The Big House by Naomi Mitchison

The Big House by Naomi Mitchison was first published in 1950 and it’s aimed at children over 9 years old, it’s good no matter how many years you are beyond that age though.

Susan is the daughter of the local landowner, so she lives in The Big House and most of the people living in the area are employed by her family. That makes life difficult for Su in school at Port-na-Sgadan as just about all of the other children hate her. Not only is her family rich, but she can’t even speak Gaelic like the other children.

The story begins on  Halloween and some of the local children take the opportunity to beat Su up. They have their ‘false-faces’ on so they feel safe enough to do it. Only Winkie the fisherman’s son is her friend and he helps her. Of course the fisherman doesn’t have the landowner as his boss, so there’s no resentment there. As Winkie is helping Su back to her home to clean her up they hear a piper in the distance.  It turns out that the piper was captured by evil fairies hundreds of years ago and Halloween is his only chance of escape. He needs the children to help him. Su and Winkie end up in the underworld of the evil fairies, in danger of never being able to get back home.

If you know fairy tales at all you’ll recognise some common themes, such as a stolen baby and someone being changed into a swan but this one does have a very Scottish flavour about it and it brought back some memories for me. I had completely forgotten that when I was wee we called Halloween masks false-faces, but as soon as I read those words it brought back the horrible smell they had, compressed cardboard I suppose,  but we all wore them, at least they were bio-degradable, unlike the plastic ones nowadays.  As the book was written/published in 1950 and food rationing still existed in the UK this tale features quite a lot of feasts and food which would have been unobtainable at the time, like so many books written in this era.

Naomi Mitchison was herself the daughter of a  Big House but she seems to have had a governess before being sent to a boarding school, I’m sure she would have had experience of being despised by the local children when she was growing up. She died when she was 101 and had quite a life, being politically active and a lifelong Socialist.

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 – the wrap-up.

I’ve completed six books in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 which is hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. This one is a cracker, a real page-turner.

3. A classic by a woman – The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison. I felt this one dragged, it is very long and wasn’t really a page-turner for me.

5. A classic by a BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I thought I would, but I will try more by the author.

5. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This one is a heart-breaking read, but I’m glad I read it.

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author — a new book by an author whose works you have already read. A Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy This seventh book in the Forsyte Chronicles was good, just two more books to go.

9. A children’s classic – Pinocchio by Carlo/Charles Collodi. I’m glad I caught up with this children’s classic at last.

Thank you Karen for hosting this challenge.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison – Classics Club Spin #27

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison was first published in 1931 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1989, I think I might have owned it since then, the chunkiness of it put me off reading it. I think this book would have been improved if it had been edited down to about 500 pages instead of the 719 that it is. It dragged terribly at times. I must admit that my heart sank when I realised I had got such a chunkster in the Classics Club Spin # 27.

The setting is Marob, a small state on the Black Sea, and Greece, the story switches between both places – between the years 228 BC and 187 BC. Some of the incidents are fictional while others are historical. In Marob the society revolves around the Corn King and Spring Queen as they and their ceremonies are most important in making sure that there will be a good harvest. Tarrik, the Corn King chooses Erif Der to be his wife and Spring Queen. Her father doesn’t want Tarrik to be Corn King as it’s a position he wants for himself. Erif in common with many of the women can perform magic and her father expects her to use it against Tarrik.

When Tarrik rescues Sphaeros a Greek philosopher from a shipwreck he is wooed by all the new ideas that Sphearos has and decides to sail with him to Greece. In Greece they meet King Kleomones of Sparta, he has decided that he wants a more equal society and so the rich are persuaded to give up their jewellery, money and possessions and to free their slaves. They will be given some land of their own. But everyone becomes poor and eats black soup as the peasants had to before. The previously rich people aren’t happy. King Kleomones seems to have kept all the wealth that had been given up so that he could pay for wars against his neighbours, using the money to pay the wages of mercenaries.

This is very much just the bare bones of the book which goes into detail about the ceremonies, particularly the fertility ones which end up with the Corn King ‘ploughing’ the Corn Queen and everyone else joining in in what was basically an orgy, to ensure a good harvest of course! It struck me that this was very racy for the original publication date of 1931. No doubt the mythological aspect of the book helped in that regard.

