Naomi Mitchison

Naomi Mary Margaret Mitchison, Baroness Mitchison, CBE (née Haldane; 1 November 1897 – 11 January 1999) was a Scottish novelist and poet. Often called the doyenne of Scottish literature, she wrote over 90 books, including historical fiction, science fiction, travel writing and autobiography.[1] Her husband Dick Mitchison's life peerage in 1964 entitled her to call herself Lady Mitchison, but she never did.[2][3] She was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1981.[4] The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is seen by some as the best 20th-century historical novel.[5]

Naomi Mitchison
Naomi Mitchison, photographed in about 1920
BornNaomi Mary Margaret Haldane
(1897-11-01)1 November 1897
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died11 January 1999(1999-01-11) (aged 101)
Carradale, Scotland
OccupationBiologist, nurse, writer
EducationSociety of Oxford Home Students
GenreHistorical, science fiction, travelogue and autobiography
SpouseGilbert Richard Mitchison
ChildrenGeoffrey Mitchison (1918–1927)
Denis Mitchison (born 1919)
Murdoch Mitchison (1922–2011)
Avrion Mitchison (born 1928)
Lois Mitchison
Valentine Mitchison
Clemency Mitchison
RelativesJohn Scott Haldane (father)
J. B. S. Haldane (brother)


Like her father John Scott Haldane and elder brother J. B. S. Haldane, Naomi Haldane initially pursued a scientific career. From 1908, she and her brother looked into Mendelian genetics. Their 1915 publication was the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals.[6] However, whilst she was a diploma student at the Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne's College, Oxford), the outbreak of the First World War changed her interest to nursing.

Naomi Mitchison was a vocal feminist, particularly campaigning for birth control. We Have Been Warned (1935) is notably her most controversial work, with its explicit sexuality. It was rejected by leading publishers and ultimately censored.[7]


Childhood and family background

Naomi Mary Margaret Haldane was born in Edinburgh, the daughter and younger child of the physiologist John Scott Haldane and his wife (Louisa) Kathleen Trotter. Naomi's parents came from different political backgrounds, her father being a Liberal and her mother from a Conservative and pro-imperialist family. However, both families were of landed stock; the Haldane family had been feudal barons of Gleneagles since the 13th century, but were nevertheless known for their achievements in other spheres. Today the best-known member of the family is probably Naomi's elder brother, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964), but in her youth her paternal uncle Richard Burdon Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane, twice Lord Chancellor (from 1912 to 1915 under H. H. Asquith, and in 1924 during the first Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald), was better known.

Naomi followed her brother to the Oxford Preparatory (later Dragon School, Oxford, during 1904 to 1911, as the only girl there.[8] From 1911, she was home-tutored by a governess. She qualified for the University of Oxford in 1914, via the Oxford higher local examination, and entered the Society of Oxford Home Students (later renamed St Anne's College) to pursue a degree course in science. Before she completed the course she chose to become a nurse, for the First World War had broken out. After completing a course of first aid and home nursing in 1915, she joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment at St Thomas's Hospital, London. Her service was much curtailed after she caught scarlet fever.[2]

The Haldanes were known for their self-styled domestic experiments. With her brother John, she started investigating Mendelian genetics in 1908. They initially used guinea pigs as experimental models, but changed to mice as they were more convenient to handle. Their findings were published as "Reduplication in mice" in 1915. This was in fact the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals.[9]

Marriage and family life

On 11 February 1916, Naomi married the barrister Gilbert Richard Mitchison (23 March 1894 – 14 February 1970), who was a close friend of her brother Jack (John). He was then on leave from the Western Front; like her, he came from a well-connected and wealthy family. He became a Queen's Counsel, then a Labour politician, and eventually a life peer on 5 October 1964 as Baron Mitchison of Carradale in the County of Argyll on retirement for his political work. Naomi thus became Lady Mitchison (as the wife of a life peer), a title to which she objected. She played an active part in her husband's political career as well as in his constituency duties.[10]

Dick and Naomi Mitchison's marriage was not entirely satisfactory, and after some years they both agreed to an open marriage. Both she and her husband entered into several other relationships, which were conducted with dignity and described with humour. As described in her autobiography You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940, she had one lover with whom she fell deeply in love, to whom she wrote love poems. He got married in 1934, and considered his marriage incompatible with continuing his relationship with Naomi, and she greatly missed him. She mitigated her sorrow by undertaking a risky mission to help persecuted socialists in fascist-dominated Austria. Later she had several briefer, less intense affairs, in which the men were in love with her and she did her best to reciprocate. As she emphasizes in describing these affairs, she was always careful to use contraceptives with her lovers and let her children be fathered by her husband alone – although she dreamed of a future in which her daughters would be able to "have children by several chosen fathers, uncensured".[11]

Naomi and Dick had seven children. Their four sons were Geoffrey (1918–1927, who died of meningitis), Denis (born 1919, a professor of bacteriology), Murdoch (born 1922), and Avrion (born 1928), both professors of zoology. Their three daughters were Lois, Valentine, and Clemency (who died in 1940 shortly after her birth).

