The Burning Glass: The Life Of Naomi Mitchison

Jenni Calder

Sandstone Press, £9.99

NAOMI Mitchison was a woman in search of an identity. Born to privilege and married to a wealthy barrister turned politician, she could – like others of her class and era – have remained decoratively in the background, bolstering her husband's profile by creating an exemplary domestic backdrop to his greatness.

But Naomi was an adventurer. In her 101-year life, she wrote more than 90 books and countless articles on everything from classical history to science fiction. She was also a traveller, political campaigner, social reformer, fisherwoman, African tribal matriarch and much else besides.

Consequently, Jenni Calder's newly republished 1997 biography, The Burning Glass, is exhilarating and even a little exhausting. Taking in two global conflicts, the Spanish Civil War, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the emancipation of a former British colony, her story also offers a unique perspective on a century in which the position of women was revolutionised – although in truth, Mitchison's experience can hardly be considered typical, not only because of her affluent background but because, as an inveterate flouter of convention, she was an exemplar of nothing but her own, extraordinary will.

Edinburgh-born in 1897 into the distinguished Haldane line (they were lairds of Gleneagles), she spent her early years between the family's Oxford and Perthshire homes, absorbing both a private education and the influence of her high-achieving, academic forebears. From an early age she was composing poetry and conducting scientific experiments on guinea pigs, and at 18 she married barrister Gilbert Richard Mitchison (Dick), who would later become a Labour MP.

But the bold, bright and beautiful Naomi would never be content with the quietly respectable role of politician's wife. Although the couple remained close and had seven children together, they agreed to an open marriage in which each conducted passionate affairs with other people. Wealth and servants meant each could pursue their career unhindered by housework or childcare, and by her late twenties Naomi had three sons, several published books and an illustrious social circle: EM Forster, WH Auden, the Huxleys, Stracheys et al were regular guests at the lively parties she threw in Oxford and London, where the family later moved.

When in 1927 her nine-year-old son, Geoff, died painfully of meningitis, Naomi's grief was compounded by guilt at having been away during his illness. Her anguish was exacerbated when her beloved brother Jack (the scientist JBS Haldane) and his wife, Charlotte (who'd authored a book condemning women who didn't put their children first), blamed her for the tragedy. Then her close friend, Aldous Huxley, monopolised her agony by writing it into his novel, Point Counter Point, in which a child becomes fatally ill during his mother's absence.

"It was a long time before Naomi could forgive him," writes Calder. I am surprised she ever did. She seems to have struggled to forgive herself and the episode suggests that for all Mitchison's feminist rejection of propriety and conformity, she was, like generations of women who followed her trailblazing path, conflicted about the choices she made. Indeed, evidence of her occasional bouts of excoriating self-doubt recurs throughout The Burning Glass.

Adventurers are not, after all, immune to fear. Rather, they experience apprehension then pursue their ambitions anyway ... and in the wake of the suffragettes, Mitchison went at life with gusto and a committed left-wing consciousness, lobbying for access to birth control in deprived communities, assisting Austrian refugees in the run-up to the Second World War, supporting the Alabama sharecroppers' union and conducting a Fabian Society fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union. She even stood (unsuccessfully) as a parliamentary candidate for Labour.

All the time she was writing books, plays, and newspaper articles, but with the height of her novelistic success behind her, following the 1931 publication of The Corn King And The Spring Queen, she decided to become a Scottish farmer. In the late 1930s, the Mitchisons bought Carradale House on the Kintyre peninsula, A 17th-century pile with a swathe of land and shore. As well as creating a kind of Argyllshire party central within the rambling old mansion, she learned to drive tractors, tend livestock and even skipper a fishing boat. Wintering in London and spending summers in Carradale became her new seasonal pattern.

The Second World War brought challenges for a woman with anti-war convictions who "felt paralysed by a feeling of moral failure" and struggled to write. When in summer 1939 the Mitchisons' seventh child, Clemency, died shortly after birth, Naomi suffered an existential crisis. "If only I had my baby I wouldn't need to write a book that probably nobody wants to read," she wrote in her diary. "All springs of action gone, all confidence gone. I don't see that I'm likely ever to be any good at anything."

However, she threw herself into Carradale life, working alongside local farmers and fishermen (at least one of whom she may have had an affair with), writing and rehearsing plays to be performed locally and plotting a historical novel, The Bull Calves, set in 1747 in the aftermath of Culloden. A supporter of Scottish independence, she became involved in local politics, serving as a county councillor and a member of the Highlands and Islands Advisory Board.

She also travelled extensively and in her sixties was adopted as a kind of "tribal mother" to the Bakgatla tribe in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) after meeting the young chief designate during his British Council-organised visit to Kintyre. How or why this happened isn't entirely clear. She wrote of having learned to "slip into an African skin, to think and feel as an African" but although she helped establish libraries and schools, Calder hints that, as in Kintyre, Naomi had been actively searching around for a role “at a time when it was clear that her previous political life was never going to deliver as much as she had hoped”. She was “a shape-changer, always looking for new scenes” and “part of the inspiration of Africa was that it provided another stage”.

Creeping doubt, however, was never far away. When her husband lost his ministerial post and his health deteriorated, she wrote in her diary: “Poor Dick, feeling like hell about losing his job and no doubt I ought to be there. But equally I ought to be here [Africa].” Dick died in 1970.

Although Calder presents a well-balanced assessment of Naomi Mitchison's legacy, she doesn't hide her affection for her subject – particularly in the final chapter, which describes the interviews she conducted at Carradale House during the 1990s. By then Mitchison was a widow in her 90s. The writer who once said England regarded her as a “bad and dangerous” revolutionary, was now a fragile but sparky silver-haired woman, who dressed for dinner each evening and sat regally at the end of a long, elaborately laid table in a vast dining room occupied only by herself, her single servant and Calder. It is a poignant glimpse of a once vibrant party animal who had believed passionately in the importance of community and had explored, through political activity and writing, the kind of societal organisation that best allows people to live happy, mutually supportive lives. She died in January 1999, a few months before the opening of the new Scottish Parliament.

Africa, writes Calder, had given her "something that Scotland had failed to provide, which Soviet Russia could not". Quoting Mitchison directly, she writes that the author seems to have been seeking "the open secret which binds all life together. The sense of continuity between past and present. The stream of life which makes the individual more and less important, which takes away fear".

I wonder if she found it.