Abstract Classical allusions in the works of the female poets and authors writing during and immediately after the First World War are scarce. A notable exception is Naomi Mitchison’s 1925 historical novel Cloud Cuckoo Land, in which, against the backdrop of the last years of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BCE, Mitchison tells the story of a young couple forced into exile. Written at a time when war in Europe was a recent memory, the novel examines political and ideological conflict, gender roles, and the impact of war on domestic life. This article examines the ways in which Mitchison, a fervent campaigner for women’s rights, draws on the ancient setting, and the author’s knowledge of Greek political and social history, to bring her readers’ attention to deeply problematic elements of the experiences of her contemporaries — in particular women’s inability to exercise control over either the wider political situation or the path of their own lives, this latter being closely linked to their lack of bodily autonomy. Reflecting in 1975 on her earliest encounters with the ancient world, Naomi Mitchison (1897–1999) — feminist writer and social activist — recalled reading, as a schoolgirl, the works of Plato, and her desire then to be one of the Guardians who ruled the ideal state of the Republic. ‘It is odd’, she wrote, ‘that I was not put off by the undoubted fact that all Plato’s Guardians were male and that he said many unpleasant things about the inferiority of women. But in my inside stories I don’t suppose I was ever a Greek woman’ (Mitchison 1975: 40). Her acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the role of women in ancient Greek society might go some way towards explaining the paucity of classical allusions in fiction and poetry written by women in the era during and immediately after the First World War, when Mitchison came of age; this is in marked contrast to the work of their male counterparts. This article will focus one notable exception to this pattern, Naomi Mitchison’s 1925 historical novel Cloud Cuckoo Land, in which the author uses an ancient Greek historical setting — the last years of the Peloponnesian War — to explore political and ideological conflict, gender roles, and the impact of war on women’s lives. It will examine the ways in which Cloud Cuckoo Land uses the ancient setting, and the author’s understanding of classical Greek social and political history, to draw attention to problematic elements of the experiences of her contemporaries — in particular women’s inability to exercise control over either the wider political situation or the path of their own lives, this latter being closely linked to their lack of bodily autonomy. Born Naomi Mary Margaret Haldane in Edinburgh in 1897, the author was from an affluent and well-educated family, the daughter of the physiologist John Scott Haldane (1860–1936) and active suffragist (Louisa) Kathleen Trotter (1863–1961). Much of her childhood was spent in Oxford, where she was initially educated, along with her older brother, at the Oxford Preparatory School (later known as the Dragon School). The only girl at this otherwise all-boys’ institution, she was withdrawn from the school by her parents at the onset of puberty, aged twelve years, to be tutored at home.1 She went on to become a home student at St Anne’s College, Oxford, although she never took a degree. Having first studied ancient history at school, Mitchison would pursue classical learning, alongside her interest in science, throughout her life. She would later recall how, as a voracious reader on all manner of subjects, she encountered the ancient world through Frazer’s Golden Bough and Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome as well as by reading Greek and Latin texts in translation, along with reception texts such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii and Shakespeare’s classical plays.2 Her husband Dick Mitchison — a friend of her brother and, like him, a student of Classics at Oxford — whom she married in 1916, also encouraged her enthusiasm for the ancient world, although she later reported that his attempt to inspire her to learn the ancient Greek language was unsuccessful.3 She later had an affair — while still in an open marriage with Dick — with the classical scholar Theodore Wade-Gery; Mitchison dedicated Cloud Cuckoo Land to him, and in the novel’s introduction would thank both Wade-Gery and her husband for spending time talking to her about its subject-matter. The dissimilarity between the informal manner in which Mitchison acquired her knowledge of the ancient world and the education received by her brother Jack (J.B.S. Haldane) — who studied Classics at Eton and Oxford before becoming famed as a scientist — was typical of an era in which an individual’s educational experience was dictated to a large extent by gender, as well as by social class. In common with the women writers of the Victorian period who had received an education which was largely inferior to that enjoyed by their male contemporaries,4 Mitchison encountered classical history and literature in an unstructured way and in less formal settings than did her male peers. While Latin and Greek were available at school and university to men of the upper and middle classes — largely as preparation for entry to exclusively male careers in the government, the church or medicine — for a woman of Mitchison’s generation even elevated social status gave no guarantee of access to a classical education.5 It was perhaps an acute awareness from a very young age that her gender would dictate the choices which were open to her which informed Mitchison’s later feminist activism, notable among this her championing of women’s rights to sexual freedom and her campaigning for birth control.6 The ideological challenges which ancient Greek history and society presented to a feminist novelist writing in the decade after the First World War were not inconsiderable. The use of classical allusions as a means of expressing responses to the conflict of 1914–18 has been well-documented; the literary canon of the ancient past, and Homeric poetry in particular, proved to be surprisingly flexible