‘But my baby died’. That’s the last line in Naomi Mitchison’s second volume of memoirs, You May Well Ask. It’s a grim cliff-hanger that isn’t, because this happened in 1940 when she was running a small Scottish estate in Carradale, on a dangling arm of land off western Scotland that snuggles up to Arran in the Firth of Clyde. War was well and truly upon her. What with a crowd of evacuated school children and their teachers to feed and house, and her friends in the village who were either getting ready to go to war or watching their men go to war, and her own eldest son working out what to do while her husband was waiting in London to be given a job that could be overseas, it was a hell of a time to be pregnant at the age of 43 with no doctor nearer than Glasgow.
But Naomi Mitchison is nothing if not tough and resilient. She died in 1999 at the age of 102, and this last baby was her seventh child. She thought that she had written over 100 books though online sources say 90: let’s not quibble. She was a great Scottish literary figure, a pioneering historical novelist, she was a determined campaigner for the causes she believed in, mostly feminist, socialist and scientific. She was devoted to her husband but open-eyed about his failings, and her own, and she revelled in taking lovers. Her friends were some of the most wonderful writers and politicians of the twentieth century. She is a fierce and plain-speaking recorder of masculine pig-headedness, and looks with a feminist eye at how people live, and what the women have to put up with. She is matter-of-fact and helpful with her homosexual friends, dancing with lesbian ladies of the night in Louise’s bar in Paris before they start work for the evening. She once stole a car in Oxford to drive Dick Crossman and his friend of the moment out to the woods where they could commune in peace, and then returned the car unscathed where it belonged.
You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940 is a terrific dip into the period, mainly because Mitchison is relentlessly open and truthful. The book is packed with unforgettable one-liners that open up startling vistas in her public and private life. One of her lovers once threw her across a room because he was so angry with her. When Mitchison was travelling by train with the daughter of a friend, she slapped the girl unexpectedly across the face because she needed to see the facial expression that such an abrupt and violent act would produce for a novel she was writing (The Corn King and The Spring Queen, 1931). She explained and apologised afterwards, but I do wonder if the girl ever wanted to be in a railway carriage with her ever again.
Mitchison was a passionate campaigner for birth control and sex education, and struggled hard in the 1930s to publish modern novels that used honest descriptions of modern sex, rubber condoms and all. Her publishers refused, and she bitterly wrote that ‘apparently it’s all right when people wear wolfskins and togas’. As several of her friends attested at the time, her historical novels – brilliantly innovative in using modern speech without slang to bring the past alive – contained many quite erotic passages about sex between her characters, much of it homosexual, but none of this was objected to since, as she says, they usually wore wolfskins or togas. Mary Renault would have learned much from Mitchison’s 1920s and 1930s novels and short stories set in classical Greek and Roman history.
This memoir’s particular strength is her account of her long friendships with E M Forster, W H Auden, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Stella Benson, Olaf Stapledon and Stevie Smith. Their letters and her stories of what they did and said and fed on and talked about are riveting, a master-class in memoirising, and an evocative read. It’s packed with the details that the biographies miss because the biographers hadn’t lived the life they were writing. She recalls that Anita Loos’ best-seller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a terrific hit with the highbrows, who made a fashion out of speaking like Lorelei Lee: who knew?
You can browse through a good range of modern editions of Naomi Mitchison’s books at Kennedy & Boyd’s Naomi Mitchson Library, many of them with scholarly introductions.
My review of Mitchison’s science fiction novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman is here.
4 thoughts on “You May Well Ask: Naomi Mitchison’s roaring twenties”
Wow, thanks for this. Fascinating stuff. Her real life is just as intriguing as, if not more than, her fiction.
What a fascinating review, opening up a whole new world in literature. Will make an admirable contrast to my current reading in Angela Thirkell – indeed difficult to imagine a greater contrast!
You are SO right, Hilary! Reading NM’s life is like reading a parallel universe to the life that AT lived. Diametrically opposite in almost every way.