The two biographies of Naomi Mitchison

Cover using the famous portrait of Naomi by her friend Wyndham Lewis
Cover using the famous portrait of Naomi by her friend Wyndham Lewis

I’ve read two biographies of Naomi Mitchison in the past week (working up some conference papers). Both lean very heavily on Mitchison’s published memoirs, and note that her record of her interwar life, You May Well Ask (1979), is deliberately vague about some important matters. Jill Benton’s Naomi Mitchison. A Biography (1990) is both rather too personal and unsettlingly gappy. Jenni Calder’s The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (1997) begins as an almost straight copy of Benton until we reach the Second World War, when Calder frees herself from the pattern her predecessor set down, and from Mitchison’s own memoirs, and begins to write independently and fully, almost to the end of Mitchison’s life in 1999.

Both the biographies are feminist, in that they were published by leading British feminist publishing houses of their day, Pandora Press and Virago. Benton’s focus on Mitchison as a feminist figure makes the parts of her biography which don’t concern women’s rights or sexual politics very underwritten, almost amateur in the way they are skated over or ignored. Compared with Calder’s extensive and really fascinating treatment of Mitchison the Highland politician, the colonial matriarch in Botswana, and of her increasingly domineering presence as a political gadfly from the 1960s, Benton’s approach seems inappropriately and obliviously worshipful. She prints a photo of herself with Mitchison with one of her photos of Mitchison digging potatoes in the garden, pushing her privileged access into the reader’s attention. She writes about being able to go through her heroine’s private papers in her bedroom chest of drawers with an almost cloying smugness, but doesn’t critique her own subjectivity. In contrast, Calder discusses her awareness of being drawn into Mitchison’s theatricality, and acknowledges her worries about her diminishing objectivity once she had met Mitchison and stayed at her house. The glamour of a powerful mind and impressive literary achievements is palpable in both biographies, but I think Calder deals with it best: it is not easy to write a biography when the subject is alive, energetic, and giving you her strong opinions from her own sofa.

BentonAs you see, I don’t care for the tone in Benton’s book, or her subjectivity. I don’t feel that I trust her judgement of her subject, nor do I trust her choice of what to write about and what to ignore or obscure. Her admiration for Mitchison as a twentieth-century feminist and literary heroine has diminished her critical sense. I also get pernickety about the lack of rigour, or simple fact-checking, in Benton’s biography. The words and names that are misspelled and misunderstood (not many, but some are important) give a pretty clear indication that this enthusiastic and eager American literature professor did not take enough trouble to understand Mitchison’s Scottish context or British Left culture adequately.

The similarity between both biographies until they reach 1940 is startling when one thinks that Calder was only writing seven years after Benton. She only acknowledges the existence of Benton’s book once, following the same trail while ignoring Benton’s footprints running ahead of her in time. But something happens when she reaches the Second World War, as if Calder begins to use sources that Benton had no access to (or did not bother to search out). More importantly, Calder starts to write at this point as an independent critic: not another Mitchison fan, but a proper biographer, capable of making judgements about Mitchison’s emergence as a dogged political idealist and an indomitable and undoubtedly aggravating opponent.

CalderCalder’s understanding of Scottish culture and geography gives her a huge advantage over Benton, explaining and unpacking periods of Mitchison’s life in detail that Benton had skipped over in half a sentence. She shows how much of Mitchison’s life in the 1950s and 1950s was taken up with work as a local councillor and advocate for Highland development: Benton barely mentions this at all, in comparison. Calder is equally good in the long section about Mitchison’s African life, which Benton discussed briefly and without comment, leaving me mystified as to how Mitchison had ended up in such a role and place, so different from anything she had done before. Calder digs down into the detail of how Mitchison arrived at her self-appointed role as the ‘mother’ of the Botswana tribe whose chief she had been kind to when he was at school in England. I admire the even-handed way that Calder links Mitchison’s earlier life and political concerns with her busyness with tribal affairs and attempts to equip the Bakgatla for modern life. Calder also dares to discuss her doubts that Mitchison had achieved anything useful during her membership of the tribe, and gives a fairly even-handed assessment, with a small balance in Mitchison’s favour: a library, sowing the seeds of a women’s movement, support to the young chief and protection and influence used against the former colonial authorities in Botswana’s early independence.