as a source of inspiration for men’s writing during the period. Vandiver (2010) illustrates comprehensively the astonishing variety of ways in which the male soldier-poets marshalled classical allusions in support of a whole array of ideological responses and to articulate a wide range of emotional reactions to the conflict. By comparison, women’s writing of the period rarely uses classical models to conflate the contemporary conflict with the war narratives of the ancient world.7 This may seem surprising given that by the time of the First World War several of the most well-known and productive female writers of the period had been in receipt of a classical education, and many would respond to classical texts and themes in their works.8 Yet there seems to have been little in the Greek and Latin texts they had read which could for these women stimulate comparison between the conflict of their own present and the wars — either mythological or historical — which are the focus of the writings of so many ancient authors. One notable exception is Vera Brittain (1893–1970), whose memoirs provide ample evidence of her own classical learning and offer some clues as to why other women of her generation may have eschewed reconfigured classical themes as a way of talking about wartime experience. Brittain questions, for example, whether the traditional interpretation of Homeric epic, with its marginalization of women through its emphasis on conventionally masculine heroic values, could offer a fitting framework within which to think about women’s experiences during the First World War.9 In one of her volumes of memoirs, Testament of Experience (1957), she recalled reading books written by men about their own wartime experiences and reflected on the exclusion of women from front line fighting, writing, ‘I began to ask: “Why should these young men have the war to themselves? Didn’t women have their war as well? (…). Who will write the epic of the women who went to the war?”’10 In the absence of a model for war literature focused on women, rather than men, Brittain chose to write her own extensive memoirs. Mitchison, in contrast, in writing Cloud Cuckoo Land, chose historical fiction. The genre of the novel had proved successful for women writers of the Victorian era;11 in setting her own work in the classical past, Mitchison was one of several women novelists between the two World Wars who would look to the ancient world as a source of inspiration.12 Mitchison’s chosen backdrop for a novel foregrounding the wartime experiences of women was, however, neither the conflict through which she and her contemporaries had lived, nor the mythical Homeric setting which had proved so popular for the generation of male poets writing in the wake of the First World War.13Cloud Cuckoo Land takes as its setting instead Greece in the fifth century BCE, an era characterized by ongoing military conflicts — the Persian Wars early in the century and later the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The novel was published in 1925, when the memory of recent conflict was still fresh, and the social and geopolitical consequences of the war were still being felt throughout Britain and Europe. The form of the novel allowed Mitchison to imagine a detailed picture of life in ancient Greece and to reflect on the struggles faced both by the female characters of her historical fiction and by the women of her own day. This, her second novel, was her first extended literary foray into the world of ancient Greece; her first book, The Conquered (1923), had been set in Roman Gaul during Caesar’s conquest. There too, Mitchison’s vision of the ancient world had been informed by her understanding of contemporary politics; she had used the case of occupied Gaul to hold up a mirror to the Irish struggle for independence.14 Set in the closing years of the Peloponnesian War, Cloud Cuckoo Land has as its central character Alxenor, a young aristocratic citizen of the fictional Aegean island of Poieëssa. At the opening of the novel his island home is wrested from Athenian control by a pro-Spartan, pro-oligarchic coup. Driven into exile, Alxenor spends the following several years wandering, accompanied by his family, through Greece and Asia Minor. His travels take him to Athens — where he joins the navy and participates in the battle of Arginusae (406 BCE) — and later to Ephesus and Sparta. Exploring both political and personal loyalties, and viewing Athens’ eventual defeat from a range of perspectives, the novel offers an early insight into Mitchison’s developing views of the contrast between the political systems of Athens and Sparta, and the possibilities that the two states might present as paradigms for international politics between the First and Second World Wars.15 Imbued with period detail which reflects the extent of Mitchison’s research into the ancient world, Cloud Cuckoo Land also reflects the author’s reading of many of the Greek texts which she had studied in translation. As well as the Aristophanic associations of its title — which I will shortly discuss in more detail — the novel alludes in passing, for example, to Euripidean tragedy (Mitchison 2011 (1925): 41) and to the myth of Helen and Paris (71, 85);16 meanwhile the historian Thucydides puts in an appearance (195-8), as does the younger Perikles, namesake of his famed statesman father (141, 162). Mitchison also remarked in her introductory notes to the novel (5) upon her debt to Xenophon’s Hellenica, which she recalled reading in the Loeb translation; her own story draws in detail on Xenophon’s work, not least for its description of the battle of Arginusae and the resulting political fallout (144–59; cf. Xen. Hellenica 1.6.24–1.7.7). She draws in particular a detailed portrait of the Athenian politician and trierarch Theramenes, whom she casts as the patron of the novel’s protagonist; her account of Theramenes’ political career in the final decade of the fifth century, and his eventual execution by drinking hemlock, appear to rely closely on Xenophon’s history of the period (216–22; cf. Xen. Hellenica 2.3.15–56). Against this wider political backdrop, it is through the personal experiences of her imagined