Mary Renault

Mary Renault

Overview
Mary Renault (4 September 1905 – 13 December 1983) born Eileen Mary Challans, was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus
Theseus
For other uses, see Theseus Theseus was the mythical founder-king of Athens, son of Aethra, and fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, both of whom Aethra had slept with in one night. Theseus was a founder-hero, like Perseus, Cadmus, or Heracles, all of whom battled and overcame foes that were...

, Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

, Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.

Born at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex
Essex
Essex is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in the East region of England, and one of the home counties. It is located to the northeast of Greater London. It borders with Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to the north, Hertfordshire to the west, Kent to the South and London to the south west...

, (now in London), Renault was educated at St Hugh's College
St Hugh's College, Oxford
St Hugh's College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. It is located on a fourteen and a half acre site on St Margaret's Road, to the North of the city centre. It was founded in 1886 as a women's college, and accepted its first male students in its centenary year in 1986...

 of Oxford University
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a university located in Oxford, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest surviving university in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world. Although its exact date of foundation is unclear, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096...

, then an all-women's college, receiving an undergraduate degree in English
English literature
English literature is the literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; for example, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Joseph Conrad was Polish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, J....

 in 1928.
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Quotations

How can people trust the harvest, unless they see it sown?

The King Must Die|The King Must Die (1958)

Go with your fate, but not beyond. Beyond leads to dark places.

The Bull from the Sea (1962)

In hatred as in love, we grow like the thing we brood upon. What we loathe, we graft into our very soul.

The Mask of Apollo (1966)

You can make an audience see nearly anything, if you yourself believe in it.

The Mask of Apollo (1966)

It is bitter to lose a friend to evil, before one loses him to death.

The Praise Singer|The Praise Singer (1978)
Encyclopedia
Mary Renault (4 September 1905 – 13 December 1983) born Eileen Mary Challans, was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus
Theseus
For other uses, see Theseus Theseus was the mythical founder-king of Athens, son of Aethra, and fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, both of whom Aethra had slept with in one night. Theseus was a founder-hero, like Perseus, Cadmus, or Heracles, all of whom battled and overcame foes that were...

, Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

, Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.

Biography


Born at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex
Essex
Essex is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in the East region of England, and one of the home counties. It is located to the northeast of Greater London. It borders with Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to the north, Hertfordshire to the west, Kent to the South and London to the south west...

, (now in London), Renault was educated at St Hugh's College
St Hugh's College, Oxford
St Hugh's College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. It is located on a fourteen and a half acre site on St Margaret's Road, to the North of the city centre. It was founded in 1886 as a women's college, and accepted its first male students in its centenary year in 1986...

 of Oxford University
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a university located in Oxford, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest surviving university in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world. Although its exact date of foundation is unclear, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096...

, then an all-women's college, receiving an undergraduate degree in English
English literature
English literature is the literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; for example, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Joseph Conrad was Polish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, J....

 in 1928. In 1933, she began training as a nurse at Oxford
Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

's Radcliffe Infirmary
Radcliffe Infirmary
The Radcliffe Infirmary was a hospital in central Oxford, England, located at the southern end of Woodstock Road on the western side, backing onto Walton Street. The Radcliffe Infirmary, named after physician John Radcliffe, opened in 1770 and was Oxford's first hospital...

. During her training, she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a life-long romantic relationship.

She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees at the Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol
Bristol
Bristol is a city, unitary authority area and ceremonial county in South West England, with an estimated population of 433,100 for the unitary authority in 2009, and a surrounding Larger Urban Zone with an estimated 1,070,000 residents in 2007...

, and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945. She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939; it had a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, which novelist Linda Proud
Linda Proud
Linda Helena Proud is an English writer on cultural and philosophical themes, including The Botticelli Trilogy – three novels set in Renaissance Florence.- Biography :...

 described as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance". Her 1943 novel The Friendly Young Ladies, about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems inspired by her own relationship with Miss Mullard.

