Naomi Mitchison, Peaceable Transgressor
In 1915, OXFORD POETRY, the annual volume of undergraduate poetry, included the work of two young writers who would later become famous novelists, and whose paths would cross again more than three decades later. The first was J.R.R. Tolkien, who was completing his degree at Exeter College and preparing to enter the British Army to fight in the First World War. Tolkien contributed a poem called “Goblin Feet,” full of fairies, gnomes, and even leprechauns, which he would later find embarrassingly twee.
The second poet was Naomi Haldane, the eighteen-year-old home-schooled daughter of a fellow at New College. Haldane was also interested in biology. Along with her older brother John, that same year she conducted genetic experiments that yielded a co-authored paper on reduplication in mice—one of the earliest English works on Mendelian genetics. But she found herself chafing against the limitations imposed upon her as a woman and longed for a sphere in which she could express herself. In Oxford Poetry, Haldane's contribution was a poem called “Awakening of the Bacchae,” steeped in classical paganism and bristling with the suggestion of feminine power. Each of the poem's three stanzas ends with the line: “We were asleep, but now are awake for ever.”
A year later, Naomi Haldane married Gilbert Mitchison, and as Naomi Mitchison she became a successful and prolific novelist. She established her reputation in the 1920s as the author of historical novels but later wrote fairy stories for children, a series of memoirs, and two pioneering works of feminist science fiction. Her 1975 novel, Solution Three, dealt presciently with the issue of genetically modified organisms. Mitchison was also an outspoken feminist and political activist. But at the time of her death at the age of 101 in 1999, she had come to be regarded as a “neglected” writer, despite an unrivaled reputation as a historical novelist at the height of her fame in the 1920s and '30s.
In fact, her work has continued to draw a small but enthusiastic following— especially Travel Light (1952), her short fantasy about the adventures of a princess raised by a dragon—and to reward rediscovery for its feminist sensibilities, imaginative range, and depth of thought. As writer and scholar Marina Warner says in the introduction to a recently published collection of Mitchison's short fiction, “Naomi Mitchison seems ripe for Bloomsbury-style fandom.” In her heyday, no less a critic than Arnold Bennett praised Mitchison's work, while the novelist Winifred Holtby, best known for her novel South Riding (1936), wrote that The Corn King and the Spring Queen was “of the caliber of which Nobel prize-winners are made.” Summing up Mitchison's career in
the mid-1990s, Ursula Leguin called Mitchison “one of the great subversive thinkers and peaceable transgressors of the twentieth century.” Amal El-mohtar, a writer of speculative fiction, wrote about her discovery of Mitchison's work for NPR'S “You Must Read This” series. “I've been gushing to everyone who'll listen about Naomi Mitchison,” she said. She wanted Mitchison's writing “to be common knowledge. To spawn imitators and adjectives, `Mitchisonian' to match `Tolkienesque.'”
In 1949, Mitchison wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien expressing her admiration for Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien's medieval tale of a farmer who becomes an accidental hero. In his reply to Mitchison's letter, Tolkien told her that he would soon have another book to give her—an “excessively long” sequel to The Hobbit. In late 1953 or early 1954, Tolkien's publisher, Allen & Unwin, sent Mitchison proofs of the The Lord of the Rings. In addition to being a writer herself, Mitchison was also a skilled proofreader, who helped shape two very different but highly influential works for publication: Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and James Watson's The Double Helix. Watson even dedicated his book to Mitchison, the former teenage geneticist who had become his friend and mentor.
In September 1954, Mitchison's sympathetic review of The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in the New Statesman & Nation. She called the first volume of the trilogy a story “magnificently told,” full of “the most extraordinary, terrifying, and beautiful things.” What Mitchison realized about The Lord of the Rings was that Tolkien's masterpiece was neither mere fantasy nor simple allegory: it represented the invention of an entire mythology. “For surely,” she wrote, “we humans have not come to the end of our myth-spinning.”