The book is split up into nine sections and at the end of every section there’s a shortish summary of what happened in that section. Just in case you didn’t understand it I suppose. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult about the writing style, it’s just rather wordy, but it is mainly an interesting read.

Mitchison came from a fairly aristocratic family, she was born in 1897 and had a long writing career, as you will see here. She died in 1998. I read a Virago edition of the book which was first published in 1983 and has an afterword from Mitchison.

Jack read this a few years ago. His thoughts are here.

The Classics Club Spin # 27

The Classics Club #27 has been chosen and it’s number 6 which for me means that I’ll be reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison.

I must admit that this one has been languishing on what is my second Classics Club list unread because I’ve been dodging it due to it being a chunkster – and a paperback, therefore is awkward to read. However I’m determined to read this one as I failed miserably in the last spin.

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison

The Land the Ravens Found cover

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison was published in 1955 it is a children’s book and I’ve given it three stars on Goodreads. It’s the story of how some people in a Viking community based in Caithness, the far north of Scotland, decide that they are tired of the violent life in Caithness. There’s constant fighting and raiding going on. It’s decided that Iceland is the place to travel to and some of the people who are chosen to go are thralls, Scots and Irish who have been taken prisoner on earlier raids. They’ll be doing a lot of the rowing.

It’s a time when Christianity was beginning to get a toehold on the people and some were giving up the Norse gods for the new religion, causing some tension between those who wanted to keep to the old ways.

Aud the Deep Minded is a wise and respected woman, wealthy too, she’s one of the older women and is a Christian, she decides to organise the building of a ship that will sail them across the sea to Iceland where she hopes to settle down to a more peaceful way of life in her old age. After a scary voyage with the boat piled high with cattle and everything needed to build a new community, they reach Iceland and in time everyone is allotted some land and people pair up to start families. The few Icelandic people seem happy to have the incomers moving in, life has been harder for them and they have very little in the way of luxuries. It seems that their way of life might be improved by the foreigners and they can learn from each other.

My copy of this book is really nice, I suspect that it has never been read as the pages are pristine, lovely thick paper and I think that might be because at the beginning of the book the author throws so many characters at the reader, all with outlandish names, it makes it quite a confusing read to begin with.

However, this book has made me think that I would really like to read the original Icelandic sagas that Naomi Mitchison based this book on.

This is another book read for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge, number 22.

Naomi Mitchison was an amazing woman who lived to the age of 101. You can read an obituary by Elizabeth Longford here. This one is more personal than the Guardian one below.

You can read her Guardian obituary here.

I’ve had a Virago copy of her book The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) for years and it’s about time I got around to reading it. Elizabeth Longford describes it as possibly the best historical novel of the 20th century. What an amazing thing to say, I’m now really looking forward to reading it and hoping I won’t be disappointed.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map of the UK


Jack was thrilled to bits when a writer friend of his sent him a link to this literary map of British Science Fiction and Fantasy writers, made up of all their names, inscribed on the part of Britain that they are living or were born in.

Admittedly it’s a few years since he has got round to writing anything, what with pressure of work and then moving house and such. It is about time I gave him a swift kick up the bahookie (bum/ass) in the hopes of galvanising him into action again. He has only had one novel published but has had quite a few short stories appearing in anthologies.

Anyway, there he is, Jack Deighton up on the west coast of Scotland, sandwiched in between Naomi Mitchison and Edwin Morgan amongst others. It’s an interesting and pretty map I think.

Recent Book Purchases

More Old Books

These are some of the books that I’ve bought over the last few weeks. The Naomi Mitchison and Mary Stewart books will obviously be featuring in my Read Scotland 2016 Challenge. The others are all authors that I’ve enjoyed reading in the past.

1. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
2. Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden
3. The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
4. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
5. The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
6. An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

At the moment I’m in a hotel room in Ypres (Wipers) – a place I never thought we would get around to visiting, but here we are. Strangely we’re in a lovely hotel with a beautiful view of bomb craters that have become a small lake. At the moment I’m about 30 yards from where the Germans used flame-throwers for the very first time, a sobering thought.

We’ve already visited the Menin Gate and witnessed The Last Post ceremony which takes place at 8 pm every night. It was very well attended.

Photos will be forthcoming at a later date.