female characters that Mitchison explores women’s lives — and the impact of conflict on those lives — in societies where gender roles were already strictly circumscribed. Three women are given prominent attention throughout the story, as the novel traces the effects of the war on the paths which their lives take. The first of these is Moiro, whom we meet early on in the novel, when she is fourteen years old; she is the object of Alxenor’s desire and the sister of his childhood friend, Chromon. When their home town on Poieëssa is sacked and Moiro’s father killed by a Spartan, Alxenor rescues her from the marauding mob, announces his plans to marry her, and takes her with him on his travels; the subsequent path of her life, it soon becomes apparent, will be to a large extent dictated by his actions. Moiro is accompanied throughout by her female slave Thrassa, whose loyalty and companionship provides Moiro with both emotional and practical support. When the family arrives in Athens we are also introduced to Nikodike, daughter of Alxenor’s Athenian patron, Theramenes. In the course of the novel Nikodike rebels against conventional expectations for Athenian women, yet ultimately she too is constrained by this patriarchal society. That the novel’s title alludes not to the historiographical works with which Mitchison was evidently well-acquainted, but to a concept first conceived of by Aristophanes, suggests that the author was inspired by the comic playwright; as will become apparent, the influence of Aristophanic comedy lies behind elements of her representation of the lives of women towards the end of the fifth century BCE. The title Cloud Cuckoo Land refers to the fantastical city imagined in Aristophanes’ escapist comedy Birds, first produced in Athens in 414 BCE during the Peloponnesian War.17 There the protagonist Peisetairos, eager to escape the litigious tedium of contemporary Athens, persuades the community of birds to unite with him and build a new city in the sky, ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ (Νɛφɛλοκοκκυγία), in order that they might rule over both men and gods. In the event, Peisetairos, transformed into a bird-figure himself, becomes the tyrannical ruler of this utopia. The term ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ has been absorbed since the nineteenth century into modern usage as a catch-all term for an unrealistically ideal situation, so a reader of Mitchison’s novel need not necessarily be familiar with the ancient origins of the phrase to recognize that in this context it is ironic. Although the Aristophanic associations of its title are nowhere in the novel referred to explicitly, the story is suffused with the sense that there is no ideal state; neither democracy nor oligarchy — Athens or Sparta — offers an escape from the consequences of military conflict. Far from offering her readers an escapist alternate reality such as that in Aristophanes’ play, instead Mitchison here ‘depicts precisely those horrors of war from which Aristophanes was providing an escape in his play’ (Hoberman 1997: 30). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lives of her female characters, which I shall discuss in further detail later in this article. That Mitchison was also familiar with Aristophanic comedies other than the Birds to which her title refers is clear from her autobiographical reflections on her teenage years in Oxford, when she describes participating in a production of Frogs.18 Mitchison playfully alludes to the first performance of Frogs at Athens (405 BCE) in her novel, with passing remarks about Aristophanes’ mockery of her character Theramenes in that play (163, 164).19 She also names an incidental character, the archer-policeman Ditylas, after a Scythian archer mentioned briefly at Frogs 608. The translation of the production in which she played a role was that of the classicist Gilbert Murray, a family friend20 whose scholarly influence can be traced in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Murray’s 1918 Creighton Lecture, which was entitled ‘Aristophanes and the War Party’ and delivered at King’s College London, considered at length possible points of comparison between the Peloponnesian War and the First World War. His discussion of the utopian city founded by the characters in Aristophanes’ Birds, for example, foreshadowed Cloud Cuckoo Land’s title and its ironic recognition that there is no ideal state.21 Murray also noted that that an audience of 1918 might, in light of their own recent experience, have a deeper understanding of the insight which Aristophanes provides into the privations endured by Athenians during the Peloponnesian War: he suggested that anxiety over the scarcity of food and resources such as that seen in Acharnians, for example, ‘is perhaps more intelligible to us this winter than it was before the war’ (Murray 1919: 13). His lecture also drew attention to the absence of men of military age, and to the fact that there were now more women and elderly men in the city than there were young men, as evidenced by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae; he suggested that this was mirrored in the Britain of the First World War.22 It was the death of a high proportion of men during the First World War which gave rise to the idea of those who came of age during and soon after the war years as the ‘lost generation’.23 Mitchison’s novel, like Murray’s lecture, drew on the parallels between the contemporary situation and Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Her striking description of wartime Athens (123–4) declares that the plague and the fighting have reduced the city’s male population only to old men who talk of ‘the good old days of Perikles’ and ‘mere boys who had scarcely seen a summer’s campaign yet’. In an echo of the experiences of Mitchison’s own time, we learn that in Athens too ‘a whole generation was missing’, with the result that many women had been denied the opportunity of marriage and childbearing (123–4): But the women were left, often with no kinsman to shelter them but some distant cousin, who would be bound in piety to give them housing and food, though he brought poverty on his own wife