Wednesday 22 November 2023

Reading Naomi Mitchison

My planned reading list took a left turn this year when I discovered the name Naomi Mitchison. I’m not sure exactly how I found it, I was at work and looking something else up and found one intriguing thing that led to another which led to her.

Hers seemed an incredibly interesting life. She died in 1999, having lived for the whole of the twentieth century and a little more. Born to the landed Haldane family of Scotland, she went to Oxford and published her first novel in 1923. She was to publish another 90 books, in genres as different as science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, ethnography, poetry, memoir, political writing and works for children. She was also one of the initial ‘b-readers’ for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which she was very positive about.

She was a member of the Fabian Society, took part in some light espionage, stood as a Labour candidate and later married one who became a Lord, giving her the title of Lady (which she never used). She became a member of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana and advocated for them. She campaigned for women’s rights and birth control and although becoming a Life Fellow of the Eugenics Society, she quit it because of their politics.

When asked by Who’s Who what her hobbies were, she stated “burning rubbish.” When asked, on her 90th birthday, what she most regretted she said “all the men I never slept with”. She was an author definitely worth checking out.

I’ve had other focus writers. Leon Garfield will always have my heart (and I just discovered, and bought, a book by him I hadn’t heard of). I also very much enjoyed reading all the works of Patrick Hamilton and Penelope Fitzgerald.. but Mitchison’s ninety might take a bit more time to locate and read.

I’ve managed ten.

Travel Light

Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Behold Your King

Early in Orcadia

The Bull Calves

The Fourth Pig

The Corn King and the Spring Queen

To the Chapel Perilous

The Blood of the Martyrs

Not By Bread Alone

Within that selection lay some of her biggest hits and a few lesser known pieces. They contain some historical fiction, some sci-fi, a collection of fairy tales and what could be described as a YA novel.

I can’t say I have loved reading Naomi Mitchison as I’d hoped. The humour found in To the Chapel Perilous is not to be found in many of the other books. I found many of her characters to be a little opaque, and her style to sometimes be detached to the point of cold. On the whole, I’ve found her to be an author I’ve admired more than enjoyed, which is not to say there is no enjoyment.

Her skill at world-building is wonderful. Memoirs of a Spacewoman has a very well thought out society of space explorers, with a wonderfully practical integration of time-dilation on a space traveller’s personal relationships. It also deals with the fascinating subject of ethnography, especially if stretched out to different planets and species. Each alien race encountered has a fully formed little eco-system and method of communication which stems from the biology. Whether that’s the difficulties a spiral, multi-handed race has with making definitive decisions, or the tragic life cycles of the pleasure-caterpillars and the shame-butterflies.

The Bull Calves remains one of the most impressive historical novels I’ve ever read. Not only does the book manage to look at the position of post-Culloden Scotland from lots of different angles, it does it through characters whose different outlooks are deeply rooted in their different experiences. It reaches an authenticity that I’ve rarely read in a historical novel.

Her takes on Christianity, Behold Your King and Blood of the Martyrs share this authenticity but apply it to the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’s life and the fates of a small church in Rome during the reign of Nero. They both create characters that feel suitably alien and of a different time and culture, but also recognisable and understandable. They both also offer a wonderful vision of how Christianity could have gone, had it not been subsumed by the Roman Empire.

This alien-ness of past cultures is also a theme in Travel Light and The Corn King and the Spring Queen, the latter being her most critically successful work. I personally found the creation of Marob both entrancing and frustrating. It did seem to be a very plausible and interesting culture, but I found myself too alienated from it - a strange position when Spartans are the most understandable characters in the book. Early in Orcadia does a similar thing for the Orkney Islands, trying to imagine into the pre-historic past and see the development of a stone-age culture.

Not By Bread Alone tries to apply this systematic, ‘big picture’ quality to a future where world hunger is solved, but the book feels somewhat methodical and mechanical. The Fourth Pig introduces the notion of ‘the Debateable Land’, somewhere between human and faerie where he rules of both can be debated. It’s a fascinating notion, and one I think could be explored more fully but in the stories featured in the book it can be hard to follow, as the events happen somewhere the certainties of both realms don’t hold full sway, being something closer to a dream than anything else. 

While Naomi Mitchison didn’t quite develop into being my next obsession author, she’s on the list of writers like Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge and Elizabeth Von Arnim that I’ll always keep an eye out for in a second hand shop and never turn down. She may not always grip me totally, but she’s always doing something interesting, and that’s worth a lot.

I made a list challenges of almost all of her work here - I only have 80-odd to go.


  1. Hello, I'm interested in your note that says Mitchison published "over ninety books". Do you have a list? The bibliography at suggests over 70 were books, and I'm struggling to find more. Incidentally, she married Dick Mitchison in, I think, 1916, long before either of their political careers.

  2. I read the 90-odd number in a biographical insert on the back of one of the books. When I made my list, I only found 70-odd, so I imagine the 90 number may have included chapters, stories, poems, essays and such in other works or even periodicals. But, if I'm honest, I'd never trust me with a number. Those things are slippery.