Renault, Mary (1905–1983)

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Renault, Mary (1905–1983)

Bestselling British author whose historical novels, set in ancient Greece, made her the first writer to acquire a worldwide reading audience for novels dealing predominantly with homosexual characters. Name variations: Mary Challans; (pseudonym) Mary Martin. Pronunciation: Rehn-OHLT. Born Mary Challans on September 4, 1905, in London, England; died on December 13, 1983, at Cape Town, South Africa; daughter of Dr. Frank Challans (a physician) and Mary Clementine Newsome Baxter Challans; attended Levick family school; Clifton Girls School in Bristol; St. Hugh's College, Oxford; and Radliffe infirmary, Oxford; never married; lived with Julie Mullard (a nurse), for approximately 50 years; no children.

Worked as a nurse (1938–45); published first novel, Purposes of Love (1939); won the annual Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer prize for the best novel of the year for her book Return to Night (1947); moved to South Africa (1948); published The Last of the Wine, the first of a series of novels set in ancient Greece (1956); became active in the Women's Defence of the Constitution League (1956); elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1959); helped reorganize the PEN Clubs in South Africa (1961); named an honorary fellow of St. Hugh's College (1982).

Selected works:

The Charioteer (1953); The Last of the Wine (1956); The King Must Die (1958); The Bull from the Sea (1962); The Mask of Apollo (1966); The Persian Boy (1972); Funeral Games (1981).

Although "Mary Renault" wrote novels which gathered a worldwide audience, she was a bit of a mystery to her reading public. To some readers, "Mary Renault" was a popular historical novelist whose vivid writings about ancient Greece drew both an international following and the admiration of classical scholars. To others, she was an icon of Gay Liberation, a writer who used historical fiction to restore homosexuals to their deserved place in history. Few guessed, however, that "Mary Renault" was a quiet and somewhat retiring former nurse who spent much of her life in near isolation in South Africa; who disliked the term "gay"; and whose name was a nom de plume, originally adopted because of legal prosecutions of homosexuals in her native Britain.

The daughter of Frank Challans, an English physician, and Mary Baxter Challans , Renault was born in London in 1905, christened Eileen Mary Challans, and nicknamed "Molly." She grew to adulthood feeling emotionally neglected by both her father and her mother. Mary Challans preferred Renault's younger sister, Frances Joyce Challans , while Frank made it clear that he would have preferred sons.

The relationship between her father and mother was acrimonious. Renault recalled frequently hearing them argue behind closed doors, although they would fall to silence when she entered the room. Divorce was not an option, since it would have driven away Dr. Challans' patients and threatened the family with economic hard times. To escape what he perceived as his wife's nagging, Frank frequently withdrew to the privacy of his study, ignoring his wife and daughters for long periods. Renault was allowed to enter her father's study to look at his books, but he gave her little help with them.

When Frank was sent to serve in India during World War I, Renault and her sister were given some attention by a family friend, another physician, who also frequently took them to children's shows and other events. They were allowed to play with his children, often at games of "Cowboys and Indians." Renault, drawing on what she had seen in her father's books, preferred to play "Middle Ages" games involving chivalry and knights. Her mother, disapproving, frequently urged her to act more "feminine."

Other than reading books in her father's library, Renault's early education consisted of a school run by a local family, the Levicks. Lessons in etiquette and social graces were combined with academic subjects, such as elementary French. Renault liked the school, and in 1916 she was recognized as its best student.

During World War I, when Frank was out of the country, the Challans family moved out of their home and lived for a time with Mary Challans' sister, Aunt Bertha, and her husband. When German Zeppelin aircraft began to bomb London, Renault and her sister were sent to live in the countryside for several months.

Renault's father was slow to return home at the end of World War I. When he did, he showed little concern for his daughters' education, preferring instead to spend his time rebuilding his diminished medical practice. Aunt Bertha, who took a special interest in the girls' welfare, insisted that they be sent to a secondary school. In 1919, Renault was sent to Clifton Girls School, a boarding school, near Bristol. She was 15—much older than the other students—and had few friends. Ironically, while she did well in history and English courses, she flunked a Greek language course.

Frank Challans thought it was unnecessary for his daughters to attend college, since he believed that unmarried daughters should stay at home. Even Mary Challans tried to talk Renault out of attending college, saying that female students were "unfeminine." Frank offered Renault an allowance of £20 a year, an amount so small that it would have forced her to continue to live in her parents' home. Only Aunt Bertha offered to help: she loaned Renault sufficient money for her college expenses.