In her own career as a writer, Mitchison never came to the end of her myth-spinning, though she also continued to express a deep concern for the literal world around her. In book after book, she spun fantasies out of her own experience as a woman and as someone who, though she came from a privileged background, always identified with the outsider. Mitchison's early novels and stories are set in the world of ancient Greece and Rome, but usually focus on marginalized figures, like the defeated Gaul enslaved by Caesar's legions in her first novel, The Conquered (1923). As she wrote in her note on her sources for her 1924 story collection When the Bough Breaks, “Not unnaturally one always used to take sides with the barbarians against Rome.” Her greatest sympathy was reserved for “the fair-haired slaves” from the North, her own “possible ancestors,” who found themselves oppressed and powerless in an alien land.
This sympathy had its roots in her own experience as a girl who was denied many of the opportunities open to her older brother. In an early story, “The Triumph of Faith,” a young Greek girl named Phoebe Martha addresses a remarkable speech about her status as a girl to Chet, her father's Scythian slave:
It's so hard being a girl! Here I am, just the same as a man, really, and no worse than my brother anyway—i've got all the same eyes and hand and ears and everything else that matters! But because of two or three silly little differences I have to be treated as if I was an animal, ordered about, not allowed to decide anything for myself! I'm shut up, I'm watched, I have to do what men tell
me—nothing's my own, money or husband or religion—i have to take what they give me and say thank you! Oh, it is unfair—haven't I got a soul every bit as good as theirs?”
When she has exhausted herself with this outburst, Chet says quietly, “Yes, I understand.”
Both Phoebe Martha and Chet are outsiders and feel a stinging sense of the difference between their inner potential and their external powerlessness. In one of the most richly imagined scenes in the story, Chet goes into a trance and calls on his Scythian gods to work powerful magic—but in the next scene, he finds himself tied to a post, waiting to be whipped by his master. The sense of a gap between his imaginative power and his real power resonated with Mitchison's own experience of the oppression of women. As a little girl, Naomi Mitchison was bothered by her doll's house. “To look at,” she wrote in her memoir Small Talk: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood (1973), “the doll's house was a solid white cupboard but with windows at the sides.” Inside there were six rooms of equal size, two on each floor: kitchen and dining room, drawing room and bedroom, nursery and schoolroom. The problem was that none of the furnishings were to scale, and all of the rooms were open on one side.
“In those days, as a literal-minded small girl,” Mitchison recalled, “I was worried both by the awkwardness of the scale and by the problem of the fourth wall. I could pretend that there were other rooms and stairs at the back, but I found it very had to make the open rooms look `real.'”
Mitchison came by her literal-mindedness honestly. In addition to her contribution to her brother John's paper on genetics, she observed the research of her father, the prominent physiologist John Scott Haldane, known for his pioneering scientific work on respiration. Most of her father's experiments were conducted in his home laboratory. Her childhood diaries were filled with a scientific spirit, including the Latin names of plants she had identified. But at the same time, she had a vivid imagination that set her apart from the rest of her family. She feared “what lay behind the apparent silence and stillness of inanimate objects” like mirrors and grandfather clocks, and invented a small ritual to propitiate the spirit of a particularly frightening wall tile in the drawing room. She suffered from nightmares and was terrified of ghosts, especially those she imagined haunting Cloan, her Uncle Richard's massive country house in Scotland. Her Aunt Bay told her that a particularly frightening ghost haunted the tower at Cloan, and as she grew up it still haunted her dreams.
“Years later, when we talked over all this and its dire effect on me,” Mitchison wrote in her memoir, “[Aunt Bay] said I was the only Haldane to have this kind of runaway imagination, something which now she loved and respected. But it was a misery then. And indeed can be still, though without it I would have no wings.”