and daughters; and every one would be unhappy. There were not so many young children about as in old days, either; partly from lack of husbands, partly because young couples could not always afford to rear them. The dearth of men in the city as a result of the Peloponnesian War formed the premise of Aristophanes’ comic play Lysistrata (first produced in 411 BCE), a text which also reflects more broadly on gender roles in classical Athens, and in which the women of Athens stage a sex strike with the aim of persuading their men to call a halt to the war. The echoes in Mitchison’s novel of Lysistrata suggest her familiarity too with the Aristophanic text and an awareness, which she shared with Murray, that the women of her own day had experiences in common with the women of fifth-century BCE Athens.24 After a period of neglect in the Victorian era, Lysistrata had recently been marshalled in support of the campaign for female suffrage, most famously in a 1910 performance in the translation of Laurence Housman.25 That Mitchison chose to name Cloud Cuckoo Land’s most outspoken female character Nikodike also suggests that she had encountered Lysistrata first hand — the name, meaning ‘victory for right’, appears only once in classical literature, as the name of a member of the Aristophanic play’s female Chorus.26 Along with rich incidental detail about ancient Greek women’s lives — their dress, their roles in ritual or cloth production, and their seclusion from men in the gynaikeion or women’s quarters — Mitchison takes care to depict the personal experiences of her key female characters, and uses the paths of their lives as a way of reflecting too on some of the challenges faced by women in her own time. The story of Moiro is one of a woman without any control over her own future and wholly dependent upon her male guardians; after the murder of her father she must rely for both her safety and her livelihood upon Alxenor, the man who will become her husband. Little more than a child when we first meet her, she is infantilized throughout the novel27 and powerless to influence either the wider course of political events which determine the direction her life will take or the male-driven plot in which she finds herself. Having first rescued her from the mob who sack their home town, Alxenor condescendingly describes her as a ‘little Helen’ (72); this reference to the most famous female war-prize of ancient myth both asserts his own superior strength and reinforces Moiro’s complete dependence on him. Moiro’s initial vehement protests — amid her grief for her murdered father — that she cannot bear to leave Poieëssa are dismissed by her ‘rescuer’, who complains to her slave, Thrassa: ‘I didn’t think she’d be such a little fool. I’ve gone through danger for her, I’ve rescued her, you tell her I think she might thank me!’ (74). In this world, then, it is the men who carry out acts of bravery and take charge of their own destiny; it remains only for the women to comply, the path of their lives at the mercy of their husbands and fathers and of the men whose political manoeuvrings drive the wider historical narrative. Moiro lives a life of relative seclusion, often anxious when outdoors in a new situation or fearful of being seen by men, yet also concerned to ensure that her appearance and clothing create a good impression (38, 99, 122). Only when the family arrives in Sparta do we see the possibility of an alternative mode of living for women, yet Moiro, conditioned by her upbringing and life in Athens, finds it baffling that Spartan women ‘never seemed to want to talk about the ordinary things of life, details of marriage and children, what to do with one’s slaves, dresses and scents, marketing, charms and cures …’ (242); the stereotype of the robust Spartan woman seen here owes much to the representation of Lampito in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.28 The plot in which Mitchison situates Moiro not only draws attention to the lack of independence enjoyed by women in the period on which she focuses,29 but also casts into sharp relief some of the limitations on women’s lives which were still being played out when the novel was published. Mitchison would later recall that, ‘It appeared, up to 1914, that one could foresee one’s whole life, and this was rather daunting. One would grow up, marry, have children (not that I cared much for this idea), live a North Oxford life with a house and servants and punctual meals, and nothing would ever change’ (Mitchison 1975: 52). Moiro’s relationship with Alxenor is to some extent a warm one. There is some mutual affection and desire, at least at the start of the relationship, and for her part she is keen to fulfil the traditional role of a ‘good wife’ (122), despite the challenges brought about by war — the uprooting from her home, the couple’s subsequent itinerant lifestyle, and the repeated separations brought about by Alxenor’s military service. Mitchison, however, also uses Moiro as a means of highlighting some of the deeply problematic issues relating to sexual relationships, pregnancy, and bodily autonomy which were still of concern for the women of her own generation. Moiro falls pregnant once she and her husband are married and in Athens, and her labour is protracted and painful (124–5). After the birth of their son, Moiro, fearful of another pregnancy, is reluctant to sleep with her husband again, yet it is clear that Alxenor views intercourse with his wife as a husband’s right; impervious to Moiro’s unwillingness, he appeals to the danger and hardship he has endured away from home on active service (130) as a reason why she should consent. He stops short of forcing himself on her but, ‘feeling incredibly ill-used by that ungrateful little brat of a wife of his’ (131) visits a brothel. This representation of Moiro’s wish to avoid pregnancy offers an insight into the earlier development of Mitchison’s thoughts on women’s reproductive rights and sexuality. In the late 1920s the author began to write on feminist issues, particularly birth control and sexual freedom. She also contributed to the discussions of the World League for Sexual Reform and was involved in organizing a 1930 