When Renault was admitted to the allwomen's St. Hugh's College at Oxford in 1928—with plans to become a schoolteacher—neither of her parents were in the least impressed that she had gained admission to a branch of the prestigious university. St. Hugh's had gained membership in Oxford only five years before, and its women students were not allowed to participate in many activities. Reflecting on her days at Oxford, Renault later commented that "Oxford made me," but added that she would have preferred to have been a man, because "men have more fun." St. Hugh's also gave Renault a new appreciation of ancient Greek culture and history. In a Greek language class, she had the opportunity to study Plato. Renault also enjoyed making frequent visits to the Ashmolean museum to view its casts of objects found during excavations at Knossos, Crete. The Cretan Bull-Jumper was her particular favorite.

She was also deeply impressed with J.R.R. Tolkien, who is best known as the author of a popular trilogy about a mythical past entitled Lord of the Rings (1954–55). At Oxford, he was

one of the professors most sympathetic to women students. Tolkien's rejection of "modernism" and experimentation in fiction left a deep impression on Renault, and his influence would later be reflected in her decision to forge a career as a historical novelist.

When Renault graduated in 1928, she received a class III degree in English literature, an acceptable result, since she had no intention of entering academic life. After graduation, she revisited her parents occasionally, but she also worked at a series of odd jobs—such as civil service clerk and chocolate factory worker—in order to support herself and be able to live apart from them. One visit "home" proved fortuitous: when she told her father that she had been suffering from a sore throat, rashes, and aching joints, he quickly diagnosed her illness as rheumatic fever. For much of 1931 and 1932, she was confined to bed, recovering from what could have been a very serious illness.

Renault later expressed regret that she was never able to reconcile with her father, who underwent an operation for throat cancer in 1940 and was unable to speak for the last months of his life. She made no such expression of regret regarding her mother; in fact, in her novels, mothers are often portrayed in unsympathetic terms.

After graduating from college, Renault began to write short pieces and published occasional poems in magazines under the name of Mary Martin. She also reviewed books for the Oxford Times and was allowed to supplement her income by selling the review copies she was given. While walking in the Oxford area in 1933, Renault decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to visit nearby Radcliffe infirmary. She applied for a nursing job, thinking that the hospital experience would provide material for her writings, and was hired. In 1936, after taking additional training, she qualified as a nurse. Although much of her work was in the infirmary's brain surgery ward, she was able to find enough spare time at work to write parts of her novels.

At the infirmary, she met Julie Mullard , a fellow nurse who would become her lifelong companion until Renault's death in 1983. For their remaining years of residence in Britain, they would work as nurses in a variety of colleges and private schools, except during World War II, when they worked in the Emergency Medical Corps in Britain. Large parts of Renault's novels were written during spare moments at work.

Renault's first book, Purposes of Love (1939), which appeared under the title Promises of Love in the United States, was set in a hospital, as were many of her early "contemporary" novels. Rather than publishing under her real name, she chose, beginning with her first novel, to borrow the last name of a character she had admired in another writer's novel. "Mary Renault" wanted to have her new last name pronounced as "rehn-OHLT"; she was not, she joked, a French car. Like most of her novels, Purposes of Love was not a "conventional" love story, but a heterosexual love story of some steaminess—her fellow nurses denied to reporters that such things happened in hospitals. In a plot twist toward the end of the novel, however, the female protagonist falls in love with another woman. Homosexuality was a common theme, usually more implicit than explicit, in all of her "contemporary" novels of the 1930s and 1940s. All featured a lead character with a sexually ambiguous name (such as Laurie, Kit, Jan, or Hilary), leaving many readers to wonder if another story lurked beneath the surface.

While lesbianism was in "vogue" in some British literary circles in the years between World War I and World War II—as typified by such books as Virginia Woolf 's Mrs. Dalloway and Elizabeth Bowen 's The Hotel—novels describing homosexuality were also subject to prosecution under British law. The sexual ambiguity of Renault's early novels was accompanied by frequent references to ancient Greece. In Purposes of Love the references included allusions to Plato's views on controlling desire. Numerous references to Greek antiquity appear in both Kind are Her Answers (1940) and The Friendly Young Ladies (1944), published as The Middle Mist in the United States; in both, quotations from classical Greek writers are sometimes casually dropped into ordinary conversations.