Mitchison grew up with a strong sense of her difference. She was an imaginative child among scientific rationalists, the proud member of a Scottish family raised in the middle of England, a girl brought up in the company of boys. As a child, she was sent to the Dragon School in Oxford, where she had access to the same educational opportunities as her older brother, and where she formed strong friendships with the boys. She was, she later remembered, “for all practical purposes a boy until the awful thing happened.” The awful thing was the blood that stained her blue serge trousers and marked the end of her attendance at the Dragon School. Puberty separated her from the male community to which she had belonged, and the changes to her own body made her increasingly self-conscious.
Menarche forms an important recurring theme in Mitchison's fiction. In “The Triumph of Faith,” when Phoebe Martha runs away from her father's house to the house of the man she wants to marry, her father's steward Onesimus follows her and tells us: “Every here and there were red rose petals, shaken loose from Phoebe Martha's flowers: they reminded me of trailing a wounded deer . . .” The name of the man Phoebe Martha wants to marry is Menarchus.
In Travel Light, Mitchison mythologizes puberty by making it a stage in the heroine's journey. The heroine, Halla, figuratively enters puberty when Uggi, her dragon mentor, is fatally wounded by the King of the Dales, who pursues the dying dragon to his cave, “following the blood trail.” After Uggi's death, Halla is captured by the King, who tells Halla, “I shall teach you the ways of women.” Although Halla is rescued by another dragon in the nick of time, she realizes that without Uggi she can never return to her previous life. Halla is a fictional stand-in for Mitchison herself, forced by “the awful thing” to leave the Dragon School.
From the onset of puberty, when she could no longer consider herself a boy, Mitchison found that she was still able to imagine herself into a male life. As a teenager, she read Franz Cumont's Les Mystères de Mithra (1913), a study of the rituals of Roman Mithraism, to which only men were admitted. “One attractive aspect” of this exclusion of women, she later recalled, “was that I always imagined myself a man.” This imaginative experience of otherness informs many of Mitchison's novels, including her great 1931 novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen. The Corn King and the Spring Queen is a historical fantasy that follows the adventures of the Tarrik and Erif Der, the king and queen of the fictional Scythian kingdom of Marob, as they come into contact with Greek philosophy and culture in third-century Sparta and Ptolemaic Egypt. The book also reflects the author's real-life advocacy for birth control and sexual freedom, and her interest in contemporary theories on the evolution of individualism and selfconsciousness. It alternates between the historical world of ancient Greece, reconstructed from Plutarch and Pausanias and other sources, and the imaginary
world of Marob, created from Mitchison's reading of James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, Jane Ellen Harrison, and the Cambridge Ritualists. The novel is remarkable for its frank treatment of topics like homosexuality, female sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, which did not always pass uncensored at the time—as Mitchison's publisher, Jonathan Cape, had discovered when it faced an obscenity trial for publishing Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness in 1928.
Issues of sexuality and motherhood were much on Mitchison's mind in the late 1920s. For Mitchison, the 1920s and early 1930s were a period of sexual experimentation, during which she and her husband agreed to an open marriage and took other lovers. This commitment to sexual freedom is expressed in her chapbook-length essay Comments on Birth Control, published the year before The Corn King and the Spring Queen. In the essay, Mitchison, who had helped found the first birth control centers in London in the 1920s, calls contraception a “compromise”: necessary for preventing unwanted pregnancies, but frequently stifling the spontaneity that brings passion to a relationship.
Mitchison sees birth control as part of a larger compromise made by women who want to have both families and careers. She acknowledges that “the two things are not compatible, except in rare cases.” No woman, even if she lives “twice as hard as men, fitting things in, wasting no time on anything of less importance than the true fundamentals” is able to “make two hours out of one.” As a result, women are forced to compromise. Mitchison wonders how “intelligent and truly feminist women” could “live as women” with time “to be tender and aware of both lovers and children” and still have the freedom “to do their own work.”
