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Jenni Calder: Reading Naomi Mitchison

Earlier this month we launched The Burning Glass by Jenni Calder, the first biography of Naomi Mitchison to cover the entirety of her life. To celebrate, we asked Jenni to recommend some books as a starting point for readers who are new to Mitchison.

Where do you start, with over 70 books by Naomi Mitchison to choose from? Perhaps best to start at the beginning with The Conquered (1923), her first novel. Set at the time of the Roman invasion of Gaul, it’s a novel about power and conflict, comradeship and divided loyalties. But it was written also in response to the creation after much conflict of an Irish free state in 1922. The novel was very well received, with readers particularly appreciating the freshness of an approach that treated people of the ancient past as having feelings and issues no different from those of the present day. ‘She makes the emotions of her characters actual and our own,’ as one reviewer put it.

The Conquered was the first of several novels and stories set in the ancient world, so if you enjoy it you may want to read Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925), Black Sparta (1928) and Barbarian Stories (1929). They are not all in print, but you can sometimes track them down online or in second-hand bookshops. This first phase of Mitchison’s fiction culminated with The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), a wonderful wide-ranging novel centred on the remarkable character of Erif Der (Red Fire backwards) and the invented country of Marob on the edge of the Black Sea. Mitchison richly evokes the life and art, the rituals and ideas of an area and a period that she knew only through books and the museum artefacts that fascinated her. (A few years later, she would visit the territory she so vividly imagined.)

The novel, a hugely impressive achievement, explores Erif Der’s role as queen and priestess, her complex relations with husband, father and brother, her travels and encounters with alien cultures. ‘It is a world, this book’, wrote one reviewer. ‘A triumph of the historical imagination,’ wrote another. So for me a ‘must read’, whether or not you have a particular interest in Naomi Mitchison’s life and work.

From 1938 Mitchison had a home at Carradale in Kintyre, and Scotland and more recent history became the subject of her fiction. Two novels stand out. The Bull Calves (1947) is set after the 1745 Jacobite rising and draws on Mitchison’s own family history to examine the state of the Scottish nation after conflict. It is in many ways as much about Scotland after World War II as it is about Scotland after the defeat of the Jacobites. An illuminating if not an easy read, it’s a milestone in both her output and in Scottish 20th century fiction. On a smaller scale but equally illuminating is Lobsters on the Agenda (1952), set in a Hebridean community and focusing on issues of Highland regeneration that Mitchison herself was much involved with.

Mitchison, of course, didn’t just write fiction. Her two long poems ‘The Alban goes out’ and ‘The cleansing of the knife’ are powerful evocations of Highland life, and many of her essays and articles are still strikingly – and disturbingly – relevant.

The Burning Glass by Jenni Calder has been described as 'an outstanding example of the biographer's art,' by Undiscovered Scotland, and is now available online and from all good bookshops.

Jenni Calder

Jenni Calder