BOOK REVIEW / Mary, Mary, you were really quite contrary: 'Mary Renault' - David Sweetman: Chatto, 18 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS one of the few contemporary biographies in which no one need fear a sudden revelation of homosexuality. Or a suppression. Mary Renault seems never to have made a secret of her preference for living with women, though she shied away from what Daphne du Maurier called 'that unattractive word that begins with 'L' '. Julie Mullard, who lived with Renault for 48 years, explains: 'If people talked about 'lesbians', we used to draw our skirts away.'

Renault was not only the author of those best-selling novels set in Ancient Greece - lucid accounts of bards and bull-leapers, philosophers and boy kings, in which homosexual love is sanitised by the proximity of Plato. Her earlier, non-historical fiction was unusually forthright. The Friendly Young Ladies, published during the war, featured some lesbian canoodlings in a canoe. The Charioteer, a study of a boy differently attracted to two men, was published in England in 1953, but turned down by Renault's American publishers on the grounds that it would lay them open to prosecution.

Sweetman shows the interest of these books by quoting persuasively from them. His own descriptions of Renault's 'finely honed skill as a painter of an entirely plausible historical world imbued with her instinctive sense of how its inhabitants must themselves have seen it' do not much add to this interest, or rival his subject in elegance of expression. For the first half of his book, however, this does not matter greatly, as he has a story of some resonance to tell.

Mary Renault was born Mary Challans, in 1905, the elder daughter of a doctor father whom she failed to impress and a mother who is characterised as pretty and a nag. Her parents didn't get on and both had wanted a son, but the mother gets the worse press. Not everyone will feel that all the complaints levelled against her deserve the solemn sympathy with which Sweetman treats them: she is blamed for getting her daughter the wrong library books, and blamed for taking her daughter shopping - 'the poor girl was consumed with boredom trailing round Sainsbury's'. She is finally blamed for turning her daughter, despite her sexual preference, into a despiser of women: Renault looked down on what is called here 'female tittle-tattle', believed that men had an 'extra reserve of neural strength' and talked in contemptuous terms about housewives as 'a lot of animals that have moulted and got silly'. Sweetman points out that females of all sorts get an increasingly rough ride in her fiction.

As a child she was a fan of Westerns - one of her early novels introduced a lesbian who loved to imagine herself 'the Dude . . . clean-limbed with sinews of steel and whipcord'. According to Sweetman, so deep was her nose in books that no one noticed that her teeth had begun to stick out. As an undergraduate she collected old swords, played Francois Villon in the college play, admired John Masefield and developed a lifelong crush on the Prince of Wales. She tried to write a novel set in the Middle Ages, and she developed malnutrition. In 1933 she spiritedly took herself off to the Radcliffe Infirmary to train as a nurse: here she fell for, wooed and won Julie Mullard, and found a setting and subject for her first successful fiction. When she published Purposes of Love - a doctor-and-nurse and nurse-and-nurse romance - she adopted a pseudonym to disguise her identity from her nursing colleagues. The matron of a London hospital was driven to explain in the Sunday Referee that she had 'only once come across a case of sexual abnormality between nurses' in 25 years; the Radcliffe Infirmary screwed chocks to the windows of the nurses' home so that they would open only for a wisp of air.

When Mullard and Renault - established as a happy couple but tired of British tax and weather - leave Britain for South Africa, Sweetman's narrative flags. Renault found the continent very gay and partyish after post-war England, but its pleasures - writing her books in a house called Delos, walking her dogs on the beach - are not rendered with much zest; her political scraps with pro-boycott anti-apartheid campaigners are recounted with uneasy defensiveness. But though a more spirited prose would have made this a much better book, the contours of Renault's life are worth having: Sweetman shows her to be an able and surprising writer, and a woman who provoked a revealing range of responses. Angus Wilson is said (not by Sweetman) to have thought she was like a 'nice vet'; a closer friend suggested that the dramatic role to which she was most suited was Tamburlaine.

(Photograph omitted)