conference on birth control, as well as working at the North Kensington Women’s Clinic and acting as a test subject for birth control methods. Her 1930 pamphlet Comments on Birth Control would reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of currently available methods of contraception for women as well as advocating for greater sexual freedom;30 she would later write openly about her own sexual relationship with her husband Dick — the couple had seven children together — and their mutually consensual decision to take lovers (Mitchison 1979: 70). Key elements of Mitchison’s emerging concern with women’s bodily and sexual autonomy are played out in Moiro’s subsequent story. When sexual relations between Moiro and Alxenor are eventually resumed, she again falls pregnant, giving birth to a girl while her husband is away on a naval mission. The ongoing war means that these are impecunious times, however, and a female child would be a drain on the family’s resources. In accordance with Alxenor’s instructions — and in a reference to the practice of exposing unwanted infants in classical Athens — the child is taken from her to die.31 Moiro’s emotional agony at the realization that her child is a girl and must therefore be exposed far outstrips the physical pain which she has endured during childbirth: ‘she held her breath for a minute, gathered herself together, and then screamed at the top of her voice, worse than ever she had screamed for pain before’ (165–6). The harrowing task of taking away the baby — swaddled and fastened in an earthenware jar — and waiting until her death falls to the slave Thrassa, herself emotionally traumatized and angry as she waits for the child’s heart-breaking cries to stop; a now subdued Moiro lies at home, her breasts full of redundant milk. What on the surface appears to be a swift recovery leaves deep and lasting anguish as Moiro sees her first child, Timas, flourish (168–9): ‘She couldn’t somehow explain that it gave her a pain now every time to see the one child alive and fat and happy, while his sister lay dead and rotting in some corner’. Mitchison’s disturbing account, ostensibly set in a distant past, highlighted an extreme consequence of unwanted pregnancy and called attention to the very real problems still faced by women — particularly those of the working class — of her own time, for whom birth control was at best inconvenient and at worst inaccessible.32 The theme of unplanned pregnancy recurs once more in Moiro’s story, this time with even more devastating consequences. Living with Alxenor in Sparta after Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Moiro embarks on an affair with a Spartan, Leon. The relationship is one which is initially characterized by sexual pleasure and contentment, and for the first time in the novel we see Moiro feeling that she has a degree of control over her existence: ‘now she felt a kind of power in her that glowed out and kept away the terrible things: she belonged to Leon, not to them’ (260). This is, however, to be short-lived, as Leon reveals that it was he who murdered her father. Moiro’s response to this revelation — conditioned, it seems, by her lifelong experiences of being controlled by men — is to offer herself to him to do as he wishes. This incites Leon’s disgust (263: ‘suddenly he found himself shocked, sick to the very depths of his body: the woman had no decency at all! This was how she thought of her father, the dirty slut; she wanted to be a slave, by God she ought to be, she wasn’t fit for a free man to touch’) and results in the end of their affair. Yet Moiro is already pregnant with her lover’s child; this development enables Mitchison to draw attention to the still real threats posed by unplanned pregnancy. She charts with empathy Moiro’s psychological process as her pregnancy advances — anxiety, shame, withdrawal, and her wish for the unborn child to die. Thrassa attempts to assist Moiro in an abortion, to catastrophic effect; the procedure causes Moiro’s eventual death. Mitchison’s detailed description of Moiro’s dying days, and the trauma suffered both by Moiro herself and the women around her, presents the reader with a horrific image of the consequences of a botched abortion; and this at a time where the serious threat to maternal health from abortion remained high.33 Mitchison would later return to the themes of sex, abortion and contraception in 1935 with We Have Been Warned, although publishers were squeamish about the explicit content of this novel, her first fictional work set in the present day; when eventually published it was poorly received.34 Evidently the ancient setting of Cloud Cuckoo Land offered a safer space than the modern world for Mitchison to explore potentially emotive and controversial issues relating to women’s control over their own bodies. The lack of control which characterizes women’s lives is highlighted too by the presence of Moiro’s slave Thrassa throughout the story. Thrassa’s proximity to her mistress, the practical and emotional support which she provides, and the key role she plays during Moiro’s darkest times characterize a relationship founded on female solidarity, despite the difference in status of the two women. As a slave, Thrassa has no influence over her own fate; she is passed from the control of one man (her master Thrasykles, Moiro’s murdered father) to another, Alxenor. The parallels between this, the enslaved woman’s experience, and that of Moiro — we might compare here Thrassa’s recollection of being carried from her Thracian homeland on a ship, just as Moiro is carried off against her will from Poieëssa (78) — serves to highlight the fact that even for freeborn women in classical Greece their gender acts to bring about what is for many little more than a form of slavery. Cloud Cuckoo Land does offer its reader an alternative female character-type to that of Moiro, in the form of Nikodike, daughter of Alxenor’s Athenian patron. In the novel, much to her father Theramenes’ annoyance, the intelligent and inquisitive Nikodike rebels against the conventional notion of what is expected of a respectable Athenian woman (103): ‘every now and then a gusty mood would seize her and set