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  • 'What Does a Socialist Woman Do?'Birth Control and the Body Politic in Naomi
  • Mara Dougall

When writing her 1979 memoir You May Well Ask, the multi-genre novelist, chronicler, and activist Naomi Mitchison looked back on a time in the 1930s when her books were considered 'a possible menace to the respectable reader'.1 She went on to reflect that 'it is funny to think that I was generally considered to be near the verge of obscenity',2 though she might not have realised just how near. It wasn't until the release of government papers in 2005, six years after Mitchison's death, that it was revealed Scotland Yard had investigated her work in 1935–or to be precise, one work in particular. A novel that caused outrage when it finally made it into print that year, following lengthy arguments with various publishers, and despite concerns that no printer would take the job. In this context the novel's title reads almost as a disclaimer, as Mitchison lights the fuse of her most subversive and autobiographical work, without stepping back: We Have Been Warned. But what, we may well ask, made the novel so contentious? Mitchison had by this point, as Jenni Calder points out, been 'acclaimed as a fresh, innovative and challenging novelist',3 who had already shown an interest in tackling sexual and reproductive themes; but this had been from the safe distance offered by historical fictions set in foreign and fantastical lands, such as those of The Conquered (1923) or The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931). However, Mitchison then took her signature style and thematic concerns and merged them with 1930s political realism–to rather astonishing effect. It was the resulting depiction of taboos ranging from adultery to abortion, set against the backdrop of the 1930s Labour movement, and including a foray into Stalin's Russia, that made We Have Been Warned so much more problematic than anything else she [End Page 18] had written before. Mitchison herself has reflected on this, and several critics (Calder, Rob Hardy, Elizabeth Maslen) have identified the inflammatory mix of sex and politics as something that was unpalatable then, as indeed it would appear to be now. Though the novel is no longer attacked with the same ferocity, it continues to be dismissed or denigrated–generally approached with caution, couched criticism, and nose firmly held. It has been cast as a failed experiment, even by those ostensibly bound to promote it; the 2012 reissue features an introduction by Isobel Murray that Anna McFarlane has called, 'one of the most discouraging blurbs ever to be published'.4 Indeed it is unfortunate that both Murray and Calder, who have done so much to highlight Mitchison's work, agree that We Have Been Warned 'is not a good novel, but … an extremely interesting one'',5 and that each focuses on its perceived faults without sufficiently examining the novel's potential appeal. Murray's main criticism seems to be Mitchison's failure to maintain 'the writer's appropriate literary distance';6 but this is an intrinsic part of Mitchison's personal, political, and artistic agendas, and it is the force and immediacy–the visceral honesty–that make We Have Been Warned so engaging. The novel's neglect is particularly surprising when we consider its sheer singularity. No other woman was writing about the body with the same frankness as Mitchison; this in itself warrants further critical attention, for as Judith Butler has shown us, 'to invoke matter is to invoke a sedimented history of sexual hierarchy and sexual erasures'7–erasures perpetuated by the censure, criticism, and silence this novel has been met with over the years. What's more, many of the topics it tackled are still vitally relevant to women today. Mitchison leaves no feminist issue, big or small, untouched: from marriage and sex to pockets and typing,8 [End Page 19] each is approached with the same openness and dynamic mode of narration, through her engaging, if blundering, protagonist.

We Have Been Warned is the story of Dione Galton and her family. Like Mitchison, Dione is of Scottish heritage but lives in Oxford and has a husband–named...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1471-6836
Print ISSN
0008-199X
Pages
pp. 18-37
Launched on MUSE
2021-07-16
Open Access
No
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