Who Is Mary Renault?
When President Kennedy was once asked who his favorite author was, he replied, “Mary Renault.” The Mary Renault Society, a group centered on the Triangle area of North Carolina, is named after a writer who created extraordinary historical novels and at the same time fostered societal tolerance towards homosexuality. When Eileen Mary Challans was born in 1905 in Essex (now a part of Greater London), homosexuality really could only be publicly mentioned with repulsion (it wasn’t until 1967 that homosexual behavior was decriminalized between males in England and Wales – it was never criminal for females – and another six years before the American Psychiatric Association declassified it as a mental disorder).
Whether her comfortable childhood and boarding school education meant loving parental support or continually expressed disappointment, Mary grew up a bookish, introverted child. Her plan when she entered St. Hugh’s College, Oxford – a college for women, where one of the tutors was J.R.R. Tolkien – was to become a teacher (because of his influence, while there she wrote a novel set in medieval times; but she burned the manuscript because she felt it lacked authenticity). Her Oxford education did clearly stimulate a love for Plato that had begun when she was younger. Also, living with a relative of the discoverer of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, she discovered a lifelong devotion to the worlds of ancient Crete, Macedon, and Greece (richly nourished by time spent in the Ashmolean Museum).
Mary & Julie
Mary got her degree in English in 1928 and set out to live independently, disappointing society and parents by not getting married and settling down to domestic bliss. The result, however, since she didn’t have much of an allowance to live on, was malnutrition and rheumatic fever, and she finally wound up living back at her parents’ home for a year to rest. In 1933, well enough to leave for a walking holiday in the Cotswolds, she ended up back at Oxford, where at Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary she decided to become a nurse. Her studies eventually resulted in a nursing degree in 1936; but something more important happened before that. It was here that she met fellow trainee Julie Mullard, who was to be her lifelong companion.1
Mary began working as a nurse after graduation, and her off-duty hours were filled with writing. Her first novel, Purposes of Love (1939) was a hospital romance, and it appeared under the pseudonym Mary Renault.2 The next spring she was among those who treated the Dunkirk evacuees, and as war continued she also worked in Radcliffe Infirmary’s brain surgery ward. But writing had taken hold, and her next two books, both published during WWII, were written in after hours time.
Though her first novel focused on a heterosexual romance, after it homosexual themes became more and more overt, leading in 1953 to her sixth and last non-historical novel, The Charioteer, which deals with the (platonic) attraction between a soldier and a conscientious objector during WWII; this was the first British novel to face homosexual love squarely. It managed not only to show profound sympathy for the homosexual male but also to move the reader to empathize, to feel the love as his/her own, instantly making Mary an important figure in “the sexual revolution.”
This kind of topic had consequences. Any mention of homosexuality was shocking to British society. Mary Renault’s honest and sympathetic treatment of homosexual characters as complex beings (rather than as sad, perverted, campy figures) provoked outrage. Fortunately, MGM chose her 4th novel, Return to Night for an award of £25,000, a vast sum (in 1950 a brand new Jaguar XK120 only cost £9983), even after the government taxed 80% of it away. With that money, in 1948 Mary (and Julie) moved to tax-free South Africa, and although she traveled in Africa and Greece, she never returned to England.
The two settled in Durban and, in contrast with the established social mores of life back in England, they found a society that was relatively liberal and tolerant. Despite reclusive tendencies, Mary’s and Julie’s lives broadened to include socializing and parties with their fellow expatriates, many of whom had similarly fled repressive attitudes back home.
They both became citizens of South Africa. Unlike most whites at the time, however, they also joined Black Sash, the women’s movement that was in the forefront of the fight against apartheid. In 1959 Julie’s activities against discrimination even forced the two to move to Cape Town. It was a heady time, but as time passed, Mary became more and more disillusioned with radical politics (later in life she expressed a discomfort with the “gay pride” movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots, preferring the private world of her writing to activism).