Between 1923 and 1939, they lived in London at River Court House, Mall Road, Hammersmith. They bought the Carradale House at Carradale in Kintyre in 1939, where they lived for the rest of their lives. The house was frequented by people of all sorts, lords, ladies, politicians, writers, neighbours, fishermen and farmers.[12] She and Denis MacIntosh, a local fisherman, wrote a documentary, Men and Herring: A Documentary, in 1949; ten years later, this was adapted for BBC Television as a docudrama, Spindrift.[13]

Literary career

Mitchison was a prolific writer, completing more than 90 books in her lifetime, across a multitude of styles and genres. These include historical novels such as her first novel The Conquered (1923) a story set in 1st century BC Gaul during the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar, and her second novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925) set in 5th century BC Ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War. Her best work is considered The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) which treats three different societies including a wholly fictional one, and also frankly explores themes of sexuality (daring for its day). Terri Windling described it as "a lost classic".[14] Literary critic Geoffrey Sadler has stated about Mitchison's historical fiction: "On the basis of her early writings, she is unquestionably one of the great historical novelists".[15]

In 1932, Mitchison was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to edit a guide to the modern world for children. Mitchison's book, An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents, included several distinguished contributors, including W.H. Auden, Gerald Heard, and Olaf Stapledon.[16] On publication, An Outline was praised by The Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the London Mercury.[16] However, several clergymen, including the Archbishop of York were angered by the book's lack of emphasis on Christianity, while other right-wing authors objected to what they claimed was the book's sympathetic attitude towards the Soviet Union. Conservative writer Arnold Lunn wrote a lengthy attack on An Outline in the English Review.[17] As a result of this negative publicity, An Outline was a commercial failure.[16]

Undoubtedly her most controversial work, We Have Been Warned was published in 1935, based on her journey to the Soviet Union. In it she explored sexual behaviour, including rape and abortion.[1] The book was rejected by various publishers. She approached first her friend Victor Gollancz (of Victor Gollancz Ltd.), who flatly turned her down as he observed that "publication of the book would cause a real outcry." The book was extensively rewritten to make it more acceptable to publishers, and was still subject to censorship. Upon publication it was universally despised for its depiction of rape, free love and abortion that "alienated readers on the left and horrified those on the political right."[18] In 2005, files from the National Archives revealed the British government had considered prosecuting the publishers of We Have Been Warned, but ultimately decided not to.[19]

She was a compulsive writer, as her travelogues would reveal. She would write on planes or in trains as prompted by the situation. For example, she wrote her visit to US in the 1930s on her journey objecting about sharecropping.

Mitchison's 1938 book The Moral Basis of Politics was a treatise on ethics and politics that Mitchison had worked on over the last three years.[20] In this book, she defended the right of left-wing journalist H. N. Brailsford to criticise the Moscow Trials, which had caused controversy on the British left at the time.[21]

Mitchison's The Blood of the Martyrs (1939) is set against the background of Nero's persecution of the Christians; she draws parallels between Nero and contemporary dictators Mussolini and Hitler.[22]

In 1952, she went to Moscow as a member of the Authors' World Peace Appeal. She went frequently to Africa, especially to Botswana, where she was made a sort of tribal mother (Mmarona) to the baKgatla people. Mucking Around (1981) best describes her haphazard travels in five continents over 50 years.[10]

Later works included more historical novels The Bull Calves (1947) about the Jacobite rising of 1745 and The Young Alexander the Great (1960). She also turned to fantasy such as Graeme and the Dragon (1954) (Graeme Mitchison was her grandson through Denis); science fiction such as Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Solution Three (1975); fantasy such as the humorous Arthurian novel To the Chapel Perilous (1955), non-fiction such as African Heroes (1968), together with children's novels, poetry, travel and a three-volume autobiography. She was never certain of the actual number of books she had written (often claiming there were about 70). The articles were uncountable, from book reviews for the old Time and Tide magazine and the New Statesman to practical essays on farming, campaigning articles, recollections and reflections.[10]

Maxim Lieber served as her literary editor in 1935.