This question had a particular urgency as Mitchison worked on The Corn King and the Spring Queen. The death of her eldest child from meningitis in 1927 had caused a painful rift between Mitchison and her brother and sisterin-law, both of whom blamed her for not devoting enough time and attention to her children. That deep trauma found its way into the novel. When Erif Der is introduced to Agiatis, the wife of Kleomenes of Sparta, she finds the Spartan queen in the women's quarters, spinning thread with her favorite handmaiden, Philylla. Erif Der joins the spinning, and when she breaks a thread, she calls on her Scythian magic to join the broken ends together:
And under the eyes of the other two the threads groped and wriggled like white worms and came together. “There!” she said, and dropped them off her hand. The spindle swung from an unbroken line.
Philylla stared, and came nearer and ran her finger down it. Then: “What's that red mark on your hand?”
“Oh,” said Erif, “that's a drop of blood,” and she stooped and wiped it on the under side of her dress. “Why?” “I had to make the thread alive so that it would come together; so it had to bleed where it was wounded.” And she began spinning properly. “I think you will find this a strong thread now,” she said, “a very strong thread. I am doing my best with it.”
“Yes,” said Philylla, “I see. But if it was me I'd like to be able to do it with people.” With the bleeding thread, Mitchison creates a striking image of brokenness and healing, and of the strong thread of life that passes through her women. But Erif Der's magic makes Agiatis uncomfortable, not only because she is a rational Greek but because she's uncomfortable with the idea of such a powerful woman.
Before Erif Der's arrival, Philylla tells Agiatis that she understands “the sort of way women can be witches.” Agiatis responds, “I think I did when I was your age. One feels full of power, doesn't one? But it never lasts, sweet; not if one lives a full woman's life. One's giving too much all the time.” Like Mitchison, Agiatis had recently lost her eldest son, and the author projects onto the Spartan queen the pressure she felt to devote herself entirely to her family. Mitchison understood the expectation to be the kind of wife and mother that Agiatis represented, but she also wanted the power and freedom of Erif Der. She wanted the power to heal, to recover her own losses and reconcile the divisions within herself.
In Comments on Birth Control, Mitchison envisions a time “when women have sufficient control of their external environment to ensure that their work will be compatible with having babies, or when the whole business of having babies becomes a real job in itself, carrying with it social respect and economic independence.” More remarkably, she envisions a time when women's “psychophysical control becomes so complete that they can at their own will be fertile or not fertile.” Birth control will become a matter of will. A similar situation already occurs, she tells us, among the Trobriand Islanders. According to Bronislaw Malinowski, the women of the Trobriand Islands were able to control their own fertility without the use of contraceptives, and Mitchison suggests that this is because the Trobriand Islanders were “still in a primitive community of which the persons are not separated out into individuals.”
That is to say, they are all more or less in communion with one another, so that impulses and ideas of a kind travel through them as through a single body. The happiness of the persons consists in being a good working part of the community . . . It is against the good and will of the community that women should have children before they are adult and settled into their place as adult women. And the women realize this good and this will, not with their minds, but so deeply with their bodies that they cannot go against it unless some outside force (a missionary, for instance) comes to pull them away from their community and break the continuity between them and the rest of the tribe. As a result of this missionary disruption, the community splinters “into more or less conscious individuals, out of communion and because of this unhappy, living uncoordinated lives of their own, unable to know instinctively what is for the good of all.”
Here Mitchison draws on ethnographic and philosophical notions of the day to crystallize her ideas of personal freedom. These ideas also directly informed The Corn King and the Spring Queen. At the time she was writing both the novel and the essay on birth control, Mitchison was deeply influenced by the
theories of her friend Gerald Heard, set forth in his 1929 book The Ascent of Humanity. Heard traces the evolution of consciousness from “complete co-consciousness”—the collective consciousness of primitive communities—to the self-conscious individualism of modern societies. Heard also contributed an essay to An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents (1932), a collection of essays on the arts and sciences for schoolchildren edited by Mitchison. Heard's ideas inform many of the essays in the collection, including the essay on “Writing” by the Mitchison children's young tutor, W. H. Auden. Auden begins his essay tracing the rise of self-consciousness in humans—the feeling that “I am I, and you are not I”—and the evolution of language and writing as a means of bridging the widening gap between self-conscious individuals. It could be said that exploring the gap between “I” and “you,” and between “we” and “they,” is the major theme of all of Naomi Mitchison's writing, especially The Corn King and the Spring Queen.
