Mary Renault

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Mary Renault
Mary Renault.jpg
BornEileen Mary Challans[1]
(1905-09-04)4 September 1905
Forest Gate, Essex, England, UK
Died13 December 1983(1983-12-13) (aged 78)
Cape Town, South Africa
EducationSt Hugh's College, Oxford
GenreHistorical fiction
PartnerJulie Mullard

Mary Renault (/ˈrɛnlt/;[2] 4 September 1905 – 13 December 1983), born Eileen Mary Challans,[1] was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in ancient Greece. In addition to fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato, and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.


Eileen Mary Challans was born on 4 September 1905 at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex (now in London). She was the eldest daughter of physician Frank Challans and Mary Clementine Newsome Baxter Challans. She had one younger sister, Francis Joyce Challans,[3] whom Mary always felt was the favourite daughter. Mary had a comfortable, yet strained childhood. Her parents had a contentious relationship and her father was neglectful of his children.[4]

Renault was educated first at Levick family school and Clifton Girls School in Bristol. She read English at St Hugh's College, Oxford, then an all-women's college, receiving an undergraduate degree in 1928.[4] In 1933 she began training as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. During her training she met Julie Mullard (1912 – 2006), a fellow nurse with whom she established a lifelong romantic relationship.

She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees at the Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol, and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945. She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939: it has a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, and the novelist Linda Proud has described it as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance".[5] Her novel The Friendly Young Ladies (1943), which is about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems to have been inspired by her own relationship with Mullard.

In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won an MGM prize worth $150,000, Renault 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."[5] However, both Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, and participated in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.[6]

Renault worked successfully as an author from the couple’s arrival in South Africa in 1948 through 1983. Her earlier British reputation as a writer of sensationalist bestsellers faded, and in 1983 she was listed as one of the famous alumnae who had brought the Radcliffe Infirmary Nurses' Home much honour.[7] Starting in August 1983, Renault became seriously and then terminally ill with lung cancer. She worked to the last to try to complete a final novel (which remained unfinished; the manuscript did not survive) but had to go into residential hospice care. She died in Cape Town on 13 December 1983.[8]


In South Africa, Renault was able to write forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time. Her sympathetic treatment of love between men won her a wide gay readership, but it also led to 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 are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the twentieth century and writing stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead, she was free to consider larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership. The Charioteer could not be published in the US until 1959, which made it a somewhat later addition to homosexual literature in the United States because American readers and critics had accepted serious gay love stories in such works as Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936), Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948).[9]

Although not a classicist by training, Renault was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the ancient Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction and in her non-fiction work, The Nature of Alexander, has been called into question, however.[10] Her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticised.[11] According to Kevin Kopelson, professor of English at the University of Iowa, Renault "mischaracterise[s] pederastic relationships as heroic."[12] Defying centuries of admiration for Demosthenes 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" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots. Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself primarily by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life she expressed hostility to the gay rights movement, troubling some of her fans.[13] 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.[14] Her generally negative depiction of women has also been noted by the critic Carolyn Heilbrun.[15]


The powerful impact Renault's work may have had on many readers, especially emerging young gay men, is suggested in a personal memoir by author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn.[16]


Contemporary fiction[edit]

