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?

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