With the rise of self-consciousness, Heard believed, religion also evolved from a focus on what Jane Ellen Harrison called “the permanent life of the group” to a focus on individual salvation. Harrison's anthropological approach to the study of Greek religion was certainly a major influence on both Heard and Mitchison. In Themis (1912), Harrison wrote that primitive religion “reflects collective feeling and collective thinking” rather than the individual's concern for his own soul and salvation. In The Ascent of Humanity, Heard follows Harrison in tracing the evolution of the worship of Osiris in Egypt from a fertility ritual that reflected “tribe-and-soul identity” to a ritual concerned primarily with individual immortality. The end result of this process was “naked salvationism without a shred of social obligation.”
An emphasis on community and group consciousness was central to Heard's philosophy. He believed that humans could achieve a revolution in consciousness that would restore the group feeling lost through the rise of the individual. In the early 1930s, he and Mitchison formed a group called the Engineer's Study Group, whose aim was to develop “group-mindedness or group communication,” which Mitchison believed was “the next step possibly before the much bigger breakthrough to universal consciousness.” Heard eventually found more fertile ground for his cultivation of an expanded consciousness in California, where he practiced yoga and meditation and, in the 1950s, experimented with LSD.
Mitchison herself was more of a realist. It was important to her to have a vision of a better world, but at the same time it was important not to lose sight of the world as it is, or to force change in the service of an ill-fitting ideology. Thus, while she lamented the loss of social cohesion that came with the evolution of self-conscious individualism, she realized that, except perhaps in fiction, there was no going back to a primitive state of co-consciousness. In Comments on Birth Control, she followed Heard in imagining “a revolution of consciousness” in which individuals would coalesce “into a community of a new kind, becoming again conscious of one another and of their own central will and good and unity.” But at the same time she recognized that “this super-conscious community is
perhaps after all mere dreaming and wish-phantasy.” The actual conditions of the world call for realism and compromise. “At present,” she wrote, “we must do the best we can as separate individuals, still tortured by the essentially individual problems of love and hate, greed and fear and jealousy . . . We must take things as they are and make them better, rather than hope in the vague.”
Heard's ideas nevertheless had an enormous influence on Mitchison, and shaped her overarching narrative in The Corn King and the Spring Queen. Erif Der's journey from Marob in Scythia to Sparta and Egypt takes her through various stages in the evolution of consciousness, from the pre-individual community of Marob to the decadent individualism of Ptolemaic Egypt. The fictional land of Marob represents a traditional society in which the collective good of the people is bound up in the seasonal fertility rituals performed by the king and queen. Tarrik, the Corn King, is what Jane Ellen Harrison called an Eniautos-daimon, a godlike figure embodying the forces that control the seasons. As Tarrik himself explains, “I am not separate from the grain and the cattle and the sap creeping up the green veins of the plants. Whatever I do goes out like a wave to the rest of my place.” The Corn King and Spring Queen are not individuals, but functionaries whose ritual actions connect the community to the productive cycle of the seasons. At the opposite extreme, Ptolemaic Egypt represents an advanced stage of self-conscious individualism. The Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy Philopater, is arbitrary and corrupt, and the Egyptian religion is preoccupied with death and individual immortality.
In between these two extremes is Sparta, where Kleomenes has brought about a quasi-socialist revolution, redistributing wealth, instituting communal ownership of property, and restoring traditional Spartan simplicity and discipline. Kleomenes attempts to recreate through political and military means the sense of community and common purpose that existed at an earlier stage in the evolution of consciousness. In this, however, he meets resistance from the forces of individualism, private property, and nationalism. Eventually Kleomenes overreaches in his attempt to export his revolution beyond Sparta and is brought into conflict with the Achaean League and its powerful Macedonian allies.
