On September 4, 1905, Mary Renault was born. Renault was a novelist whose career fell into two halves—contemporary novels written mostly in the 1940s, and historical novels set in ancient Greece. Today, she is primarily remembered for the latter.
Renault studied English at Oxford University and received her undergraduate degree in 1928. She went on to train as a nurse, and during her training, met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse who became her life partner.
Renault began writing while working as a nurse, and published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939. It’s a hospital romance between a doctor and a student nurse. Most of Renault’s early contemporary novels have a medical backdrop, with a doctor or a nurse as a central character. The 1944 novel The Friendly Young Ladies is at least partly inspired by her own life; it’s a romance between a writer and a nurse, both women.
Renault and Mullard found life in England difficult. The United Kingdom was, even by the standards of the 1940s, not welcoming of same-sex couples. In 1948, they emigrated to South Africa, where there was a small community of gay and lesbian British expatriates. South Africa was somewhat more liberal about homosexuality, but that attitude did not extend to all groups, and Renault and Mullard both took part in the Black Sash movement, an organization of white women who campaigned against apartheid in the 1950s.
Renault took advantage of the more open attitudes in South Africa to write her most overtly gay romance yet, and this time, it was a love story between two men. The Charioteer, published in 1953, told the story of a British soldier injured during the evacuation of Dunkirk and a male hospital orderly.
For its time, The Charioteer was an unusually frank depiction of same-sex romance, so much so that Renault’s American publisher refused to publish the book until 1959. When it was published, it became a bestseller and was particularly popular with gay men. They found the book so convincing that it was rumored that Renault actually was a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Renault was amused by those rumors, and happy to have a loyal gay fan base, but she resisted being labeled as a gay writer, and she was not a supporter of the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
After The Charioteer, Renault shifted course, and her remaining novels are all set in ancient Greece. Two of them—The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea—tells the story of King Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, but Renault leaves out the overtly mythical aspects of the story. There are no gods in her telling; her goal was to tell a realistic story that might have developed into today’s myths.
Renault also wrote about the great Greek philosophers, Socrates in The Last of the Wine and Plato in The Mask of Apollo. Her primary inspiration in her last decade was the life of Alexander the Great, to whom she devoted a trilogy of novels. Fire from Heaven is the story of his childhood and youth; The Persian Boy is the story of his reign, and Funeral Games begins with his death and covers the collapse of the empire he created. She felt that she had been unable to say all she wanted about Alexander in those novels, so Renault also wrote a non-fiction biography, The Nature of Alexander.
Historians were generally appreciative of Renault’s depiction of Greek society as a whole, though they often disagreed with her on the details of individual lives and on her interpretations of specific personalities and events, and thought that she too often relied on historians of questionable value. And as is generally the case with historical fiction, newer discoveries are likely to overtake what was known about history when the books were written. Renault’s Greek novels are now 40 to 65 years old, so it would probably be unwise to rely on them for historical accuracy. But they have remained popular as entertaining fiction.
In mid-1983, Renault developed a persistent cough that deepened into pneumonia. When their doctor told Julie Mullard that the cause was cancer, Mullard asked him not to tell Renault. Renault died on December 13, 1983, probably without ever knowing the cause of her own death.
All fourteen of Renault’s novels, and her biography of Alexander, are available as e-books at Hoopla.
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