her talking fiercely and rapidly; she thought about things perhaps three times as much as any of the other women, which was unfortunate for her, being a respectable Athenian’. Yet even this spirited character is ultimately constrained by the conventions of the society into which she has been born; it is clear from the outset that she cannot bear the thought of being left unmarried and childless, but that she desires the status which only marriage can offer. Frustrated by her father’s lack of attention to arranging her betrothal, she disguises herself as a boy and vents her anger as he makes a speech before the Athenian council in support of a new naval expedition against Sparta. Nikodike’s impassioned protest draws attention to the situation of the women who have been left husbandless by the war, as she exhorts her father and his peers to take responsibility for the deaths of the male populace and reminds them that this is the reason why there are no young boys (136): ‘Yes, take them, take them! Kill them as you’ve killed the rest, but don’t wonder you’ve no grandsons!’ And then, rising to a cry, an invocation, ‘Oh, maids of Athens, playmates of mine, in childhood, where are our husbands? Ask them, ask him –’ and she flung [her cloak] in the face of Theramenes ‘– Bring back our dead husbands!’ As already noted above, the naming of Nikodike after a character in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata alerts us to Mitchison’s close familiarity with that text. In Nikodike’s words to the Council we find perhaps the most direct allusion to the Aristophanic play, which specifically refers to women in their prime left at home husbandless (Lysistrata 586–97). Nikodike’s cross-dressing here reverses the gender inversion which routinely took place on the Athenian stage, where the female characters in Aristophanes’ plays were played by male actors. Mitchison’s own Nikodike voices the sentiments expressed in Lysistrata — that the war is responsible for the absence of Athens’ men — and she, like Aristophanes’ characters, protests against wartime hardships; she too meets with the objection that war should concern only men.35 For a woman in 1920s Britain — when bearing sons was seen by some as a form of patriotic service to the state — Nikodike’s emphasis on the inability of women to bear children because of a lack of men might well resonate.36 After the deaths of more than 700,000 men in the First World War and the publication of the 1921 census data, which showed that there were one and three-quarter million unmarried women, there was a growing tendency in the press to focus on the population’s gender imbalance and the resulting presence of these unmarried women, who were dubbed ‘superfluous women’ or ‘surplus women’.37 Thus Mitchison’s fictionalized vision of classical Athens acts too as a poignant commentary on the social and political history of her own time, and in turn allows the reader to imagine, on the basis of her own recent experience, the condition of those who lived through the wars of the ancient past.38 Despite Nikodike’s individual strength of character in protesting at the situation in which she has found herself, ultimately she, like Moiro, is presented as a victim both of her society’s rigid construction of gender roles and of the war in which her world is embroiled. She is eventually married to Diokles, a man who is not her intellectual equal and whom Mitchison imagines as wanting a passive wife to perform the traditional role expected of a woman in classical Athens; Nikodike fulfils this role by giving birth to a baby boy. She does later make a final attempt to escape the constraints imposed by her gender by attempting to run away to fight in a war with her brother, yet is swiftly intercepted and punished with a beating from her husband. The conversation which Nikodike has with her mother Phrasikleia after this beating is revealing as Nikodike reflects on the limitations which are placed on women’s lives (229): ‘He was quite right, of course. I’m his. Don’t I know it. And things won’t ever be different’. She asserts, ‘I only wanted to be free’, yet for a woman in a patriarchal society this is an unobtainable desire, as her mother’s response makes starkly clear: ‘Women can’t be free — not our sort. It’s always been the same, sweet, and we have to do our duty’. That duty involves staying at home and away from the fighting, much as it did for women in Mitchison’s time. On the subject of her own engagement to her husband Dick, Mitchison would later comment ironically that, ‘I am inclined to think that I might have said yes to the first man (I beg your pardon: officer) in uniform who asked me to marry him in August 1914. It would have been “war work”; it would have been involvement in the great excitement’ (Mitchison 1975: 103). Her suggestion that marriage to a serving soldier allowed a woman vicarious participation in the adventure to which her gender would deny her access is symptomatic of Mitchison’s frustration at being excluded from roles which were traditionally masculine;39 this may well have fed in to Mitchison’s imagining of Nikodike’s attempt to join her brother in the fighting. It is, however, Nikodike’s relationship with her brother Hagnon throughout the novel which throws into the sharpest relief the constraints imposed on women’s lives. He often talks politics to her, although she remains largely silent, not through lack of understanding but rather in the submissive role to which marriage has reduced her: ‘As she said nothing, he got quite a good opinion of her, and often thought it a pity she was only a girl’ (215). The gap between the genders, highlighted so strikingly in Nikodike’s failed attempt to join the fighting, is reinforced once more when the war is over. Her husband boasts to Hagnon that he has ‘cured’ her of her defiant streak, and the two men laugh together in the market place, which is ‘full of talk and friends meeting — dozens of men they both knew’ (237). This bustling male domain is in marked contrast to the image of Nikodike which Hagnon sees in his mind’s eye: ‘a little picture of his sister shut up there in her house, sitting disconsolate with her hands in her lap, and her