One of the important common denominators in Marob, Sparta, and Egypt is Sphaeros the Stoic, who at various times serves as tutor to Tarrik, King Kleomenes of Sparta, and Arsinoë, the young Ptolemaic princess. The Stoic idea that the world-mind flows through and connects everything in the universe is certainly comprehensible to Tarrik, who feels that everything in Marob—the sun and the rain, the land and the crops—is connected through him as the Corn King. But what excites and disturbs him is Stoic epistemology and the notion that through the use of reason the Stoic can filter impressions received by the mind and judge which are real and which are not. Truth can be perceived and assented to, and form the basis of moral action. The entire first section of the novel takes its title, “Kataleptike Phantasia,” from the Stoic doctrine of the “cataleptic impression,” the perception of something real that the mind assents to and accepts as truth.
All of this Stoic teaching has a “disintegrating” effect on Tarrik, who finds
himself “split into two people,” a Greek Stoic and a barbarian god-king. For a while, this state of philosophical ferment is exciting, but eventually Tarrik finds himself “out of harmony.” Armed with a rationalism that resists Scythian magic, Sphaeros makes Tarrik see himself as an individual moral agent. Tarrik becomes increasingly self-conscious, and his concern for his individual survival begins to compete with his concern for the survival of the community. He no longer sees himself as part of the continuous life of his community, but begins to see himself as a mortal individual whose unique consciousness will die with his body.
“The dreadful thing had happened to Tarrik,” Mitchison writes. “He had become separate from the life of the community.” As Mitchison herself did when “the awful thing” happened to her, he becomes self-conscious and separate. He undergoes a painful process of intellectual maturation that deeply “wounds” him.
Stoicism, with its insistence that right and wrong are absolutes, seems to Tarrik out of tune with the actual ways of the world. He realizes that the good can be both situational and culturally relative—what's good for Greece is not always good for Marob—and that a sense of what is good can change over time. “Once upon a time,” he reflects, “it had been part of the order of nature for men to eat the enemies they had killed; there was nothing wrong or abhorrent about it.” But things had changed, and ideas of right and wrong had shifted. What Tarrik intuits is that an ideology, even when its object is good, can't always be reconciled with the actual conditions of a time or a place.
Kleomenes of Sparta, on the other hand, is firmly committed to his socialist ideology and ultimately brought down in his attempt to force the world into the shape he imagines. In exile in Alexandria, as he prepares to embark on a suicidal attempt to rally support for the Spartan cause, Kleomenes reflects philosophically on his life and wonders if he has done any permanent good:
What was there in man that could be changed by liberty or hope or friendship or a great idea? Where was it in the body? Sphaeros had never shown him. He had taken it for granted that he knew. Could one man alone have this part? He thought probably not, that it was only possible in a community. Then, could it go on in a community, apart from the individuals? Again, he thought not . . . He had never considered the thing so deeply before. Always he had been interested in some immediate object, some future he was going to make and see himself. Now that had dropped away. And suddenly, out of calm thought, he would be seized with bitter resentment that he had thought and acted so violently and with such ambition. If he had been sensible and far slower, and placated more people, and compromised wherever it had seemed necessary, he might have another twenty or thirty good years to live.
Mitchison's attitude toward Kleomenes is ambivalent. By the time she was working on the novel, she had gravitated toward socialism and sympathized with the king's revolutionary goals as an ancient analog for her political beliefs. But his second thoughts in this passage, his regret over missing the opportunity to compromise, are more in line with Mitchison's pragmatism.
In the end, Kleomenes dies for his ideals, and on Ptolemy's orders the Spartan
king's body is affixed to a pike outside the walls of Alexandria. Meanwhile, inside the city, Erif Der descends into a deep trance. Her spirit, what the Egyptians call her khu, leaves her body and transforms itself into a giant snake that coils around the pike and protects the corpse of Kleomenes.