Return to Night (1947), which won the $150,000 MGM Prize for the best novel of the year in 1949 in the United States, was based on ancient Greek theories of birth and rebirth. The main male character, Julian Fleming, is portrayed as the son of a psychologically dominating mother. He is pictured as an unassertive man who lacks self-confidence and wrestles heroically with his own inner conflicts. When he attempts suicide, he is rescued by his female lover, Dr. Hilary Mansell, who is more than ten years older but who subordinates her career to his. Lying on his bed, he is compared to "the flower of Sparta brought back from Thermopylae on a shield." Although the novel impressed the contest's judges, MGM never made it into a motion picture. In the words of one of Renault's biographers, Bernard Dick: "In 1947 a combination of adultery, pseudohomosexuality, bigamy, and literate dialogue would have overwhelmed even Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer." The same fate befell The King Must Die (1958), which was purchased for film rights by 20th Century-Fox but never produced as a motion picture.

In 1948, Renault and Mullard moved to South Africa, motivated partly by a better climate and partly by South Africa's lower tax rates—an important factor now that Renault had become a writer of international reputation and earning power. They formed a construction company with two male friends and lived in one of the homes produced by the firm. After many years of rented apartments or nurses' accommodations, it was a welcome change.

The presence of a prominent gay community in South Africa proved to be another advantage of their adopted country, although Renault felt little kinship with the Gay Liberation movement that emerged later. She was suspicious of mass movements; she saw sexuality as an individual matter and worried that movements might threaten the ability of people to move, as they chose, along the full spectrum of sexuality. She also disliked the use of the word "gay," which she regarded as a vulgarization of the French word gai.

Nevertheless, she and Mullard found they could not remain silent as the Nationalist government of South Africa moved to impose new laws in support of its policy of apartheid, which made "coloreds" in South Africa into second-class citizens. The new laws also included strict censorship. In response, Renault joined with other writers in 1959 in a project to revive the nearly moribund PEN International chapters in the country. She was also a cofounder of the Women's Defence of the Constitution League, known as the Black Sash, which picketed Cabinet members and stood outside government buildings to protest oppressive laws enacted as part of apartheid. As well, Renault and Mullard demonstrated against government proposals to place legal restrictions on homosexuality. In a letter to a friend, Renault made a rare reference to her own sexuality, writing that "we weren't too delighted (by the proposed restrictions)."

South Africa remained Renault's home for the rest of her life; she became one of the country's most famous writers, showing no desire or inclination to return to her native country. When she had left Britain, the country still had the free and relatively tolerant atmosphere of wartime Britain; but by the late 1940s and the 1950s, there were renewed prosecutions of homosexuals. Those same years saw the emergence of Mc-Carthyism in the United States, when "perverts" were assumed to be security risks. When Renault and Mullard took a vacation in Greece in 1961, her publisher assumed that she would visit London as part of the trip and made arrangements accordingly. Despite her publisher's pleas, she flatly refused to travel beyond Greece.

With her novel North Face (1948), Renault stopped featuring (ostensibly) heterosexual lead characters. The Charioteer (1953), the last of Renault's six "contemporary" novels, included a frank discussion of homosexuality and became a transitional book to the eight historical novels which would follow. The Charioteer traced the life of its male lead character, Laurie Odell, from childhood to the awakening of homosexual instincts in his adult years. The title of the novel was derived from Plato's teaching that the soul is a charioteer, pulled by two horses, one trying to reach heaven and the other bound for earth. That image became a metaphor for Odell's inner conflicts, in which he feels himself torn between his Platonic relationship with one male friend and his tumultuous affair with another male. In the words of one writer, Renault wanted her readers to see the characters in many of her novels as "Hellenic souls imprisoned in modern bodies."

Richard Weston">

Mary Renault is one of the major novelists of our time. Her insights are phenomenal, her readings of the fine print of psychological history extremely acute, her rendering of truth as she sees it forthright, courageous, informative, and stirring.

Richard Weston

The novel also attacked homophobia: when Odell reveals his homosexuality to a heterosexual male friend, the friend becomes distant and uncommunicative. When Odell is a hospital patient and sees a boy fall out of his bed, he hesitates to pick the boy up and place him back in bed, for fear that others will see his act as affection for the boy. The novel's plot also included the firing of a schoolteacher, a man whom Odell admired, for having an affair with one of his younger male students.

Although The Charioteer would become a bestseller and make Renault the first author to gather a worldwide reading audience for novels in which the main characters were often homosexual, the novel also caused a split between Renault and her American publisher, William Morrow. While her British publisher, Longmans, did not hesitate to publish the novel, Morrow, stunned by its explicit homosexuality, rejected it.

