Entry updated 12 July 2021. Tagged: Author.
(1901-1935) Scottish journalist and author, active from around 1917; too young for World War One, he spent a taxing aftermath decade (1919-1929) in active service; known also for nonfantastic Scottish novels written as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the nonfiction Scottish Scene; Or, the Intelligent Man's Guide to Albion (1934), also as by Gibbon, with Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978). Under his own name he wrote popular archaeology and some speculative works, including Hanno; Or, the Future of Exploration (1928 chap) – part of the To-day and To-morrow series – where he committed himself to some humorous but basically Wellsian thoughts (he was much influenced by H G Wells, whose complex influence permeated his short career) about exploring both space and the centre of the Earth. Also amusingly, he collaborated with himself on the relatively massive Nine Against the Unknown: A Record of Geographical Exploration (1934; vt Earth Conquerors: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Explorers 1934) as by himself and Gibbon, the vt being as by himself alone; the premise of the book – that the most significant European world-explorers CE 1000-1900 were questing for the Promised Land hinted at in archaic myths – was perhaps adventurous enough to warrant the seeming sanction of two authors.
In the late 1920s Mitchell began to write fantasies, rather coloured by the romantic chinoiserie of authors like James Elroy Flecker, whose use of the modes of Arabian Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] was softly but thoroughly ironized. Typical of these are The Calends of Cairo (July 1929-June 1930 Cornhill Magazine as "Polychromata I-XII"; coll of linked stories 1931; vt Cairo Dawns: A Story Cycle with a Proem 1931) with a letter in preface by H G Wells; and Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights: (Two Storycycles) (coll of two linked story sequences 1933) with a foreword by J D Beresford, which includes an Apes as Human tale, "The Last Ogre" (June 1932 Cornhill Magazine). "Kametis and Evelpis", a third tale linked to the previous two by similarities of plot, was left incomplete at Mitchell's death; John Gawsworth modestly revised the manuscript and published the resulting novelette as by Mitchell in his anonymously edited Masterpiece of Thrills (anth 1936), along with "The Woman of Leadenhall Street" as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, which is Prehistoric SF (see also Origin of Man). Mitchell's third novel, The Lost Trumpet (1932), which describes an archaeologist's discovery of the trumpet that blew down Jericho, is also linked to the story cycles.
Mitchell's first novel of sf interest, The Thirteenth Disciple: Being Portrait and Saga of Malcolm Maudslay in his Adventure Through the Dark Corridor (1931) is a desultory bildungsroman climaxing in a Lost World experience, which did give him room to present the argument that Evolution could not properly be understood in Whig terms, with earlier members of the family climaxing (for the moment) in Homo sapiens being seen as prototypes to be perfected in us. This line of thought distinguishes him from Wells, and indeed from almost the whole of British Anthropology and fiction (see Imperialism; Race in SF; for further comments also see Taboos).
Three Go Back (1932; cut and bowdlerized December 1943 Famous Fantastic Mysteries; this mutilated version reissued 1953) is full-fledged Prehistoric SF imbued with the expository thrust of the Scientific Romance. Three emblematic characters (a pacifist, an arms manufacturer, and centrally a woman radicalized by the idiotic death of her lover in war) are passengers on an Airship, which is hurtled by Timeslip back to an Old Stone Age mid-Atlantic Atlantis. They find there unspoiled proto-Basques in an Eden doomed by the nearing Ice Age and by conflicts with savage Neanderthalers, which decimate the tribe; the two surviving castaways then snap back to the present. The book is notable for its sentimental but strongly held idealization of prehistory as a Golden Age, and for its realistic and ebullient female protagonist, who adapts far more readily to her strange surroundings than either of the men (see Women in SF). Very similarly, the eponymous female protagonist of Gay Hunter (1934) is cast forward in time – via a process explicitly justified by J W Dunne's time theories – arriving naked along with two Fascist males and a spoiled English aristocratic lady in a Ruined Earth Britain 20,000 years hence. Unlike her co-travellers, she adapts with commendable swiftness to local mores, accepting her nakedness as did the heroine of the previous book (the bowdlerized version of that tale shields this behaviour from its American readers), but remaining decorously virgin. Her despair at the "progress" she witnesses in this future world also marks her as thematically twinned with the previous tale's protagonist, as does her dismay when she contemplates the post-nuclear-war ruins left by long-extinct Fascist "Hierarchs", strewn gigantally across the landscape (see Ruins and Futurity). Eventually, in climactic scenes in ruined London she helps defeat her Fascist companions' attempt to re-industrialize, re-weaponize and ultimately re-destroy the new Golden Age of the world.
Mitchell was a writer whose occasional sillinesses were almost certainly a mark of his youth. His exorbitant rejection of the idea of Progress makes his work seem prescient, if garishly so; his early death from peritonitis cut him off well before he had realized his potential. [JC]
James Leslie Mitchell
born Auchterless, Aberdeenshire: 13 February 1901
died Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire: 7 February 1935
- The Thirteenth Disciple: Being Portrait and Saga of Malcolm Maudslay in his Adventure Through the Dark Corridor (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1931) [hb/]
- Three Go Back (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1932) [hb/]
- The Lost Trumpet (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1932) [coll of linked stories: hb/]
- Gay Hunter (London: William Heinemann, 1934) [hb/uncredited]
collections and stories
- The Calends of Cairo (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1931) [coll of linked stories: hb/]
- Cairo Dawns: A Story Cycle with a Proem (Indianapolis, Indiana: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1931) [coll of linked stories: vt of the above: hb/]
- Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights: (Two Storycycles) (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1933) [coll of linked stories: hb/]
- Hanno; Or, the Future of Exploration (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company, 1928) [nonfiction: chap: in the publisher's To-day and To-morrow series: hb/nonpictorial]
- Nine Against the Unknown: A Record of Geographical Exploration (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1934) as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and J Leslie Mitchell [nonfiction: illus/hb/P Youngman Carter]
- Earth Conquerors: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Explorers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1934) as by Mitchell alone [vt of the above: hb/]
about the author
- Ian Campbell. "The Science Fiction of James Leslie Mitchell" (December 1974 Extrapolation) [mag/]
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