In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won a MGM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. is an American media company, involved primarily in the production and distribution of films and television programs. MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer...

 prize worth $150,000, she and Mullard emigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There, according to Proud, they found a community of gay expatriates who had "escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban.... Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home." (Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, participating in the Black Sash
Black Sash
The Black Sash was a non-violent white women's resistance organization founded in 1955 in South Africa by Jean Sinclair. The Black Sash initially campaigned against the removal of Coloured or mixed race voters from the voters' roll in the Cape Province by the National Party government...

 movement against apartheid in the 1950s.)

Mary Renault died at Cape Town, South Africa, on 13 December 1983.

Themes


In South Africa Renault was able to write forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time; her sympathetic treatment of love between men would win Renault a wide gay readership. It would also foster rumours that Renault was really a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Renault found these rumours amusing, but also sought to distance herself from being labelled a "gay writer."

Her historical novels were all set in ancient Greece, including a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer, the story of two young gay servicemen during World War II who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium
Symposium (Plato)
The Symposium is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–380 BCE. It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love....

, is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the 20th century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and antigay prejudice as social "problems"; instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership. (Ironically, The Charioteer could not be published in the U.S. until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.)

Although not a classicist
Classics
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

 by training, Renault was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction (and in her nonfiction work, The Nature of Alexander) has been called into question: her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves
Robert Graves
Robert von Ranke Graves 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works...

, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized. According to Kevin Kopelson, professor of English at the University of Iowa
University of Iowa
The University of Iowa is a public state-supported research university located in Iowa City, Iowa, United States. It is the oldest public university in the state. The university is organized into eleven colleges granting undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees...

, Renault "mischaracterize[s] pederastic relationships as heroic." Defying centuries of admiration for Demosthenes
Demosthenes
Demosthenes was a prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens. His orations constitute a significant expression of contemporary Athenian intellectual prowess and provide an insight into the politics and culture of ancient Greece during the 4th century BC. Demosthenes learned rhetoric by...

 as a great orator, Renault portrayed him as a cruel, corrupt and cowardly demagogue. Renault defended her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books.

Though Renault appreciated her gay following, she was uncomfortable with the "gay pride
Gay pride
LGBT pride or gay pride is the concept that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people should be proud of their sexual orientation and gender identity...

" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots
Stonewall riots
The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City...

. Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of her 1953 novel The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life, she expressed hostility toward the gay rights movement, troubling some of her fans . David Sweetman remarks in his biography of Renault that her novels generally portray mothers in a poor light and that, particularly in her later novels, this is extended to women in general. Her generally negative depiction of women has also been noted by critic Caroline Heilbrun.

Contemporary fiction

  • Purposes of Love (US title: Promise of Love) (1939)
  • Kind Are Her Answers (1940)
  • The Friendly Young Ladies (US title: The Middle Mist) (1943)
  • Return to Night (1947)
  • The North Face
    The North Face (novel)
    The North Face is a 1948 heterosexual romance novel by Mary Renault, who later became famous for historical novels set in ancient Greece and featuring homosexual love between male characters. The protagonists are Neil Langston and Ellie, both of whom have tragic pasts and both of whom are staying...

    (1948)
  • The Charioteer
    The Charioteer
    The Charioteer is a 1953 war novel and gay novel by Mary Renault. It was first published in the United States in 1959. The Charioteer is significant because it features a prominent gay theme at an early date and quickly became a bestseller within the gay community.-Plot summary:This romance novel...

    (1953)

Historical novels

  • The Last of the Wine
    The Last of the Wine
    The Last of the Wine is Mary Renault's first novel set in Ancient Greece, the setting that would become her most important arena. The novel was published in 1956 and is the second of her works to feature male homosexuality as a major theme...

    (1956) — set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War
    Peloponnesian War
    The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases...

    ; the narrator is a student of Socrates
  • The King Must Die
    The King Must Die
    For the song by Elton John, see The King Must Die The King Must Die is a 1958 bildungsroman and historical novel by Mary Renault that traces the early life and adventures of Theseus, a hero in Greek mythology. Naturally, it is set in Ancient Greece: Troizen, Corinth, Eleusis, Athens, Knossos in...