Ironically, this situation worked to Renault's advantage. When she switched her U.S. publication rights to Pantheon, she discovered that the German expatriates who had founded Pantheon, Kurt and Helen Wolff , held a high opinion of her work. In publicity for her novels, they emphasized the literary and historical merits of her writings, in contrast to the tendency of Longmans to present her books as adventure stories. One result was that her literary reputation was noticeably higher in the United States than in Britain.

By the middle of the 20th century, a reading audience had been created for Renault's historical novels about ancient Greece. Popular interest had been stimulated by the appearance of such books as Robert Graves' The Greek Myths and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, as well as by continuing archaeological discoveries. The founder of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, had also used Greek myths to describe psychological conditions.

Although she dealt mostly with the classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek history, two of her novels—The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull from the Sea (1962)—were set in pre-Hellenic Minoan civilization, at a time when matriarchy was not uncommon and cults to female fertility flourished. For her first novel set in ancient Greece ( The Last of the Wine, 1956), Renault devoted two years to general research work, examining archaeological records and historical studies, as well as reading books on sculpture and poetry. She had learned to read Greek, but in preparing for her novels, she often used books in which Latin and Greek texts were interleaved with English translations. In some cases, the inspiration was the actual archaeological finds: The King Must Die (1958) was conceived while she wandered among the ruins at Knossos. The thoroughness of her preparation was demonstrated when she complained to Pantheon that the American paperback edition of The King Must Die featured a cover illustration depicting classical Greece; the novel, she reminded the publisher, was set in the Mycenaean civilization of earlier Greek history.

Many of these historical novels were written in the first person, as if they were autobiographies, a marked improvement from Renault's early "contemporary" novels, where readers were sometimes confused because the point of view shifted from person to person. The Last of the Wine was written as the autobiography of an Athenian named Alexias and gave a first-person account of events in Athens leading up to the execution of Socrates.

The Mask of Apollo (1966) was an epic attempt to portray tragedy on three levels—cultural, philosophical, and political. Its presentation of Athenian society and government drew parallels between the decline of the theater in ancient Greece and the decline of Athens. The myth of Theseus became the basis for two novels set in Minoan Crete, The King Must Die (which features a struggle over a matriarchal system that required that the king be sacrificed each year and the queen pick a new co-ruler) and The Bull from the Sea.

In 1964, Renault departed from the trend set by her earlier historical novels and wrote a nonfiction book for children, The Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae. She followed that with books about Alexander III the Great, including the novel which gained bestseller status more quickly than any of her other writings, the novel The Persian Boy (1972). The story of Alexander the Great's love for a eunuch, it is narrated by the eunuch. Her last novel, Funeral Games (1981), described the violent struggles in Greece following the death of Alexander the Great.

Renault was in the midst of writing a long-planned novel about the Middle Ages when she was diagnosed, in the summer of 1983, with lung cancer. Mullard kept the diagnosis from her until almost the end. When she died in December 1983, Renault had gained a reputation as a novelist who not only had been able to recreate the past but had tried to restore an "invisible minority" to its rightful place in history.

While reviewers of her books were divided on the question of their literary merits, she thought her most significant achievements lay elsewhere. She was proud that she had been able to produce historically accurate and carefully researched novels, but she was also proud of her ability to use the past to illuminate contemporary problems. For Renault, ancient Greece was a mirror of the 20th century. To her, the ancient Greeks still "made sense"; she was struck by "how constant human political and social development seems." Why, she wondered, did so many of her readers not see the parallels between ancient Greece and their own times—the wars, the dictators, the violence, and the threats to individual freedom?


Dick, Bernard F. The Hellenism of Mary Renault. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 1972.

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

Wolfe, Peter. Mary Renault. NY: Twayne, 1969.

suggested reading:

Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction. London: Vision, 1980.

Bremmer, Jan. Interpretation of Greek Mythology. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

Burns, Landon C. Men are Only Men: The Novels of Mary Renault. Minneapolis, MN: Critique, 1963.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1955.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Reinventing Womanhood. London: Gollancz, 1979.


Some of the correspondence of Renault is housed in the Special Collections division of Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University. Materials originally held by her British publisher, Longmans, are housed in the Archives and Manuscripts Division of the Reading University Library, United Kingdom. Unpublished radio scripts are in the Humanities Reference Room of Love Memorial Library, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois