Mending the curtains

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Naomi Mitchison: A Biography by Jill Benton
    Pandora, 192 pp, £15.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 04 440460 3

To Carradale in August. We come over on a day of rare beauty. Deep cloud shadows bring out the breasts and shoulders of Arran. The car is stuffed with basic supplies, briefcases, heavy sweaters, the odd book. I have Pepys’s Tangier diary to digest, an old Navy Record Society publication. The house is in its usual confusion and piles of slates and scaffolding show the common West Highland problem of keeping a roof going. Four cows are on the croquet lawn, straying every now and then to grab a mouthful of escallonia from the bushes. Is it poisonous? We don’t know. They show up another rural problem, the maintenance of fencing. The teenagers are disconcerted by a bat in their bedroom. Dinner is a disaster area. Afterwards, as the dusk comes, I see a great new rent in the big drawing-room curtains which I thought I had mended once and for all. Jill Benton’s Naomi Mitchison lies on the sofa ignored by its subject, who is correcting proofs of a book of short stories.

Is a biography of someone living acceptable? Is it likely to be true, or fair? Biography isn’t just the record of a life, or a life and work, but also the account of the development of a relationship between author and subject. When the two have met and talked, this could be shown in depth. Difficult questions could be asked and either answered or evaded. My morning’s attack on patching the curtain gives me time to wonder if with Naomi one doesn’t learn more from her evasions than from her answers. But the biography of the living, produced in contact with the subject, will have the special difficulty of often being memoirbased. Benton came to Carradale and talked to Naomi and to others. She drew her knowledge of Naomi’s childhood from Naomi herself – inevitably, since there is no one around to give alternative information on the family setting before the First World War. And it’s well-known that memoirs are almost the most unreliable historical material available, surpassed only by crime statistics. How true can a book be that is based on them?

Jill Benton presents an over-protected childhood and adolescence. University family life then, provided there weren’t too many children, meant a high standard of living: servants, house space, holidays were all, in contrast with the life of the modern academic, lavish. The Haldane family went in for Liberal politics and high-minded agnosticism, but Naomi’s mother, who yearned for a career with power, was a Conservative imperialist. She and her husband, J.S. Haldane, had agreed not to attack each other’s politics. Eventually Naomi was to side with her father and oppose her mother, but not until well into adult life. I feel that with R.B. Haldane, the philosophical Lord Haldane of Cloan, as brother-in-law I, too, would have swung to Conservatism. There was too much philosophy, too much ethical responsibility, too much intellect about. Does Benton realise the vast certainties of the Haldane stance?

Naomi jumped into marriage to get free, though she continued to make use of the Oxford home. She had married where money was, money which made possible the Scottish baronial pile decaying about us now. Benton quotes a letter of the Thirties in which Naomi complains of the ‘ceaseless and intolerable burden of responsibility’. This is good for a laugh. Naomi has always managed to have the best of both worlds. Whether the grouse was about responsibility for family or for house, it seems always to have been possible to shift it elsewhere. If Naomi, I think sourly as I spend the second morning on the curtain, had had, as a housewife, a normal level of technical knowledge, she would not have had these vast south and west windows curtained unlined, so that the sun rotted the fibres. I am now crudely working to compensate for the original error. Yes, the curtains are still visually splendid, if you ignore dirt. Art was valued more than practicality. This was the emphasis of Naomi’s life between the wars, and probably the right one. But now the curtains, not replaceable, enforce some element of practicality.

The cows are back on the lawn. I get a quick look at Naomi’s proofs. This one seems to be going to be worth reading. Should I, a mere daughter-in-law, be commenting on Benton’s book? Naomi would be the first to hold that words are free to all.

Inter-war, Benton has a wider range of sources. She uses book reviews, the lives of other authors, Naomi’s own books (most of which have a strong autobiographical element), love letters, so that she can be on firmer ground. Life and love are explored in fairly banal prose. The worlds of literature and politics of the Left seem very foreign now. The ‘no politics’ agreement of the older generation was replaced by one of freedom of love outside marriage, on the assumption that love, essentially generous and good, could do no harm. Today that seems over-simple, a posture of priggish bohemianism. Earlier generations of lovers, notably Shelley’s circle, had discovered that love involves more than generosity: it includes power, security, company. Who can say where and with what force jealousy may strike? The politics of the Left were those of people in a hurry who believed that a victory at the polls would mean a transformation of society. Under a Labour or a Communist government old vices would disappear. The most impatient, like Naomi’s brother J.B.S. Haldane, went for Communism as the real transformer. Even without the knowledge gained from the events of last year, such beliefs seem naive.

Naomi found her way to her own brand of feminism: the need to say exactly what she meant and to use her own experience in her work. Publishers jibbed and forced changes on over-explicit phrasing which now seem ridiculous. Anonymous reviewers showed cold hostility. The rules on obscenity had a basic irrationality. They implied the existence of ‘people’, usually envisaged as young girls, totally ignorant of sexual matters but capable of correctly interpreting obscure allusions, and in the habit of picking up and reading anything they saw; whatever they might learn in this way was had for them. As an academic I know well that books don’t ‘fall’ into people’s hands – they have to be put there with great firmness. Here is the editor of Pepys’s Tangier diary, inspired by this belief, deleting ‘indelicacies’, 16 words here, 12 there. He’s an abominable editor anyway. Can anyone believe that uninformed virgins were ever likely to browse in the publications of the Navy Record Society? I want to know whether the deletions represent Pepys at his usual sexual harassment or some interesting Moroccan customs.