heart closed against him for ever. But that was nonsense after all: and the Agora was real all round him, and freedom had come back to Athens! Only, underneath it all, it was as if he was wearing a rough shirt, or something … just a little uncomfortable … ’ (237–8). The discomfort here perhaps comes from the underlying acknowledgement that true freedom is, as Nikodike’s mother knows, only possible for men. Later, when serving as a mercenary in Asia, Hagnon seldom thinks about Nikodike, reflecting only that ‘she was a good wife to Diokles, doing her duty in every way’ (344–5). The confinement of Nikodike to the domestic sphere, and her invisibility in the male-dominated worlds of politics or warfare, might well chime with a reader of 1920s England. Although the First World War had done much to challenge the assumption that women did not matter politically,40 by 1925, when Mitchison was writing Cloud Cuckoo Land, there was still some distance to go for the women who fought for equality. The age restriction and property qualification imposed on women voters by the 1918 Representation of the People Act meant that still only 40% of Britain’s women had been granted suffrage; it would take until 1928 for the Equal Franchise Act to establish full voting parity between the genders. For feminists like Mitchison it seemed too that social equality for women was still a distant dream; in this respect, the lives of the women of fifth-century BCE Greece mirrored those of their twentieth-century counterparts. The apparent chronological and cultural distance afforded by the ancient setting of her novel would allow it to be read as an ‘enchanting’ story ‘full of incident and humanity’ and praised for its attention to detail in representing a ‘vanished but far-famed civilization’.41 Yet, read in conjunction with Mitchison’s activist biography, it acts not merely as an imaginary tale of a vanished world, but as a powerful critique of the subordination of women, the absence of both political and bodily autonomy, and the constraints imposed on their lives by the lack of these freedoms — elements of Mitchison’s world which were not so far distant from the ancient setting as she might have desired. Footnotes 1 Mitchison (1975: 11–13). See Calder (1997) and Benton (1990) for detailed biographies of Mitchison. Mitchison’s autobiography is in three volumes (Mitchison 1973, 1975, and 1979). 2 Mitchison (1975: 28 and 35–48). 3 I. Murray (2002: 70–71). 4 See Hurst (2005) and Hurst (2006: 52–100). 5 Virginia Woolf’s (1925) essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, published in 1925 (the same year in which Cloud Cuckoo Land was published), plays with her readers’ assumptions based on the gendered nature of access to classics. Her discussion focuses on the inscrutability of Greek thought and highlights the irony of the essay’s title as she demonstrates that she does indeed know the Greek language; this access to classical languages was by no means given for a woman in 1925. See further Fowler (1983). 6 Calder (1997: 92–94). 7 Women’s writing during the First World War was long neglected as a focus for serious study until the publication of Reilly’s 1981 anthology. Khan (1988) offers a detailed overview of the range of responses by women poets to different aspects of the war. 8 Hurst (2006) provides a comprehensive study of the engagement of women writers with classical themes in the Victorian era. 9 Hurst (2006: 211–19) analyses Brittain’s engagement with classical texts. See also Khan (1988: 3). 10 Brittain (1980 (1957): 77). See also Fowler (1983: 338). 11 Woolf (2000 (1928): 66–68) speculates as to the reasons why the form of the novel appealed to women writers of the Victorian era. 12 See Hoberman (1997) for a discussion of women’s historical fiction between the two World Wars. 13 On Homer as a source of inspiration for men’s war-writing, see Vandiver (2010: 228–80). 14 Murray (2002: 71–72). 15 Mitchison would comment in an interview which she gave in 1984 on the comparison between democratic Athens and totalitarian Sparta, observing that, with hindsight, ‘Sparta was a little bit like Germany, and at that time we were beginning to be aware of what was happening, and although I don’t think I thought of it directly, that was affecting us’ (Murray 2002: 74–75). 16 All subsequent page references to Cloud Cuckoo Land refer to Mitchison (2011 (1925)). 17 See Sommerstein (1987: 4–5) for a summary of the political situation at Athens at the time when Birds was first produced. 18 Mitchison (1975: 47). 19 See Sommerstein (1996) ad Frogs 541 for a discussion of Theramenes’ political career. 20 Calder (1997: 44). 21 G. Murray (1919: 10–11, 48). 22 Ibid., pp. 15–16. 23 See Wohl (1979: 112–21) and Winter (1986: 65–99). 24 On the absence of men in the fifth century BCE as a result of the Peloponnesian War see, for example, Lysistrata 99–112, 524, 591–3. 25 See Hall (2007: 86–87). On early twentieth century translations of Aristophanes’ plays see Robson (2009: 190). 26 Lysistrata 321, with Sommerstein (1990: ad loc), noting that the name also appears on an Athenian tombstone of the fourth century BCE. 27 For example, she is frequently described in terms which depict her as a child in the eyes of the novel’s male characters: ‘poor child’ (64, cf. 77); ‘poor little frightened thing’ (73); ‘poor little girl!’ (157) Steeling herself before her marriage to Alxenor, Moiro reflects that ‘she would be fifteen in winter and must not try to be a baby’ (112). 28 Pomeroy (2002) gives a comprehensive survey of the ancient evidence relating to Spartan women. 29 Heilbrun (1990: 108) articulates the problematic nature of ancient narratives which confined women to plots dictated by the men on whom they depended: ‘Their destiny was to be married, circulated; to be given by one man, the father, to another, the husband, to become the mothers of men. Theirs has been the marriage plot, the erotic plot, the courtship plot, but never … the quest plot.’ 30 See further Brooke (2011: 76–80) and Calder (1997: 92–96). 31 On the exposure of female infants in classical Athens see Golden (1981). 32 Brooke (2011: 39–64) elucidates the disparity of access to birth control for women of different social classes. 