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Renault, Mary 1905–1983

Renault, Mary

Mary Renault, born Eileen Mary Challans on September 4 in London, is best known as a writer of historical fiction. Educated at Clifton High School in Bristol and at Oxford University, she trained as a nurse in Oxford at the Radcliffe Infirmary, where, in 1933, she met fellow nursing student Julie Mullard, who became her lifelong companion.

From 1936 through 1945, Renault combined nursing with writing, publishing her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939. At the end of World War II, Renault gave up nursing to write full-time, and in 1948 she and Mullard immigrated to South Africa, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Renault died in Cape Town on December 13, 1983.

Renault's early fiction, set in 1930s and 1940s England, borrowed from her nursing experience in its depiction of doctors, nurses, and writers struggling to find sexual fulfillment despite damaging childhoods and cultural constraints. A lesbian who disliked defining herself in terms of such categories, Renault became known for her sympathetic depictions of characters with unconventional, often ambiguous gender identities and sexual orientations. A number of her women characters feel themselves to be misplaced in their female bodies; a lesbian relationship is at the center of The Friendly Young Ladies (1944); and The Charioteer (1953), set in a World War II hospital, focuses on the efforts of a young soldier to lead a fulfilling homosexual life.

The Charioteer was a turning point for Renault. Her last nonhistorical novel, it draws its title from Plato's Phaedrus, a dialogue about love in which the soul is compared to a charioteer who must control his two horses, one tending toward self-control, the other toward self-abandon. Plato's homoerotic idealism appealed to Renault, whose next book—and first historical novel—The Last of the Wine (1956), is set in fifth-century Athens and is narrated by Alexis, an admirer of Socrates, whose passionate and finally consummated love for his friend Lysis draws him toward excellence.

Throughout the remainder of her career Renault set her novels in environments in which, because homoeroticism was the norm, men's love for each other could flourish. For Alexis, for Nikeratos in The Mask of Apollo (1966), and for Alexander in Fire from Heaven (1969), such love allows them to realize their best selves. Only Theseus (in The King Must Die [1958] and The Bull from the Sea [1962]), living in a much earlier, legendary Greece, is primarily heterosexual.

Renault's work has stirred controversy. During her lifetime there were rumors she was herself a man; since her death, critics have worried that her admiring depictions of the male body, her self-hating women, and her triumphant, insistently patriarchal Theseus reinforce essentialist, heterosexist, and phallocentric views of the body. Ultimately, however, Renault's treatment of the body disrupts such dichotomized notions of gender and sexuality and destabilizes the phallus as a marker of sexual difference. Renault's first-person male narrators work as a kind of mask that signals masculinity even as it hides the body in which gender is supposedly grounded. Her many dually gendered and/or bisexual characters suggest that both gender and desire are far more various than any set of categories can suggest. Finally, Renault's attention to bodily mutilation and to male genitalia, which are the focus of fascinated attention from onlookers, yet ultimately elided from textual depiction, creates doubt as to who, in fact, has a phallus and who does not.

see also Androgyny; Literature: I. Overview; Masculinity: I. Overview.


Abraham, Julie. 1996. "Mary Renault's Greek Drama." In Are Girls Necessary? Lesbian Writing and Modern Histories. New York: Routledge.

Endres, Nikolai. 2004. "Mary Renault (1905–1983)." In British Writers, Supp IX, ed. Jay Parini. New York: Scribners.

Hoberman, Ruth. 1997. "Masquing the Phallus: Genital Ambiguity in Mary Renault's Historical Novels." In Gendering Classicism: The Ancient World in Twentieth-Century Women's Historical Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sweetman, David. 1993. Mary Renault: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Zilboorg, Caroline. 2001. The Masks of Mary Renault: A Literary Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

                                             Ruth Hoberman

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