How these aspects of her life relate to Mitchison’s novels? Calder does a very good job of integrating Mitchison’s political writing with how and why she wrote her fiction, and makes a proper effort to assess Mitchison’s many, many later novels and her short stories. Benton does attempt this but soon gives up, as if she didn’t have access to copies of all the novels (which, to be fair, most of us don’t). Probably some of Mitchison’s novels are better than others, but the quality of The Corn King and the Spring Queen and The Blood of the Martyrs, two of her three major works (I haven’t yet read The Bull Calves, but it’s held to be equally important) make it imperative that all her fiction be discussed properly, to show how these towering works fit into her literary output. Calder discusses title after title from the 1960s to the 1990s, putting them in their place in Mitchison’s vast oeuvre. I could have improved my own reviews of Mitchison’s three science fiction novels (reviewed here, here and here) if I had read first what Calder has to say. Her biography not a full literary assessment, but its the best we have of all that Mitchison wrote.

Overall, if you want to buy a biography of Naomi Mitchison, get Calder’s, because there isn’t much that Benton tell us that Calder does not. If you want a feminist assessment of Mitchison’s life, Benton may have the edge, because she got there first in describing Mitchison’s life outside the memoirs, but Calder beats her hands down for history and literature.

Jill Benton, Naomi Mitchison. A Biography (Pandora Press, 1990, paperback 1992), ISBN 0-04-440862-5

Jenni Calder, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (Virago Books, 1997), ISBN 1-85381-724-4

You can find an extensive Naomi Mitchsion library at Kennedy & Boyd.


Tell Me What You Read: Martin Fowler

Fowler 1In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

This week, Martin Fowler, software developer, incessant traveller and author.

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

During my last couple of years at school, a history teacher recommended Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers to me.  It’s a history of cosmology, how people understand the relationship between our earth, the planets, and the stars. It begins with the Greeks, who figured a great deal out, goes into how that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages, and then focuses on how it was rebuilt again, finishing with Isaac Newton. The heart of the book is the biographies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

KoestlerThe great theme of the book is that human knowledge does not grow in some ordered and steady manner. Kepler blundered around with various half-baked ideas all the time, in the process running into his vital discoveries as a side-effect. Galileo got into arguments with people and his approach was to humiliate them in debates, which made both him, and the knowledge he’d uncovered, very unpopular. Koestler puts most of the blame for the division between religion and science on Galileo. I took from the book that science and understanding is a very human process, subject to the same human foibles as any other endeavour, and not something that progresses in a straight line. Professionally there are a lot of books that have had a big influence on me, but that’s only of interest to other software developers.

If you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?

I tend to have only one book on the go at once, so I don’t have different reads for different situations. I also rarely read fiction, so the choice of author is much less important to me than the topic area. Some authors, however, have written enough good books that I’m likely to get a new one. (Since I mostly read history, however, good authors aren’t able to be prolific.) Standing out in my mind at the moment are Doris Kearns Goodwin, William Manchester, and Jean Edward Smith.

ManchesterI tend to pick up on books where they sound like they have a reasonable coverage of something I don’t know much about. And as I grow older I learn about more things I’m ignorant of. I used to do this in bookshops, but the last few years I’ve moved to entirely electronic books as they are so much easier to carry around on my travels. That’s a pity as I so loved browsing in a good bookshop – I wonder if I’ll have the inducement to visit Powells (my vote for Best Bookshop in the Whole Wide World) when I visit Portland next month. Now I worry that my book-buying habits are overly dependent on reviews in The Economist.

What was your last huge reading disappointment? (why and how, rather than who and what)

I haven’t had a huge disappointment stand out at me for a while, but there are smaller ones. A regular one for me is a common problem with non-fiction books. In order to provide all the evidence to support their argument, they have to put in a lot of material to wade through. I wish people would adopt a style by which they keep their core narrative brief, and push any skippable material into a clearly marked area. (I say this with a degree of narcissism, since this is a style I use, calling it a ‘Duplex Book’.) That wouldn’t work in fiction, of course, but I think that non-fiction writers forget that narrative doesn’t have to cover the whole story, and short books are often better than longer ones.

GoodwinAnd finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

Happy reading surprises happen for me when a book gives me more understanding than I was expecting, often because it brings in more topics than I thought it would give me. The last one of those was in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. I got the expected good double biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. The bonus was some really interesting thoughts about how one can succeed with reforming a corrupt political system. (Not for the first time Goodwin seems to be writing as much for the present as anything else.)


If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.

Next week: Susan Vollenweider, history podcaster, Kansas City Star columnist, novelist