Contexts

Naomi Mitchison – Storyteller

Naomi Mitchison was many things – novelist, dramatist, essayist, poet, but above all she was a teller of stories.

The storytelling tradition goes as far back as humankind itself: we have always told stories – they are a way of understanding ourselves and the important things around us. From fireside folk tales to movies, from ballads to pop songs, from the great myths of Homer and Virgil to the latest novels riding up the bestseller charts, our appetite for stories has remained undimmed throughout several thousand years of human history.

We tell and listen to stories for all kinds of reasons: to be entertained; to imagine other places, other worlds; to experience romance and adventure, pursuit and danger, life and death without having to leave the comfort of our homes or families; to prepare us in some way for the real world; and to learn about ourselves and our communities, our ‘tribes’. To do all this, and more, is the role of the storyteller.

The novel is the one of our most sophisticated ways of telling stories, a complex and difficult art that often reveals rare and beautiful truths. The best novelists are those who touch something deep within us which continues to resonate long after we put the book away, whose words compel us to attention by the force of their narrative and verbal power. The best novels tell us something we realise we already knew but had never brought to mind in such a lucid and enlightening way. Some novels even succeed in telling us how the world is going to be.

Modern storytellers differ from their ancient counterparts only very slightly. Through them we are able to understand our world, without them we would lose much of what it means to be human.

Naomi Mitchison was born into an aristocratic family in the last years of the 19th century and spent her childhood in Oxford. Later, after her marriage, she returned to Scotland to explore her family and cultural heritage in a large number of novels – over 80 were published in her lifetime. As well as being a writer she was a hardworking member of the several communities she belonged to. When she moved from London to Carradale in Kintyre she became concerned with Highland affairs and played a prominent role in local politics, serving as a member of Argyll County Council and the Highland Panel for over 20 years. Her concerns, though, were not restricted to the local. She travelled widely, most significantly in Africa. In the 1960s, when she lived in Botswana, she was adopted as adviser and Mmarona (mother) of the Bakgatla tribe.

Her work spanned almost the entire gamut of genres from early mythology in works like The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), to science fiction in Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Solution Three (1975). The Bull Calves (1947) explored Scotland’s history, but her African fiction e.g. When We Become Men (1965) and Images of Africa (1980) reflects the influence of her stay in Botswana. He early Greek and Roman novels were innovative in their use of modern contemporary dialogue. She had an assured sense of the mythological in her work which lent a timeless quality to the best of her fiction, particularly her writing for young people, for example, in The Big House (1950).

Mitchison’s work is so vast and varied that it is impossible to neatly summarise the themes and issues at the heart of her fiction. It would not be misrepresenting her work too much to say that she was concerned throughout her life with the fate of women in a man’s world in a way that few women writers at the time were prepared to. Many of her works, particularly her controversial early novel We Have Been Warned (1935), explored rape, abortion, enslavement and the loss of children.

But this wasn’t all. She wrote about politics and the effects that political decisions, and political ideologies have on individuals and their communities. Very often these political themes would deal with contemporary Scotland in its struggle to keep its head afloat in the modern world. At other times she would investigate the past – most memorably her own past and that of her family in The Bull Calves – as a way of engaging history and politics with her own roots.

Mitchison’s best writing always revealed a global sense of perspective that her reading and research in history gave her, that she gained from living through the 20th century and participating in its turbulent politics, that she took from folk tale and myth. She was a writer who told the eternal stories of humankind. Her truly unique and international voice was one which spoke as much for the ‘world tribe’ as for her own community.