A ‘bad and dangerous’ woman?

Scottish PENScottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide organisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.


by Jenni Calder

In the summer of 1914, Naomi Haldane was living in the family home in Oxford. She was in her seventeenth year. Gathered at the house were her older brother Jack and several of his friends, including Aldous and Trevennan Huxley, Lewis Gielgud, and a young man called Dick Mitchison. Naomi had written a drama in which they all performed, with herself as director and playing a key role. These young men were her gang – she liked to be in charge, and the fact that they had all been to Eton and her formal education had stopped at the age of twelve was no deterrent. In the course of her long life she never lost the urge to direct, and in her latter years often fumed at the fact that it became increasingly difficult to take the lead in the way she wished.

It was not customary for women to be in charge of men. But Naomi had grown up in an unusual household. Her mother, Louisa Kathleen Trotter, was a feminist though not a suffragette, and a stalwart upholder of the Empire. Her aunt, Elizabeth Haldane, was a formidable achiever, for a time manager of Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, and Scotland’s first female justice of the peace. And her father, John Scott Haldane, was a scientist who encouraged his daughter to share in laboratory experiments. Her inherently adventurous curiosity was encouraged.

Naomi Haldane came of age at a dangerous time. Only weeks after the Oxford dramatics, Britain was at war and Jack, Dick Mitchison and other friends were in the forces. Many would not return, and Jack and Dick were both seriously wounded. In the early part of the war Naomi fretted that she was excluded from the action, but she joined the VAD (Voluntary Aid Attachment) and became an auxiliary nurse at London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. It was not an easy experience. She left her comfortable upper middle-class home to work in a huge public hospital in wartime, in an environment of acute pain and mutilation, under a draconian regime which she found hard to accept. The VADs were at the bottom of the hospital hierarchy and much of the work was grindingly routine – cleaning, bed-making, fetching and carrying, disinfecting. She of course had no acquaintance with even the most rudimentary housework. In many respects she was completely out of her depth, yet this was the least of what she had to deal with. The casualties were flooding in from the other side of the Channel. Many of the men had appalling wounds and burns, and gangrene, with its accompanying smell of rotting flesh, was common.

Even without the profound and distorting effects of war, there is no way that she would have settled into a conventional existence. She and Dick Mitchison were married early in 1916, and their life together was immediately disrupted by war, a rocky start to what would become an unorthodox relationship. When they began their post-war married life in London they were both primed to challenge the accepted ideas and behaviours of their class. There followed twenty years of political and social radicalism, during which Naomi Mitchison’s natural inclinations to challenge authority flourished and strengthened. It was an extraordinarily productive period.

Between 1918 and 1940 Naomi produced seven children, five of whom survived, and 25 books, including fiction, poetry, drama and social commentary. She helped to run a clinic that provided contraceptive advice to working-class women. She and Dick were both involved with the Fabian Society and both stood as Labour candidates for parliament – Dick would become a Labour MP in 1945. ‘Looking back on it all,’ Naomi wrote in her memoir You May Well Ask (1979), ‘what was so strange and striking was the feeling we all had that if we tried hard enough, the millennium…would come into being.’

In the 1930s Naomi made three remarkable journeys, in 1932 to the Soviet Union, in 1934 to Vienna, and the following year to the USA. Each of these journeys was of profound political and personal significance in her life. The USSR visit was an investigatory trip with a group of Fabians, hoping to find confirmation that the Soviet socialist experiment was working. What Naomi recorded in her unpublished diary was an experience full of disturbing contradictions. She was energised by the position of women – ‘The way women have reacted to economic equality is the best advertisement for Marxism, and convinces me more than anything else’ – but ambivalent about the requirement to submerge individualism. It was something she felt that she herself was unable to do. The regime, she felt, was a combination of an essentially religious doctrine with a wasteful and repressive bureaucracy. And she found herself longing for the comforts of her London home, warmth, a bath, clean clothes.

While in the USSR she made a trip alone – with considerable trepidation – to the Black Sea, the locus of her best-selling novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) in which she had explored ideas of female power, influence and sacrifice. When she set off to Vienna in 1934 she travelled solo from the outset, and was nervous. She wrote in her Vienna diary (1934) that in England there were those who regarded her as a wild revolutionary, ‘a mad and dangerous woman’, but in reality she was anxious about having solitary restaurant meals. More important, she was undertaking a mission that was full of risk. She had volunteered to take money and papers to support the defeated socialists in Vienna who were being arrested, tortured and executed. She visited the families of some of the men who were in prison and began to understand their helplessness in the face of political oppression. She wrote articles about what she witnessed for the New Statesman and Time and Tide, which they refused to publish. ‘These dear little papers,’ she wrote, ‘that are willing to call one a genius when one’s writing fiction…won’t have anything to do with one when one’s writing about something that matters!’