After her husband's death, Mitchison wrote several memoirs, published as separate titles between 1973 and 1985. She was also a good friend of the writer J. R. R. Tolkien and she was one of the proof readers of The Lord of the Rings.[23]


Mitchison, like her brother, was a committed Socialist in the 1930s. She visited the Soviet Union in 1932 as part of a Fabian Society group, and expressed some misgivings about the direction of Soviet society.[24] An active anti-fascist, Mitchison travelled to Austria, where she undertook the risky task of smuggling documents and left-wing refugees out of the country.[25][26] She stood unsuccessfully as a Labour Party candidate for the Scottish Universities in 1935, at a time when universities were allowed to elect MPs. Eventually, as her political candidacy and her pro-Left writings had failed, she gradually became disenchanted with the Left. At this time she became politically attracted to Scottish Nationalism and increasingly wrote on specifically Scottish issues and themes. Her name was on George Orwell's list, a list of people prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department, a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government, considered to have pro-communist leanings and therefore be inappropriate to write for the IRD.[27]

Mitchison's advocacy continued in other ways. She acted a spokeswoman for the island communities of Scotland, and became an advisor to the Bakgatla tribe of Botswana. She also took keen interest in the problems of Scotland and served on the Argyll County Council and on the Highlands and Islands Development Council. At the same time she was a serious botanist and gardener, and a practical farmer.[28] She became Labour representative in the Argyll County Council from 1945 to 1966. She was a member of the Highland Panel from 1947 to 1965, and of the Highlands and Islands Development Consultative Council from 1966 to 1976.[5][2]

Mitchison was a Life Fellow of the Eugenics Society. She was also a vocal campaigner for women's rights, advocating birth control, and was also active in local government in Scotland (1947–1976). Her own lack of knowledge about birth control (as stated in her memoirs) led to her interest in the causes of birth control and abortion. She was on the founding council of the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre in 1924. Today, she is best known for her advocacy of feminism and her tackling of then-taboo subjects in her writing. She was a principal investor in the Partisan Coffee House, a meeting place for the New Left off Soho Square that functioned from 1958 to 1962.[29]

Mitchison was also present and supporting a Stop the Seventy Tour rally, aiming to stop the apartheid South African rugby and cricket tours of Britain, in December 1969.[30]

Later life

Dick predeceased her in 1970, but Naomi remained active as a writer well into her nineties.[31] She was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1981. In her old age she was constantly anxious and depressed about the future, particularly the misuse of scientific development such as nuclear armaments. She claimed that an experience of two world wars in one's lifetime was too much. On the other side, she never ran out of the Haldanes' eccentricity, and once remarked that her biography in Who's Who was "burning rubbish".[10]

Inquired on her 90th birthday of her having any regret in life, she replied, "Yes, all the men I never slept with. Imagine!"[12]

She died at Carradale on 11 January 1999 at the age of 101. She was cremated at the Clydebank crematorium on 16 January. The ashes were scattered at Carradale on the following [32]

Honours and recognitions

Published works


Mitchison's autobiography is in three parts:

  • Small Talk: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood (1973; reprinted, with an introductory essay by Ali Smith, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (1975) [Small Talk and All Change Here were republished as a single volume As It Was: An Autobiography 1897–1918 in 1975][37]
  • You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940. London: Fontana Paperbacks. 1986 [1979]. ISBN 978-0-00654-193-6.
  • Mucking Around (1981)[10]
  • Among You Taking Notes. The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison (1986) (Autobiographical sketches from Mitchison's diaries during the Second World War, written for "Mass Observation", selected and edited by Dorothy Sheridan.)[10][38]


  • The Conquered (1923; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2011)
  • Anna Comnena (1928; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • The Hostages (1930)
  • The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931)
  • Boys and Girls and Gods (1931)
  • The Price of Freedom (1931)
  • Powers of Light (1932)
  • The Delicate Fire (1933; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2012)
  • Beyond this Limit (1935; 'Pictures by Wyndham Lewis and Words by Naomi Mitchison')
  • We Have Been Warned (1935; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2012)
  • The Blood of the Martyrs (1939; reprinted in 1989)
  • The Bull Calves (1947; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2013)
  • The Big House (1950; reprinted, with an introduction by Moira Burgess, Kennedy & Boyd, 2010)
  • Travel Light (Faber and Faber, 1952; Virago Press, 1985; Penguin Books, 1987; Small Beer Press, 2005; reprinted in the UK with The Varangs' Saga, and an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Graeme and the Dragon (1954
  • The Land the Ravens Found (1955)
  • To the Chapel Perilous (1955)
  • Little Boxes (1956)
  • Behold Your King (1957; reprinted, with an introduction by Moira Burgess, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • The Young Alexander the Great (1960)
  • Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2011)
  • The Fairy who Couldn't Tell a Lie (1963)
  • Ketse and the Chief (1965)
  • When We Become Men (1965; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Friends and Enemies (1966)
  • Big Surprise (1967)
  • Family at Ditlabeng (1969)
  • Don't Look Back (1969)
  • Far Harbour (1969)
  • Sun and Moon (1970)
  • Cleopatra's People (1972; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2010)
  • Sunrise Tomorrow: A Story of Botswana (1973)
  • Danish Teapot (1973)
  • Solution Three. Feminist Press at CUNY. 1995. ISBN 978-1-55861-096-5. (with Susan Merrill Squier);[39]
  • Snake! (1976)
  • Two Magicians (with Dick Mitchison, 1979)
  • The Vegetable War (1980)
  • Not by Bread Alone (1983)
  • Early in Orcadia (1987)
  • Images of Africa (1987)
  • As It Was (1988)
  • The Oath-takers (1991)
  • Sea-green Ribbons (1991)
  • The Dark Twin (with Marion Campbell, 1998)