    (1958) — the mythical Theseus
    Theseus
    For other uses, see Theseus Theseus was the mythical founder-king of Athens, son of Aethra, and fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, both of whom Aethra had slept with in one night. Theseus was a founder-hero, like Perseus, Cadmus, or Heracles, all of whom battled and overcame foes that were...

     up to his father's death
  • The Bull from the Sea
    The Bull from the Sea
    The Bull from the Sea is the sequel to Mary Renault's The King Must Die. It continues the story of the mythological hero Theseus after his return from Crete.-Plot introduction:...

    (1962) — the remainder of Theseus' life
  • The Mask of Apollo
    The Mask of Apollo
    The Mask of Apollo is a historical novel written by Mary Renault. It is set in ancient Greece shortly after the Peloponnesian War. The story involves the world of live theatre and political intrigue in the Mediterranean at the time...

    (1966) — an actor at the time of Plato
    Plato
    Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

     and Dionysius the Younger (brief appearance by Alexander near the end of the book)
  • Fire from Heaven
    Fire From Heaven
    Fire from Heaven is a 1969 historical novel by Mary Renault about the childhood and youth of Alexander the Great. It reportedly was a major inspiration for the Oliver Stone film Alexander. The book was nominated for the “Lost Man Booker Prize” of 1970, "a contest delayed by 40 years because a...

    (1969) — Alexander the Great from the age of four up to his father's death
  • The Persian Boy
    The Persian Boy
    The Persian Boy is a 1972 historical novel written by Mary Renault and narrated by Bagoas, a young Persian from an aristocratic family who is captured by his father's enemies, castrated, and sold as a slave to the king Darius III, who makes him his favorite...

    (1972) — from Bagoas
    Bagoas (courtier)
    Bagoas was a eunuch in the Persian Empire in the 4th Century BCE, said to have been the catamite of Darius III, and later the Eromenos of Alexander the Great.-The Famous Kiss:...

    's perspective; Alexander the Great after the conquest of Persia
  • The Praise Singer
    The Praise Singer
    The Praise Singer is a historical novel by Mary Renault first published in 1978. Its narrator and main character is the real-life lyric poet Simonides of Keos, whose life spanned the transition from an oral to a written culture in Ancient Greece...

    (1978) — the poet Simonides of Ceos
    Simonides of Ceos
    Simonides of Ceos was a Greek lyric poet, born at Ioulis on Kea. The scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria included him in the canonical list of nine lyric poets, along with Bacchylides and Pindar...

  • Funeral Games (1981) — Alexander's successors
    Diadochi
    The Diadochi were the rival generals, family and friends of Alexander the Great who fought for the control of Alexander's empire after his death in 323 BC...


Nonfiction

  • The Nature of Alexander
    The Nature of Alexander
    The Nature of Alexander is the only nonfiction work by novelist Mary Renault .-Summary:The book is a biography of King Alexander the Great, , ruler of Macedon, Egypt and Persia...

    (1975) — a biography of Alexander the Great
  • Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae (1964) — about the Persian Wars

Radio


The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea have been adapted by Michael Bakewell
Michael Bakewell
Michael Bakewell is a British television producer. He is best known for his work during the 1960s, when he was the first Head of Plays at the BBC after Sydney Newman divided the drama department into separate series, serials and plays divisions in 1963...

 as an 11-part BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 is a British domestic radio station, operated and owned by the BBC, that broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes, including news, drama, comedy, science and history. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is currently Gwyneth Williams, and the...

 serial entitled The King Must Die. It was directed by David Spenser
David Spenser
David Spenser is a Sri Lankan born British actor. He is the elder brother of actor Jeremy Spenser.-Selected filmography:* The Earth Dies Screaming * Some May Live * Battle Beneath the Earth...

, broadcast between 5/6/1983 and 14/8/1983 and starred Gary Bond (Theseus), John Westbrook (Pittheus), Frances Jeater (queen of Eleusis), Carole Boyd (Aithra), Alex Jennings (Amyntor), Sarah Badel, David March and Christopher Guard. It was repeated on BBC7 17/6/2003.

Sources

  • Brian Alderson. "Challans, (Eileen) Mary" Dictionary of National Biography. Supplement, 1980-1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
  • David Sweetman. Mary Renault: a biography. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), ISBN 0-7011-3568-9.
  • Caroline Zilboorg. The masks of Mary Renault: a literary biography. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), ISBN 0-8262-1322-7.

External links