  • Purposes of Love (1939) (US title: Promise of Love) (1939) "Vivian, a student nurse, chose her profession as a challenge, both to her spirit and to her permanently exhausted body; Mic immerses himself in his work at the hospital to ward off the emotional wounds of an unhappy childhood. Through Jan, Viv’s beloved older brother, they meet, and their friendship turns into a secret romance. Secret because, if discovered, it would cost them their jobs."
  • Kind Are Her Answers (1940) "Kit Anderson is married to Janet, a beautiful but narcissistic woman who seems more shallow to him as time goes by. Their relationship has become strained and cold. Immersing himself in his work as a doctor, Anderson takes consolation in his career. Then, one night he is called out to a dying patient, and meets Christie, who is taking care of her aunt. Warm and vivacious, Christie stands in stark contrast to Janet, providing the passion and intimacy that has been missing from his life. How long can their affair be kept secret and does Kit want what is best for Christie, or only for himself?"
  • The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) (US title: The Middle Mist) (1945) "Elsie, sheltered and naive, is seventeen and unhappy. Stifled by life with her bickering parents in a bleak Cornish village, she falls in love with the first presentable young man she meets – Peter, an ambitious London doctor. On his advice she runs away from home and goes to live with her sister Leonora, who escaped eight years earlier. But there are surprises in store for conventional Elsie as her sister has a rather bohemian lifestyle: not only does Leo live in a houseboat on the Thames where she writes Westerns for a living, she shares her boat – and her bed – with Helen. When Peter pays a visit, turning his attention from one 'friendly young lady' to the next, he disturbs the calm for each of them – with results unforeseen by all . . ."
  • Return to Night (1947) "Losing out on a promotion to her ex lover, Hilary Mansell, a talented doctor, moves to a rural hospital. She is bored and unchallenged, but the routine and long hours dull her disappointment. When Julian Fleming is admitted with a serious head injury, Hilary’s skill and quick thinking save his life, and after his recovery he seeks her out. Julian is handsome, intelligent and a decade younger than Hilary, and although at first she resists his advances, she cannot help falling in love with him. Julian is a gifted actor but denies himself the career he longs for, and she senses that beneath his charm and humour something is holding him back. Before long, it becomes clear that his overbearing mother makes all the decisions in his life, and she doesn’t approve of his ambitions – or of Hilary." A French translation was published in Paris in 1948 by A. Michel, under the title "Recours à la nuit".
  • The North Face (1948) (US 1949) "On holiday in the North Devon countryside, Neil Langton looks back on the wreckage of his past. He has come to believe that all happiness is behind him; the wounds from his former marriage – in which his wife cheated on him and his young daughter died – are still raw. While rock-climbing, he meets Ellen, a young woman whom he saves from a mountainside accident. Ellen, too, is looking to escape her painful past, struggling to deal with her feelings for the man she loved – a pilot who died in service. Set in postwar Britain, and filled with a memorable cast of characters."
  • The Charioteer (1953) (US 1959) "Injured at Dunkirk, Laurie Odell, a young corporal, is recovering at a rural veterans' hospital. There he meets Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly, and the men find solace in their covert friendship. Then Ralph Lanyon appears, a mentor from Laurie's schooldays. Through him, Laurie is drawn into a tight-knit circle of gay men for whom liaisons are fleeting and he is forced to choose between the ideals of a perfect friendship and the pleasures of experience."

Synopses of Renault's contemporary fiction from Virago.

Historical novels[edit]


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


The King Must Die and its sequel The Bull From the Sea were adapted by Michael Bakewell into a single 11-part BBC Radio 4 serial entitled The King Must Die. It was directed by David Spenser, broadcast between 5 June 1983 and 14 August 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.[17] It was repeated on BBC7 17 June 2003.

The Charioteer was adapted for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime across ten episodes, broadcast over two weeks from 25 November 2013.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Discover - St Hugh's College, Oxford". Archived from the original on 21 October 2010. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  2. ^ "She always pronounced it 'Ren-olt', though almost everyone would come to speak of her as if she were a French car." Sweetman, David (1994). Mary Renault: A Biography. Orlando, FL: Harvest/HBJ. pp. 74. ISBN 0-15-600060-1.
  3. ^ "Eileen Mary Challans" in the 1911 England Census (The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911)
  4. ^ a b "Renault, Mary (1905–1983) -".
  5. ^ a b Proud, Linda (1999). "The Glimpse of a Strong Greek Light". Historical Novel Society. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2007.
  6. ^ Endres, Nikolai (2017), Parker, Grant (ed.), "Athens and Apartheid: Mary Renault and Classics in South Africa", South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 376–394, doi:10.1017/9781316181416.015, ISBN 978-1-107-10081-7, retrieved 23 February 2021
  7. ^ Sweetman, David (1993). Mary Renault. United States: Harcourt Brace & Company. p. 307.
  8. ^ Sweetman, David (1993). Mary Renault. United States: Harcourt Brace & Company. pp. 301–304.
  9. ^ Slide, Anthony (2003), Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Routledge, pp. 1–2.
  10. ^ "A Week to Remember: Mary Renault". Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  11. ^ Reames, Jeanne. "Beyond Renault: Alexander the Great in Fiction". Archived from the original on 12 October 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2007.
  12. ^ Kopelson, Kevin (1994). "Introduction". Love's Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics. Stanford University Press.
  13. ^ Moore, Lisa Lynne (2003). "Lesbian Migrations: Mary Renault's South Africa". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 10 (1): 23–46.
  14. ^ Sweetman 1993, p. 166. sfn error: multiple targets (3×): CITEREFSweetman1993 (help)
  15. ^ Reinventing Womanhood Carolyn Heilbrun, 1979 (Chapter Three)
  16. ^ Mendelsohn, Daniel. "Personal History The American Boy". Condé Nast. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
  17. ^ "The King Must Die". The Radio Times (3112). 30 June 1983. p. 57. ISSN 0033-8060. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  18. ^ "The Charioteer" (Abridged by Eileen Horne; read by Anton Lesser; not currently available),


External links[edit]