Nevertheless, she had noticed parallels between the deepening crisis in South Africa and fifth century BC events in Athens. The tolerant spirit of South Africa made it less necessary for her to deal with antigay attitudes, but by exploring her fascination with Greek warrior society in a distant world, Mary was completely freed from handling prevailing societal attitudes towards homosexuality; instead it was possible for her to focus on philosophical depths in the basic nature of love and of leadership. Finally she had the freedom to indulge her interest in ancient Greece.
Mary had not been a classicist by training, but she was scrupulous in the accuracy of detail of her reconstructions. Before publishing her first historical novel, The Last of the Wine (1956), she and Julie visited mainland Greece and the islands (including Crete) to check the architecture and landscape in this, the first of her historical novels.
Eventually there were eight of these. And the history presented in them did not go unchallenged.4 She had relied heavily on the (now controversial) theories of Robert Graves for her two books about Theseus (The King Must Die in 1958 and the 1962 The Bull from the Sea), some labeled her image of Alexander the Great romantic and uncritical, and real study of Macedonia as a sub-discipline of the history of Greek civilization only began in earnest a year after the publication of her first work about Alexander’s youth, Fire From Heaven (1969). Still, even critics credit her with bringing ancient Greece alive and providing a vivid and perceptive grasp of personalities, not to mention thorough accuracy in historical detail.
And her success was enormous. Forty years later she remains the standard by which all other presentations of Alexander the Great are judged.
Her contribution towards tolerance of homosexuality is harder to evaluate. There are those who fault her for her reticence on the topic, for not standing up stridently and forthrightly for identity politics. The fact is, though, that the strength of her presentations lies precisely in the sophistication of what she leaves unsaid. In the worlds she created, homosexuality was offered simply as a natural and unthreatening part of a continuum of human sexuality – which she believed was innately in flux – and she rejected any logic that would characterize people primarily by their sexual orientation.
After a long, very productive, and enduring body of work, Mary Renault succumbed to lung cancer in a nursing home in Cape Town on December 13th, 1983. In her 78 years of life, she had brought life to the ancient Grecian world and made the formerly untouchable topic of homosexuality, if not normal and irrelevant, at least considerably more human.
|1939||Purposes of Love (US: Promise of Love) a hospital romance whose main characters, a brother and sister, are enamored of the same man|
|1940||Kind Are Her Answers a clever romantic theater novel (about a romance between an un-masculine actor and an un-feminine doctor)|
|1943||The Friendly Young Ladies (US: The Middle Mist ) a light social comedy of (lesbian) sexual identity between a writer and a nurse – in which the issue is hardly discussed|
|1947||Return to Night the forbidden love affair between a female doctor and a younger male patient|
|1948||The North Face a heterosexual romance novel|
|1953||The Charioteer (US publication in 1959) the strains of a soldier’s love for a conscientious objector|
|1956||The Last of the Wine the story of an Athenian and his (male) lover during the Peloponnesian War, including Socrates’ death; a good place to begin the study of Plato|
|1958||The King Must Die the adventures of Theseus of Athens until the death of the king, his father|
|1962||The Bull from the Sea a sequel to The King Must Die, detailing the rest of Theseus’ life and adventures|
|1966||The Mask of Apollo a Greek actor narrates the story of Greek drama (including Plato, Dionysius the Younger, and an appearance by Alexander)|
|1969||Fire from Heaven the boyhood through adolescence of Alexander the Great (ages 4 through 19)|
|1972||The Persian Boy Alexander after he had conquered Persia, as seen through the eyes of his young eunuch lover|
|1978||The Praise Singer a pseudo-autobiography of the lyric poet Simonides at a time when the oral tradition was being replaced by the written word|
|1981||Funeral Games the feeding frenzy of Alexander’s several successors|
a review of each one of the eight historical novels, each with a vast set of relevant links
to characters, animals, places, maps, vase paintings, and coins related to it.