From her reading of Jane Ellen Harrison's Themis, Mitchison knew that snakes were powerful and often sexually ambiguous symbols in mythology, representing the phallic and chthonic, the hero-god and the earth goddess. It was an encounter with copulating snakes that initiated the transformation of Tiresias into a woman and back again into a man. A snake was also associated with the god Mithras, who was often depicted with a snake coiled around his body. The snake is both male and female, death and rebirth.
Erif Der was exiled from Marob after she killed her father during the annual Corn Play. Her role as Spring Queen called for her to mimic drawing the bronze sickle across the throat of the actor playing the Old Corn—in this case, her father. But instead, she drew the blade across his throat and killed him in revenge for his part in the death of her first-born child. She steps outside of her playacting role and makes the imaginary real. A moment before this happens, Mitchison describes the whirling ritual dance between Erif Der and her father: “her dress twisted suddenly like a snake around her.” Her long quest for purification will finally end when she transforms herself into the twisting snake. Near the end of the novel, she leaves her body and takes on the shape of a snake coiling itself around the pole on which Kleomenes's body has been hung. Through a powerful act of the imagination, Erif Der becomes the symbol of the dead male hero. At the same time, she embodies the shape-changing, gender-switching power of Mitchison's own imagination. Travel Light was my own introduction to Naomi Mitchison. The story begins with a wicked stepmother and an abandoned princess nurtured, like Atalanta in Greek myth, by a she-bear. The princess, Halla, becomes the ward of a dragon, the protegé of a Valkyrie, and the traveling companion of three pilgrims from Marob seeking justice for their oppressed homeland from the Byzantine Emperor. I found the combination of fairytale, myth, and history utterly charming and original. The book's only flaw was that, at 147 pages, it was too short. Fortunately, I discovered that Mitchison had written another novel about the fictional land of Marob that weighed in at 719 pages. But The Corn King and the Spring Queen was something different altogether: an epic shaped by Frazerian anthropology, Greek philosophy, and Hellenistic Greek history. The novel is darker, more violent, and at the same time earthier and more cerebral than Travel Light.
Travel Light appealed to the child in me who became a reader when my fifth grade teacher handed me a copy of The Hobbit. I recognized Mitchison's story as a feminist reimagining of Bilbo's unexpected journey. The Corn King and the
Spring Queen appealed to the adult who had become a classicist. I appreciated Mitchison's scholarship and her serious attempt, within the framework of a compelling adventure story, to dramatize ancient ideas and systems of belief. She shows her characters, filled with contradictions and torn by conflicting loyalties, struggling to live with integrity. As a teacher of Latin and Greek to undergraduates, I always want my students to come away with some sense that those long-dead Greeks and Romans lived real lives and wrestled with real issues that have relevance for the way we live now. I find this quality in Mitchison's historical fiction—the combination of careful scholarship and a feeling for real life—refreshing and compelling.
In 1928, the novelist and critic Arnold Bennett complained that “truth to human nature is the chief lack in historical fiction.” He found the English historical novel full of the clichés of swashbuckling and bodice-ripping romance. Naomi Mitchison was the one exception he could cite of a historical novelist whose work appealed to “people who know a book from a bonbon.” Mitchison's historical novels from the 1920s were praised above all for the apparent ease with which the author recreated a past that felt real. Reviewing Mitchison's first novel in the Saturday Review in 1923, Gerald Gould wrote: “She has, as it were by miracle, got back into the air and mood of the time she writes about: she creates, and re-creates. The splendour and the mystery come easy to her. She is at home.” Winifred Holtby wrote of The Corn King and the Spring Queen: “one simply knows that this is a real world; that real people lived in it; that this is how they lived.” Even professional classicists were impressed with Mitchison's ability to imagine herself into the classical world. Harry T. Logan, a classicist at Mcgill University, wrote in Classical Weekly in 1953: “what impresses one most about the books is the apparent nearness of the writer to the characters she writes about. This can only come from a lively imagination and a patient and painstaking effort to visualize in thought and feeling the minds and hearts of the men and women of Greece and Rome.”
