Friday, April 18, 2014

Naomi Mitchison, "The Triumph of Faith"

Naomi Mitchison, “The Triumph of Faith,” in When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories. London: Jonathan Cape, 1924.

Naomi Mitchison (1930).
For those who have never heard of Naomi Mitchison: she was born into a prominent Scottish family in Edinburgh in 1897, married a future Labour MP, and enjoyed remarkable success as a novelist in the 1920s and 1930s as the author of historical novels set in the ancient Greek and Roman world. The novelist Winifred Holtby considered her work of Nobel Prize caliber. She would later become one of the first women to publish science fiction with her 1962 novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman. She was also a socialist, a feminist, an advocate for birth control and free love, and in her sixties travelled to Botswana (then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland) and became an honorary member of the Bakgatla tribe. She died in 1998 at the age of 101, and according to her friend Isobel Murray remains “one of the great neglected writers of our time.”

The New Testament scholar John Court called “The Triumph of Faith” “an imaginative tour-de-force.” In the novella, Mitchison re-imagines the Letter of Paul to Philemon (the third shortest book in the Bible) as a Roman comedy. The characters includes the family of Philemon, the recipient of Paul’s letter and landowner of Colossae: his hot-tempered and sanctimonious son Archippus; his wife Apphia; his daughters Phoebe Martha and Dorcas; his steward Onesimus; and his slaves Charope, Artamo and Chet. The other characters are Philemon’s neighbor, a pagan philosopher, and his steward Balas, a worshipper of Mithras. The action is divided into two acts, each divided into six scenes with different narrators.

The plot itself unfolds like a Roman comedy:* Phoebe Martha, the daughter of the Christian father, is in love with the pagan philosopher; slaves carry letters back and forth; Archippus blusters; there’s poison; there’s a happy ending—at least for some of the characters. In the midst of these Plautine flourishes, Mitchison touches on serious issues of faith, religious intolerance, and the status of women.

In her note on her sources, Mitchison wrote: “Not unnaturally one always used to take sides with the barbarians against Rome.” And she reserved special sympathy for “the fair-haired slaves” from the North, her own “possible ancestors,” who found themselves oppressed and powerless in an alien land. This sympathy almost certain had its roots in her own experience as a girl who was denied many of the opportunities open to her older brother. In “The Triumph of Faith,” Phoebe Martha addresses a remarkable speech about her status as a girl to Chet, her father’s Scythian slave:
It’s so hard being a girl! Here I am, just the same as a man, really, and no worse than my brother anyway—I’ve got all same eyes and hand and ears and everything else that matters! But because of two or three silly little differences I have to be treated as if I was an animal, ordered about, not allowed to decide anything for myself! I’m shut up, I’m watched, I have to do what men tell me—nothing’s my own, money or husband or religion—I have to take what they give me and say thank you! Oh, it is unfair—haven’t I got a soul every bit as good as theirs?
 When she exhausts herself with this outburst, Chet says quietly, “Yes, I understand.”

Both Phoebe and Chet are outsiders, and feel a stinging sense of the difference between their inner potential and their external powerlessness. In one of the most richly imagined scenes in the novella, Chet goes into a trance and calls on his Scythian gods to work powerful magic—but in the next scene, he finds himself tied to a post, waiting to be whipped. There’s a gap between his imaginative power and his real power—a gap that Mitchison, as a woman, understood all too well.

As a little girl, Mitchison attended the Dragon School in Oxford with her older brother, but when, as she puts it, “the awful thing happened,” she was taken out of school to be taught at home. The “awful thing” was her first period. Until she was twelves, she had been “for all practical purposes a boy,” but puberty changed everything.

The beginning of puberty, menarche, provides an important recurring theme in Mitchison’s fiction. In “The Triumph of Faith,” when Phoebe Martha runs away from her father’s house to the house of the pagan philosopher, she’s clutching a bunch of roses the philosopher has sent to her. Her father’s steward Onesimus follows her, and tells us in his narration: “Every here and there were red rose petals, shaken loose from Phoebe Martha’s flowers: they reminded me of trailing a wounded deer...”

The name of Phoebe Martha’s intended husband is Menarchus.

Parts of this post are excerpted from a longer essay I’m writing about Naomi Mitchison.

*Mitchison may perhaps also have had in mind Pierre de Marivaux's 1732 comedy The Triumph of Love, which was set in one of her favorite historical places, ancient Sparta. 

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