|1964||Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae about the Persian Wars|
|1975||The Nature of Alexander – a biography of Alexander the Great|
|1948 (?)||for BBC producer Cedric Messina a revisionist radio play retelling the Mutiny on the Bounty but in a version sympathetic to Captain Bligh|
|1949||collaborated with Peter Albrecht in writing the dialog for a play Dark Freedom|
|1950’s (?)||for the S. African Broadcasting Corporation, The Song of Troy, a version of the Iliad|
The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea have been adapted as an 11-part serial by the BBC. In April 2006 the BBC aired the one-hour documentary Mary Renault – Love and War in Ancient Greece5
Rarely does a single novelist cast such a shadow over an entire topic in a genre of fiction. If one asks for a list of mainstream historical novels on Alexander the Great, or even on ancient Greece, the reply is usually some variation on, “You have read Mary Renault, haven’t you?” In fact, the impact of Renault may be somewhat responsible for the relative dearth of fictional works on this enigmatic personality dubbed Alexander Magnus by the Romans and who was, arguably, the most famous non-religious figure prior to the 20th Century. Comparisons to Renault are unavoidable, and authors (and publishers) may prefer not to run the risk of being “almost Renault.” (Lest I be thought to exaggerate, consider the plethora of books on King Arthur, Julius Caesar, or even Robin Hood.)
– Reames, Jeanne; Beyond Renault: Alexander the Great in Fiction, text c1997-2009; retrieved 15 Jan 2010
Novelist and non-fiction author Linda Proud in 1999 commented:
Mary Renault. The name has never meant for me anything less than a superlunary being. This, of course, would have embarrassed her no end. She was an ordinary person, a nurse, a writer, both passionate and reclusive. She had faults. She made mistakes. She was gay. But none of this touches my relationship with her. Soul to soul, torches are passed on. Thus I write this in homage to a writer who guided me to Plato as Virgil guided Dante to heaven, who beguiled me with story and language and history, who showed me that some things do not change with time, that there is an eternal aspect to man which unifies us with our ancestors. Most of all, it is a homage to the one who gave me a goal in writing which seems unreachable. The pages of her books have grown yellow on my shelves, but their words still ring with their wild passion….
– Proud, Linda (1999), The Glimpse of a Strong Greek Light, Historical Novel Society, retrieved 12 Jan 2010
Sources of data in this biography:
- Historical Novel Society, Glimpse of a Strong Greek Light
- Ed Stephan, ‘The Greek World of Mary Renault”
- Absolute Astronomy.com biography of Mary Renault (from Wikipedia), including notable quotations from her works
- A review of Caroline Zilboorg’s The Masks of Mary Renault
- KZN Literary Tourism biography of Mary Renault (the site discusses all the writers who are connected to KwaZulu-Natal)
- Cambridge University Orlando project: Women’s Writing in the British Isles
- Wapedia biography of Mary Renault
- Powell’s Books review of The Friendly Young Ladies
- A listing of all 20th century fiction featuring Alexander the Great; Link no longer available (home.earthlink.net/~mathetria/Beyond_Renault/renault.html) retrieved January 2010
|1||though both did have male lovers during their early years.|
|2||Which she pronounced /rɛn oʊlt/ (rather than with a French pronunciation, according to David Sweetman in Mary Renault: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993, pp. 74).|
|3||“Jaguar History”, Conceptcarz.com, retrieved 15 Jan 2010.|
|4||She was also criticized for “mischaracterize[ing] pederastic relationships as heroic” in Kopelson, Kevin. Love’s Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics. Stanford University Press, 1994. Introduction. This claim, however, confuses current and historical cultural worldviews; for example, what once was regarded simply as disciplining a wife is now widely regarded as abuse, and similarly the consequences – even the definition – of pederasty have changed with societies over time. It should be noted that nothing in her contemporary novels suggests the slightest sympathy for anything identifiable as pederasty.|
|5||Lion Television Scotland: Mary Renault – Love and War in Ancient Greece
The BBC documentary appears not to be available any longer, but it can still (as of February 2013) be viewed here.