Her US trip was also full of risk. She travelled with her unconventional and flamboyant friend Zita Baker to Tennessee and Alabama to support the sharecroppers protesting against a system that tied families to work the land in return for minimal wages. They hired a car and cheerfully ignored advice not to pick up hitchhikers, especially black men. Involvement in a cause was exhilarating – ‘for the first time in American history, white and coloured are working side by side in real equality,’ she wrote to Dick. But it was a threatening environment. The two women were exposing themselves to violent repercussions. When a black leader put his hand on Naomi’s shoulder he was later attacked by angry whites.

Naomi’s American trip was a characteristic defiance of authority and convention. By this time, she had a reputation as an awkward customer. She liked to challenge, she liked to shock, she liked to deliver the unexpected, she liked to experiment. This was true of her personal life as well as her political activities. She and Dick had agreed at an early stage that theirs would be an open marriage, not bound by conventional ideas of possession and limitation. They both had serious relationships with others, while retaining a profound and loyal commitment to each other. This was often difficult and sometimes painful, but they were honest with each other, and their partners, about the inevitable strains involved. In their own radical circle these unconventional relationships were accepted and it wasn’t unusual for Naomi and Dick to holiday together with their lovers and their lovers’ spouses. But it was behaviour that threatened social norms, and of course only confirmed a view of her as a difficult and dangerous woman.

In 1937 Dick and Naomi bought Carradale House in Kintyre, and the focus of Naomi’s life shifted north. As always she did nothing by halves, and was soon vigorously involving herself in the local community. Although this was not always welcomed, she and Dick over the next twenty or so years did a great deal for Carradale. Naomi spent most of the war years based there, running the farm, maintaining the household, taking the lead in community projects, including campaigning for a new harbour and a village hall, welcoming refugees and the war weary, and of course writing. In 1940 she gave birth to a daughter with a heart defect, who did not survive. It was a difficult time. Margaret Cole, G D H Cole’s wife and by then emotionally involved with Dick, visited Carradale at this time and described Naomi’s eccentric behaviour and ‘verbal truculence’ – she delighted in provoking and scandalising her listeners. Margaret Cole commented on her odd clothes ‘which were sometimes beautiful, sometimes reminiscent of an old peasant woman subsisting on cast-offs from gentry’. This was part of Naomi’s theatricality, one of her many ways of making a statement.

Some Kintyre folk found her interfering and obnoxious, and were shocked by the goings on at Carradale House. Naomi didn’t pull her punches when confronting opposition – her attitude is reflected in the wartime diary she kept for Mass-Observation (Among You Taking Notes, 1985). After the war she was elected to Argyll County Council and joined the Advisory Panel on the Highlands and Islands. This took her to many of the more remote areas of Scotland and intensified her commitment to post-war regeneration of communities that she felt had been long neglected. Her novel Lobsters on the Agenda (1952) describes some of the issues she confronted. She was the only woman on the Highland Panel and was often pained at the way she was sidelined. She also felt sidelined from the male-dominated literary scene. Her exasperation often fizzed into anger – and angry women were not popular.

Naomi’s impatience with both the political establishment and her local community grew into disillusion. When in 1962 she had the opportunity to visit the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, soon to become Botswana, she seized it. For the next 25 years Botswana, in particular the village of Mochudi, became a focus of her energies. She believed that the best of tribal values could co-exist with a modern democracy, and that Lynchwe, chief of the Bakgatla people of Mochudi to whom she was friend and mentor, had the understanding and influence to make this happen. On her almost annual visits to Botswana she helped set up a new school, a library and a museum, and worked hard to foster modernisation at the same time as encouraging traditional events and celebrations. In the process, she – inevitably – outraged the colonial establishment. She was seen as bossy, interfering, and letting down the side. But ultimately, although her achievements were significant and lasting, she was disappointed by Mochudi just as she was disappointed by Carradale. Not everyone she was determined to help was inclined to follow her lead, and she felt that too often her conviction and energy were met by intransigence.

And all the time she was writing. In the 1960s alone she published 18 books, including several stories for children and the first of her science fiction novels. Her last novel, Sea-green Ribbons, was published in 1991, when she was in her 94th year. Throughout her career her subject matter had ranged widely, from the ancient world to the future, from myth to modern Africa, from the dispossessed in the USA to the neglected in Scotland, from early Christianity to the socialist movements of the 1930s. Wherever she went – and she travelled widely – she had the ability to empathise with the people she met. That was her most striking talent, informing both life and creativity. She died in 1999, having witnessed and engaged through acts and words with many of the century’s most challenging events. At times she identified herself as a witch, a priestess, a shape-shifter. It’s not surprising that some people were alarmed – and that was often just the result she hoped for.