, who are told this story from Linghu Chong’s point of view, should do more to question the actions of people before blindly following along to cause harm.
Before the Occupation, righteousness might have meant taking overt stands against the distant invaders of their ancestral homelands through donating money, labour, or expertise to Chinese wartime efforts. Yet during the Occupation, such behaviour would get one killed or suspected of treason; one might find it better to remain discreet and fade into the background, or leave for safer shores. Could one uphold justice and righteousness quietly, subtly, and effectively within such a world of harshness and deprivation?
Issue 22 May 2023
Issue 15 May 2023
Issue 8 May 2023
Issue 1 May 2023
Issue 24 Apr 2023
Issue 17 Apr 2023
Issue 10 Apr 2023
Issue 3 Apr 2023
Issue 27 Mar 2023
Issue 20 Mar 2023
Load More
%d bloggers like this: