Revolution in Antiquity: The Classicizing Fiction of Naomi Mitchison
Keywords: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.
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