The Woman Who Decided Communism Was about Sharing Ideals and Bodies; Naomi Mithcison Wrote 80 Books, Had Seven Children and Shared Her Marriage with Fishermen and an African Chief

Daily Mail (London), August 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Woman Who Decided Communism Was about Sharing Ideals and Bodies; Naomi Mithcison Wrote 80 Books, Had Seven Children and Shared Her Marriage with Fishermen and an African Chief


Byline: ANNE DE COURCY

THE amazing Naomi Mitchison will be 100 in November. Author of more than 80 books including novels, poetry and children's stories - politician, 'mother' of an African tribe, and an early feminist, her remarkable life has another equally intriguing facet.

Brought up in an era when social conventions were so rigid that a young woman of her social class was not even allowed to walk in the street without a chaperone, she nevertheless enjoyed an open marriage and the attentions of a number of lovers, as a new biography, The Nine Lives Of Naomi Mitchison, by Jenni Calder, reveals.

What was astonishing about Naomi's numerous affairs was not so much that she took lovers, but that she did so with such openness and with the agreement of her husband - all the while carrying on a married life which produced seven children.

Discreet liaisons among the wealthy and privileged in the highest echelons of society, conducted with the utmost discretion - any hint of scandal and the offender was cast out - were one thing. Love affairs with fishermen and close friendships with the mistresses of one's husband were quite another.

But Naomi was undaunted. 'A love life is very important to creative work,' she said.

She had no difficulty attracting men, with her deep, intense blue eyes, long hair the colour of dark honey, vivid smile and spontaneous warmth, her compelling personality given an added edge by her sparkling intelligence.

Naomi was born into a family of great intellectual distinction who lived in Oxford. Her father was the brilliant scientist J. B. S. Haldane, her uncle became Lord Chancellor, one aunt wrote books on the philosophers Descartes and Hegel, and the academic world was threaded with her cousins.

All were such high achievers that the Prime Minister's wife Margot Asquith once remarked: 'The trouble with those Haldanes is that their brains have gone to their heads.' The Haldanes were also well-off.

Servants took care of the family's every need in their large Oxford home.

As Naomi grew from childhood to girlhood, her hair was brushed first by a nanny and then by a maid, and there were frequent formal dinner parties to which students were often invited.

Everyone dressed for dinner Naomi still does - sitting at a table adorned with silver, linen and flowers, and served by maids in uniform.

AS A CHILD, her twin obsessions were writing and her guinea pigs, which she fed and cleaned out, watched mating and giving birth, even dissecting any pregnant females that died to discover the characteristics of the unborn litters.

From an early age Naomi was surrounded by boys and men. As a day girl at the Dragon School she was quickly accepted as 'one of the boys'.

And when her elder brother Jack, the family member to whom she was closest, went to Eton and then Oxford, she naturally met his friends.

Inevitably one of them, Dick Mitchison, fell in love with the pretty 16-year-old, an emotion heightened by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. When Dick, about to depart for the trenches, proposed, Naomi, ignorant of what marriage meant but extremely fond of him, said Yes.

In an era when the rules of chaperonage were so strict that Naomi was not even allowed to travel on the same train as her fiance when they went to visit his family in Scotland, it is hardly surprising that Dick and Naomi were virgins, and that Naomi, despite close observation of her guinea pigs, was sexually ignorant.

'I knew extremely little about the physical side but I pretended to know more than I did,' she said.

Her mother, uneasy and embarrassed, could offer no more than oblique references to what lay in store for Naomi. 'When we married, in 1916, Dick was on a week's leave from Flan-ders. We were "in love" but had astonishingly little idea of what that meant in marital practice,' Naomi confessed to her diary. …

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