But there were times when her political activism threatened to overwhelm her artistry. We Have Been Warned (1939) was Mitchison's most directly autobiographical novel and her first attempt to write a novel with a contemporary setting. Like Mitchison, the protagonist is the daughter of a family of Scottish landowners and the wife of a Labor politician who wants to identify with the masses, and who especially wants to improve the condition of poor women by giving them access to contraception. The novel provoked a particularly scathing review from Q. D. Leavis, who attacked its uncritical enthusiasm for Stalinism and its tone-deaf depiction of the life of the working poor. The imaginative re-creation of real life, which so impressed the readers of her early novels, is precisely what Leavis found lacking in We Have Been Warned. She writes: “Isn't it odd that a genuine concern for the emancipation of the workers and an immersion in working-class society should not have produced at least freshness of perception and some response to the peculiar quality of the life dealt with . . . ?”
For a writer of deep political convictions and a strong commitment to
social justice, the urge to use her fiction as a platform for activism was often too strong to resist, especially in the midst of the seismic historical events of the late 1930s. Europe seemed to be faced with a stark choice between Communism and Fascism, and Mitchison unhesitatingly chose the former. When she returned to historical fiction with 1939's The Blood of the Martyrs, the persecution of the early Christians under Nero was an obvious allegory for the oppression of the proletariat. The result was not to every reader's taste. The reviewer for New Statesman wrote that Mitchison's early Christians under Nero were like “a Fabian summer school captured by white slavers.” Through her use of allegory, Mitchison attempts to shape the historical novel into a novel of ideas about the present. But to many readers of The Blood of the Martyrs, the result seems forced and dated, an idiosyncratic product of the ideological struggles of the pre-war period. As Mitchison herself said in her review of The Lord of the Rings: “One man's allegory is another man's irritation.”
Mitchison could certainly write with the single-mindedness and passion of an ideologue, but her more characteristic mode was the exploration of conflicting loyalties and complex motivations, compromises and contradictions. Her friend Doris Lessing put the case well in a blunt and perceptive letter advising Mitchison not to rush her African memoir, Return to the Fairy Hill, into publication:
My advice to you is to put this away for five years, by which time you will understand what really happened to you, and then write the real truth. Really personal and true, as you really felt it. The deepest and most personal emotions become impersonal, and therefore true and valuable for other people, because we are not as unlike each other as we like to think; we are not these unique and remarkable individuals; and we can be quite sure that our deepest and most powerful emotions are not ours alone, but other people's, too, for whom we express them . . .
Lessing was afraid that Mitchison would come across as hypocritical or naïve if she didn't gain some emotional distance and let her intense personal experience mature into truth. What Mitchison did so successfully in so much of her work was to mythologize her own experience, especially the experience of childhood and youth, and give it that archetypal and truthful quality that Lessing sought.
The word that appears again and again in essays about Naomi Mitchison is “contradictions.” “Mitchison embodies a mixture of extraordinary and potent contradictions,” Maroula Jannou says in an essay marking Mitchison's hundredth birthday in 1997. She was “a mass of contradictions,” her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says. An aristocratic socialist, a Scottish nationalist with an Oxford accent, an advocate for birth control who bore seven children, a scientific realist who was fascinated with magic and mythology—each writer has his or her own list of the contradictions that Mitchison embodied.
Mitchison's abiding interest in the experience of otherness in her fiction arises from this mass of personal contradictions, from her own intense internalized sense of difference. She looks inside herself and sees the other. She is the rational Greek and the magical Scythian, the conquered Gaul and the Roman conqueror.
Her fiction explores these differences and attempts to reconcile them by bringing to light the common humanity of her characters. By showing us the ancient other, she wants to make us see our modern selves. As Arnold Bennett put it, Mitchison “neatly and honestly emphasizes the indubitable fact that BC people were human in a thousand small ways as we are.” Creating her fictional worlds enabled Mitchison to discover what Hegel called “identity in difference”—the “you” in “I,” the “we” in “they,” the “now” in “once upon a time.”