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Inside Stories: Amateurism and Activism in the Classical Works of Naomi Mitchison

Sheila Murnaghan

University of Pennsylvania

The Scottish author and activist Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999) was a prolific writer in many genres, including historical fiction and science fiction (of which she is often identified as the first female practitioner), and a committed advocate for socialist, feminist, and anti-colonialist causes.  Mitchison’s relationship to the classical past – both as the subject of class-reinforcing elite education and as a favored setting for her own fiction – was conditioned by her double position as both insider and outsider: she was a member of a prosperous and well-connected academic family and a woman acutely aware of the limitations that followed from biological difference.  As a child, Mitchison was educated together with her brother at the Dragon school in Oxford, where “I was for all practical purposes a boy until the horrible thing happened”; she reached puberty and was suddenly removed (Mitchison 1975: 11).  Subsequently, she had the classical education of a privileged amateur.  Her ability to make the most of that situation was evident in her youthful reading of Jowett’s translation of Plato, which she came upon in the family bookshelf: “I picked up and began to read The Republic and was much taken up with the idea of being a Guardian. This, I know, started off one of my interminable inside stories, interspersed with noble sayings in the manner of Jowett . . .” (Mitchison 1975: 40). Mitchison’s response to Plato via Jowett was marked at once by a freedom and confidence that came with her comfortable status, which allowed her to inject herself into a male-dominated world (“in my inside stories I don’t suppose I was ever a Greek woman”) and by a critical distance that came with her gender, which detached her from the oppressive conservatism associated with Plato: “Perhaps I only escaped the Platonic net, so widely spread in Oxford, by being one of those inferior creatures of the wrong sex, born, not to be leaders, but perhaps with luck, like Socrates . . . to be a gadfly” (Mitchison 1975:40-41).

Mitchison embarked briefly on university-level studies in science, but turned instead to nursing with the advent of WWI and then to life as a wife, mother, writer, and feminist gadfly, with strongly-held and unconventional views favoring open marriage, sexual freedom, and birth control.  As an amateur classicist, she circumvented the censorship and resistance engendered by her contemporary fiction (notably her 1935 novel We Have Been Warned) by using ancient settings for novels that both exposed the distorting effects of female disempowerment and entertained the possibilities of female emancipation and unconventional sexuality.  Her imaginative reconstructions of life in antiquity were underwritten by knowledge of ancient history acquired not through scholarship but through personal reading and personal contacts: in her 1925 novel Cloud Cuckoo-Land, set during the Peloponnesian War, these influences are reflected in a prefatory note linking some Greek  terminology to the works of Jane Ellen Harrison and a provocative dedication “To my lover,” by whom she means the Oxford classicist H.T. Wade-Gery.  After surveying Mitchison’s strategic negotiation of the advantages and disadvantages of her formative years, this paper will consider how she drew on her status as a story-telling insider to make fictions of the ancient world into vehicles for uncompromising and far-reaching feminist convictions.

Session/Panel Title

Feminist Re-Visionings: Twentieth-Century Women Writers and Classics

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