  • When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories (1924; reprinted by Pomona Press, 2006)
  • The Laburnum Branch (1926)
  • Black Sparta (1928)
  • Barbarian Stories (1929)
  • Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction of Naomi Mitchison (1935; Scottish Academic Press, 1986; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2008)
  • The Fourth Pig (1936)
  • Five Men and a Swan (1957)
  • The Brave Nurse: And Other Stories (1977)
  • Cleansing of the Knife: And Other Poems (poems) (1979)
  • What Do You Think Yourself: and Other Scottish Short Stories (1982)
  • A Girl Must Live: Stories and Poems (poems) (1990)


  • Nix-Nought-Nothing (1928)
  • The Price of Freedom. A play in three acts (with Lewis Gielgud Mitchison, 1931)
  • An End and a Beginning (1937)


  • Vienna Diary (1934; reprinted by Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • The Moral Basis of Politics (1938; Reprinted 1971)
  • "My farming and my neighbours". The Countryman. 30: 23–6. 1944.
  • Return to the Fairy Hill (1966)
  • African Heroes (1968)
  • The Africans: From the Earliest Times to the Present (1971)
  • A Life for Africa: The Story of Bram Fischer. 1973. OCLC 705423.
  • Oil for the Highlands? (1974)
  • Margaret Cole, 1893–1980 (1982)
  • Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide (1995)
  • Essays and Journalism. Volume 2: Carradale (Kennedy & Boyd, 2009) Edited and introduced by Moira Burgess.



  1. "Naomi Mitchison". The Editors of The Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  2. Maslen 2015.
  3. Calder 1997.
  4. Leckey 2013, p. 318.
  5. Longford 1999.
  6. Haldane, Sprunt & Haldane 1915, pp. 133-135.
  7. Harrison 1999.
  8. Oman 1976, p. 149.
  9. Haldane, Sprunt & Haldane 1915, pp. 133–135.
  10. Jeger 1999.
  11. Mitchison 1986, Ch.8 Patterns of Loving.
  12. Hoge 1999.
  13. "Spindrift (Screenplay)". British Universities Film & Video Council. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  14. Windling & Datlow 1994, p. xx, Summation 1994: Fantasy.
  15. Sadler 1994, pp. 459–462.
  16. Crossley 1994, pp. 201-203.
  17. Addison 2007, p. 247.
  18. Joannou 2012, p. 56.
  19. "NATIONAL ARCHIVES: Lesbian 'threat' to the nation". Birmingham Post. 3 October 2005. ...In another series of memos, Whitehall discusses whether publishers should be prosecuted over a novel by feminist author Naomi Mitchison, who died in 1999 aged 101. Ethel Boileau, of Norfolk, writes to the DPP complaining about Mitchison's We Have Been Warned, which deals with subjects including abortion and seduction...
  20. Deane 1998, pp. 235-239.
  21. Benton 1990, pp. 111-115.
  22. Castelli 2006, pp. 1-24.
  23. "J. R. R. Tolkien Writes his Proofreader with a Lengthy Discussion of the Lord of the Rings, Including Criticism of Radio Broadcasts". Seth Kaller, Inc. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  24. Urquhart 1999, p. 3.
  25. Montefiore 1996, pp. 17, 60 and 202.
  26. Caldecott 1984, p. 27.
  27. Ezard 2003.
  28. Mitchison 1944, pp. 23-26.
  29. Berlin 2009.
  30. Dean 1969.
  31. Calder, Jenni. "Naomi Mitchison (1897–1999)". Scottish Poetry Library. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  32. Tinning 1999.
  33. "Mitchison, Naomi (Margaret)". The HighBeam™ Research, Inc. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  34. "Honorary Degrees: Doctor of Laws". The University of Dundee. Archived from the original on 7 July 2014. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  35. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates" (PDF). Archived from the original on 20 January 2016. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  36. McKie 2012.
  37. Meschia 2010.
  38. Stringer 1996, p. 453.
  39. "Solution Three". The Feminist Press. Archived from the original on 13 May 2014. Retrieved 13 May 2014.


Further reading

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