33 On abortion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries see Brooke (2011: 28–29, 92–115). 34 Calder (1997: 122–5). 35 On the suggestion that war should be men’s concern only, see Lysistrata 520ff, 587–8, 626ff. 36 On the idea of ‘patriotic motherhood’ and childbearing in the First World War see Gullace (2002: 55–63). Grayzel (1999: 86–120) also explores the relationship between the state and motherhood during the war. 37 Nicholson (2008) examines the reality behind the sensationalist headlines about the high proportion of unmarried women. Vera Brittain’s 1920 poem ‘The Superfluous Woman’ offers a personal perspective on this effect of the war. 38 An alternative reception of Lysistrata is Ludovici’s 1924 antifeminist tract Lysistrata: Woman’s Future and Future Woman, in which the author expressed his fears that the two million ‘surplus women’ would become destructive and ultimately overthrow male dominance. Mitchison was almost certainly aware of this reading of Aristophanes’ play. See also Jeffreys (1985: 173–4). 39 Mitchison (1975: 124). On the frustration of being excluded from the ‘real’ war, see also Rose Macaulay’s 1915 poem ‘Many Sisters to Many Brothers’. 40 See, for example, Vellacott (1987), Grayzel (1999: 190–225) and Gullace (2002). 41 Anonymous Spectator reviewer (1926). Acknowledgements This article began life as a conference paper which was delivered at the University College London conference ‘The Poetics of War: Remembering Conflict from Ancient Greece to the Great War’ in June 2015. I am grateful to Edith Hall for reading and commenting on a first draft, and to participants at the conference for helpful discussion and suggestions as to how I might develop the research. I am especially indebted to this journal’s thoughtful and meticulous reviewers whose attention to detail and thorough responses were invaluable in helping me to clarify my analysis. References Benton J., Naomi Mitchison: A Biography ( London: Pandora, 1990). Brittain V., Testament of Experience ( London: Virago, 1980; first published 1957). Brooke S., Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning, and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Calder J., The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison ( London: Virago, 1997). Fowler R., ‘ On not Knowing Greek: The Classics and the Woman of Letters’, The Classical Journal 78 ( 1983), pp. 337– 49. Golden M., ‘ Demography and the Exposure of Girls at Athens’, Phoenix 35, no. 4 ( 1981), pp. 316–31. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Grayzel S. R., Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War ( Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Gullace N. F., “The Blood of Our Sons” : Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War ( New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). Hall E., ‘The English-speaking Aristophanes, 1650-1914’, in Hall E., Wrigley A. (eds.), Aristophanes in Performance, 421BC-2007: Peace, Birds and Frogs ( London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2007), pp. 66– 92. Heilbrun C., ‘What was Penelope Unweaving?’, in Heilbrun C. (ed.), Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 103– 11. Hoberman R., Gendering Classicism: The Ancient World in Twentieth-Century Women’s Historical Fiction ( Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997). Hurst I., ‘ Maenads Dancing before the Martyrs’ Memorial: Oxford Women Writers and the Classical Tradition’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 12, no. 2 ( 2005), pp. 163– 82. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hurst I., Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Jeffreys S., The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930 ( London: Pandora, 1985). Khan N., Women’s Poetry of the First World War ( Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988). Ludovici A. M., Lysistrata: Woman’s Future and Future Woman ( London: Kegan Paul, 1924). Mitchison N., Small Talk: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood ( London: Bodley Head, 1973). Mitchison N., All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage ( London: Bodley Head, 1975). Mitchison N., You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940 ( London: Victor Gollancz, 1979). Mitchison N., Cloud Cuckoo Land ( Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2011 reissue; first edition 1925). Murray G., Aristophanes and the War Party: A Study in the Contemporary Criticism of the Peloponnesian War ( London: George Allen and Unwin, 1919). Murray I. (ed.), Scottish Writers Talking 2: In Interview ( East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002). Nicholson V., Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War ( Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pomeroy S. B., Spartan Women ( Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Reilly C. W., Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War ( London: Virago, 1981). Robson J., Aristophanes: An Introduction ( London: Bloomsbury, 2009). Sommerstein A. H., Aristophanes: Birds ( Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1987). Sommerstein A. H., Aristophanes: Lysistrata ( Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1990). Sommerstein A. H., Aristophanes: Frogs ( Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1996). The Spectator 2nd January 1926 (anonymous reviewer), ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land. By Naomi Mitchison’, p. 33. Vandiver E., Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Vellacott J., ‘ Feminist Consciousness and the First World War’, History Workshop 23, no. 1 ( 1987), pp. 81– 101. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Winter J. M., The Great War and the British People ( London: Macmillan, 1986). Wohl R., The Generation of 1914 ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979). Woolf V., The Common Reader ( London: Hogarth Press, 1925). Woolf V., A Room of One’s Own ( London: Penguin, 2000; first published 1928). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Classical Receptions Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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