By marrying where money was Naomi was not brought up against the inter-war barriers that produced feminist reaction. She didn’t want a professional or administrative career, so discrimination in opportunity or pay did not worry her. She did, of course, get reviewers who wrote about ‘lady novelists’ as if ‘gentleman novelists’ were sexless, but these were mere flea bites. Naomi’s demand to express female experience in full, the approach which shocked publishers, reviewers and the respectable of Carradale, came from her emancipation from formal career concerns. The reaction of the literary establishment was to ignore her. She was forgotten as an author in England, and accepted only grudgingly in Scotland until she was old enough to be treated as an institution.

Curtain-drawing in the evening shows up another great rent. It will have to wait till our next visit, for the other one is still eating my mornings. Eating is the imagery produced by the catering here. For lunch Naomi produces nine slices of salami for 14 people. Fortunately a grandchild has arrived with a cargo of quiches. Another gives a snort of laughter over a description by Benton of Naomi peeling salad potatoes ‘for her hungry guests’. The trouble is that we come here not knowing what type of deficiency is going to dominate life. Will it be electric lightbulbs, wine, fruit or even bread? Once I had to search the first-aid shelf for relief for a scalded guest. There was nothing there except three dehorning outfits.

The gang here now are ready to muck in in the kitchen and bring in supplies. I can remember less helpful households. There was a rough New Year when the young stayed up till four in the morning discussing themselves and their problems, and then needed sustenance. They ‘inthruded upon the cold turkey’. Supplies which might have been adequate for the long shut-down of the shops ran out. We left on the morning of re-opening and stopped famished in Ardrishaig to stuff bridies in the bakery.

A new bit of electric fencing is up and the cows are mooching outside regretfully. It’s wet, of course, but surprisingly warm; the rain keeps us indoors. I am unco-operatively determined not to be part of a garden work-force. Anyway the rabbits have got in and eaten the lettuces, the only green vegetable in production. The myth that we grow our own veg is shown up.

Catering policy reverses: vast joints of mutton and venison appear. A note comes in from the Strathclyde water engineers: we are not to drink the tap water. On the phone they explain that they don’t like its colour and that it has alum above EC rulings. We’re used to the colour of madeira, so why worry? A whisky tanker is delivering four-gallon canons of heavily chlorinated water down in the village. Alternative contaminations? The household has risen to 24, so that means a lot of refills.

My knowledge of Naomi and Carradale started only mid-war, so the contrast Jill Benton shows with the pre-war life is new to me and explains some things. Naomi decided to farm marginal land here. She had left behind the Classical world of her early novels and the Classical lover and settled down to trying to create grass-roots democracy in the village. There was little time for writing, but I remember readings of parts of her first Scottish book. After the war Scotland and then Botswana were her areas of activity. She made sorties into children’s books, Science Fiction and fantasy, much of this good fun. The peopling of the house changed from the world of politics to grandchildren. Scottish baronial was not devised for two-year-olds, but so far no child has killed itself.

The view of Arran is paid for in inconvenience. We accept that we are over a hundred miles from any railway. We are less quiescent over the way big firms treat us as if on Mars. We drive to Campbeltown to chase up local representatives. The dishwasher, installed in April after mice destroyed the last one, has a faulty part and leaks. It has to be stood in everyone’s way so that it can be drained. Zanussi’s representative, not for the first time, shows nothing but a locked door. The missing part of the liquidiser, ordered two months ago, has still not arrived.

Carradale sustains Naomi’s sense of a Scottish identity, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to object to its remoteness. What was the society for which such baronial piles were put up? Did the house hold the family together through the generations then, or did it lead to separation?

Jill Benton’s task was to understand Naomi as a person and evaluate her as a writer. She has read the main books with more care than I have, and more recently. Still, I’m not sure she gets the thrust of the plots right. There is little awareness of Naomi’s uneven range of senses – of how little she relies on recognition of colour, not a rare weakness in novelists, and how successfully she uses tactile experience to make up. Touch is, after all, much more intimate than sight.

Benton’s efforts to place Naomi in society and politics are hampered by a limited understanding of both. She offers admiration and affection, but does not get behind Naomi’s own image of herself. There is no recognition of the limitations and inhibitions common to human frailty. Nor does she appreciate the commitments to family and friendship which are more enduring than love affairs. These commitments are, after all, what this aged house is made to serve. Rather surprisingly, she does not have the full measure of Naomi’s extraordinary warmth and generosity, the sudden darts of perception and sympathy.

Our last morning and we wake to running water. At 5 a.m. the rising main, coming up the back stairs, wears through a rusted joint. How good that it was others who heard the deluge and groped outside under dead leaves for the stopcock. This has worked only partly. Great sloshes of what the Strathclyde engineers don’t like the colour of are sweeping down into the basement and there, disturbing fact, disappearing. The house is built on water, it seems. I put away the curtain materials till next time.

There is a sheep on the lawn.