Revolution in Antiquity: The Classicizing Fiction of Naomi Mitchison


  • Barbara Goff University of Reading, United Kingdom



Naomi Mitchison, revolution, Scotland, Labour Party


The writer and activist Naomi Mitchison (1897–1999) came from a prominent establishment family but was a member of the Labour Party and the wife of a Labour MP. Her work was explicitly marked by the Russian Revolution, even when she wrote about antiquity. In the 1920s and 1930s, she produced a number of works of historical fiction set in ancient Greece and Rome, which were highly regarded at the time. The works use the canvas of antiquity to experiment with many forms of political and social radicalism, with a challenging focus on female sexuality. The article discusses four specific representations of revolution which mobilize female agency in ways that are themselves highly unconventional. However, these representations also invoke the Fraserian figure of the dying king who leads the revolution to disaster, compromising the revolutionary energy. This tension speaks to Mitchison’s own contradictory social positioning as a patrician radical. In 1972, however, the novel Cleopatra’s People revisits the theme and stages a more successful uprising. This novel is centered on the sacrificial queen instead of a king, it enlists a mass of people, and saves the revolution by hiding its key figures in Africa. During her final excursion into antiquity, Mitchison thus found a way to press history into useful service.


Download data is not yet available.


Beall, Hazel S. “Historical Fiction on Classical Themes.” The Classical World 54, no. 1 (1960): 8–12. DOI:

Benton, Jill. Naomi Mitchison: A Biography. London: Pandora, 1990.

Bluemel, Kristin. “Exemplary Intermodernists.” In The History of British Women’s Writing, 1920–1945, volume 8, edited by Maroula Joannou, 40–57. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. DOI:

Bullock, Ian. Romancing the Revolution: The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2011.

Calder, Jennie. The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison. London: Virago, 1997.

Cole Babbitt, Frank. Plutarch: Moralia, Volume IV; Roman Questions, Greek Questions, Greek and Roman Parallel Stories, On the Fortune of the Romans, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander. Were the Athenians More Famous in War or in Wisdom? Loeb Classical Library 305. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Goff, Barbara, and Michael Simpson. “Introduction.” In Classicising Crisis: The Modern Age of Revolutions and the Greco-Roman Repertoire. London: Routledge, 2020. DOI:

Green, Peter. “Aspects of the Historical Novel.” Essays by Diverse Hands 31 (1962): 53–60.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: McGibbon and Kee, 1970.

Hoberman, Ruth. Gendering Classicism: The Ancient World in Twentieth-Century Women’s Historical Fiction. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Humble, Nicola. “The Feminine Middlebrow Novel.” In The History of British Women’s Writing, 1920–1945, volume 8, edited by Maroula Joannou, 97–111. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. DOI:

Joannou, Maroula. “Introduction: Modernism, the Middlebrow and Modernity in Context.” In The History of British Women’s Writing, 1920–1945, volume 8, edited by Maroula Joannou, 1–20. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. DOI:

——— . “Naomi Mitchison at One Hundred.” Women: A Cultural Review 9, no. 3 (1998): 292–304. DOI:

Leavis, Q. D. “Lady Novelists and the Lower Orders.” Scrutiny (September 1935): 112–132.

Magnelli, Enrico. “Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Michael Gagarin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, available online.

Miller, Gavin, ed. Naomi Mitchison Special Issue. The Bottle Imp 19. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2016.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Mitchison, Naomi. The Delicate Fire. Introduction by Isobel Murray. Kilkerran: Kennedy & Boyd, 2012. First published 1933 by Jonathan Cape, London.

——— . All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage. Oxford: Bodley Head, 1975.

——— . Among You Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison.

Edited by Dorothy Sheridan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

——— . Black Sparta: Greek Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928.

——— . The Blood of the Martyrs. New York: Whittlesey House, 1948. First published 1939.

——— . Cleopatra’s People. Introduction by Isobel Murray. Glasgow:

Kenney & Boyd, 2010. First published 1972 by Heinemann, London.

——— . The Corn King and the Spring Queen. London: Virago, 1983. First published 1931 by Jonathan Cape, London.

——— . You May Well Ask: A Memoir, 1920–40. London: Gollancz, 1979.

Morgan, Kevin. Against Fascism and War: Ruptures and Continuities in British Communist Politics, 1935–41. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Murnaghan, Sheila. “The Memorable Past: Antiquity and Girlhood in the Works of Mary Butts and Naomi Mitchison.” In Remaking the Classics: Literature, Genre and Media in Britain, 1800–2000, edited by Christopher Stray. London: Duckworth, 2007.

Perrin, Bernadotte, transl. Plutarch: Lives, Volume X; Agis and Cleomenes, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Philopoemen and Flamininus. Loeb Classical Library 102. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.

Purdon, James, ed. Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming.

Raphaely, Judith. “Nothing but Gibberish and Shibboleths? The Compulsory Greek Debates 1870–1919.” In Classics in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Cambridge: Curriculum, Culture and Community, edited by Christopher Stray, 71–94. Cambridge: The Cambridge Philological Society, 1999. DOI:

Smyth, A. E. “The Delicate Fire.” The Times Literary Supplement, June 29, 1933, 444. The Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, available online.

Sponenberg, Ashlie Kristin. “‘The Pendulum is Swinging Backwards’: Gender, Politics, and Modernity in the Interwar Writing of Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison, and Rebecca West.” PhD diss., University of Liverpool, 2002.

Stead, Henry. “From Argyll with Love: Naomi Mitchison and the Soviet Union.” In Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time, edited by James Purdon, 89–107. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming.

Thorpe, Andrew. A History of the British Labour Party. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015. DOI:

Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. DOI:

Wilson, Catherine. “Historical Fiction for the High-School Latin Class.” The Classical Journal 28, no. 2 (1932), 107–115.

Worley, Matthew. Labour Inside the Gate: A History of the British Labour Party Between the Wars. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.



23. 12. 2022




How to Cite

Goff, Barbara. 2022. “Revolution in Antiquity: The Classicizing Fiction of Naomi Mitchison”. Clotho 4 (2): 155-79.