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson

Millions Like Us cover

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson is subtitled Women’s Lives During the Second World War. I read about this book on someone’s blog, one which I regularly visit, but sadly I can’t remember which one. Anyway I thought that after reading two books recently which were mainly about men in the war, I thought this would be a nice change, it was more than that, it was really interesting. This book was first published in 2011, just in time really as by then an awful lot of women who were active during the war were already dead. The wartime home economist Marguerite Patten features in the book and of course, she died recently. The Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison also features in it, another one no longer with us.

Inevitably a book like this has culled material from various other books on the subject, so some of Nella Last’s diary extracts appear too. It’s about every aspect of women’s lives at the time, from having to take in refugees from Belgium and Holland, or children from London. Choosing which service to join if you were unmarried, apparently thousands applied to join the Wrens (Navy) because the uniform was much more flattering than the others, and the hat was very fetching!

Those who ended up working in factories often had to put up with men who were resentful that the women were there, so they played tricks on them all the time, or the boss seemed to think that putting up with being groped by him was in the job description.

All in all it was a tough time for women, some of them might have enjoyed the friendship of their colleagues, especially if they had lived very narrow lives until then, but others were obviously happy to marry just about any chap to get pregnant and escape back to civilian life.

As you would expect, it seems that the strict moral code which most middle and working class women adhered to went out the window when you didn’t know whether you would wake up in the morning or you would be killed by a bomb.

At the end of the war, when the men eventually began to trickle home again, it wasn’t all milk and honey, with the husbands being keen to get back to the way things had been before, with them being head of the house. Seemingly they had no idea that the women had had things so tough. In some ways it was easier for those who were off in the services, they had their food put down to them and didn’t have to worry about clothing coupons as they were in uniform. It must have been quite a shock to see how much work went into just trying to get enough food when they got back to civvy street.

The book mentions that one woman in the ATS put on 2 stones in weight during the war, because they were being fed stodge I suppose, and I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that you could tell the women who had been in the forces because they all looked bloated. I had already noticed that from photos I had been shown by women I’ve known over the years.

There’s a small bit in the book about women who had been conscientious objectors, apparently they were given a tougher time than their male counterparts. As the women would never have to kill anyone it seems that they were seen as just trying to dodge doing anything at all. The one man that I knew who was a ‘conshy’ during the war actually had a really awful time of it as he accepted work as an ambulance driver in London, which meant that a lot of his time was spent in gathering up body parts and taking them to a hospital mortuary. There were women doing the same thing, really it’s a wonder they didn’t all go mad.

Peacetime brought divorce for a lot of couples who had married in haste, hardly knowing each other at all, and never really expecting to survive the war. For the GI brides things were even more precarious. Think of leaving your own family behind to be with someone you hardly know in a strange country. Not being able to run home when your husband started beating you up is a distinct disadvantage. No doubt some of the marriages were successful, but I remember my mother telling me that she knew a few girls who had been GI brides and went off to the US – all starry eyed, no doubt thinking of Hollywood, but when they got there they discovered that their husband’s home town was way out in the sticks, a sort of one horse town and definitely stuck in the past as far as the brides were concerned. What a disappointment!

Back to the book, it was a time of huge social upheaval obviously and working class women and ‘toffs’ were thrown together as they had never been before, an education for all concerned no doubt. I haven’t mentioned the make-up, apparently it was thought that women should wear make up, as a moral booster for everyone. I rarely use the stuff but I do admire that generation of women who had so much pride that they never opened their front door if they didn’t have their lipstick on (my mother) – but I hadn’t realised it was encouraged by the government!

This book used diaries, autobiographies, memoirs and interviews with the few who are still around. A very good read.

Book Haul

It’s half-term and we went to Stockbridge in Edinburgh again and had a good snoop around the bookshops. Too good actually because I ended up spending just over 30 quid – ouch.

The Jasmine Farm by Elizabeth von Arnim
Penny Plain by O. Douglas
Cromartie Versus the God Shiva by Rumer Godden
The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
The Singer not the Song by Audrey Erskine Lindop
The Corn King and The Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
The Republic by Plato
The Building of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche
The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
County Chronicle by Angela Thirkell

I don’t feel too bad about it though because quite a few of them will be read for The C P R Book Group – eventually!