There is something fascinating about the detail of one’s first space journey. They get terribly boring after a time, and perhaps that’s as well or one would have less opportunity for contemplation which, after all, needs conditions of slight discomfort.

It always seems to me curious that there are some things in exploration that we simply cannot think will happen, in spite of all our warnings and examples.

From Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison, 1962


Naomi Mitchison, author of more than 70 books, bohemian free thinker and feminist, died on Monday at her home on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. She was 101. The subjects and genres of her writing ranged over the successive enthusiasms of her life: ancient Greece, socialism, genetics, science fiction, space, fascism in Spain, home rule for Scotland and independence movements in Africa, where she became the honorary mother of a tribe in Botswana.

Her personal life drew as much attention as her work, from shocking contemporary convention in the 1920’s by declaring her marriage an open one to her championing of birth control in the 1930’s to her continual fights with publishers who insisted on removing explicit references to sex from her books.


A rebel against social restrictions on women from her youth, she had a tendency to lash out physically at men to prove her point, once throwing a half-plucked partridge at the Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell. Married for 54 years and the mother of seven children, she was asked on her 90th birthday if she had any regrets. ”Yes,” she said, ”all the men I never slept with. Imagine!”


Naomi Margaret Haldane was born in Edinburgh in 1897 and brought up in Oxford as a member of a privileged family that produced a number of patrician politicians and noted scientists. Taught alternately at the Dragon School and at home by a governess, she had a precocious interest from earliest youth in being an active participant in life. She assisted a brother and the young Aldous Huxley as they performed experiments on guinea pigs on the lawn.


In 1916 she married Gilbert Richard (Dick) Mitchison, a lawyer who was a Labour member of Parliament from 1945 to 1964, when he joined the House of Lords. She never used the title she gained, Lady Mitchison, preferring to be known by her nickname, Nou.


She told friends that she was disappointed by her introduction to sex, complaining that it was ”so unlike Swinburne.” In 1925 she and her husband both subscribed to the idea of an open marriage, in keeping with her statement that marriage amounted to ”domestic prostitution”.

She wrote her first book in 1923, and her early writing met with critical success while causing scandal with its emphasis on subjects like rape, infanticide, lesbianism and abortion. In 1931 she became a literary force in Britain with the publication of ‘The Corn King and the Spring Queen.’

She remained an activist throughout her life, running unsuccessfully for Parliament herself in 1935 and then serving on a number of boards and councils representing Highland and Island communities in Scotland until her 90’s, when she was, in her words, ‘booted out on grounds of age.’


From the late 1930’s she held forth at Carradale, her 300-acre farm on the Mull of Kintyre in Argyll, riveting diffuse collections of writers, academics, scientists, local fishermen and hunters, children and grandchildren. She was not distracted from writing by all the people in her drawing room, and she once said she felt most creative when pregnant. She was a commanding presence in her own salon, speaking with a mystical authority that her fellow author and friend, Elizabeth Longford, likened to ‘what I imagine to be the kind of voice possessed by a Celtic prophetess reading the runes.’ Her keen pursuit of new subjects continued into her last years. ”Dying is quite the most interesting thing that is going to happen to me now,” she recently said. ”I often wake up in the night and wonder if it’s starting. I would really like to take notes.”

New York Times, January 16, 1999

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