Forgotten Authors No.48: Mary Renault
Sunday 21 February 2010
When men write about historical events, they tend to feed their readers facts and figures, but Mary Renault (1905-1983) was interested in the passions of the past. Her historical fiction was highly romantic, and herein lies the key to her virtual disappearance from today's bookshelves.
For many years, Renault was a nurse on an Oxford brain-surgery ward, and while working there she fell in love with a fellow nurse, Julie Mullard, with whom she remained all her life. Her early novels had contemporary settings, and when the fourth, Return to Night, won a sizeable cash prize, she and Julie emigrated to Durban, South Africa, which at the end of the 1940s had a more liberal attitude toward homosexuality than the English Home Counties.
Over the next decade, Renault spoke out against apartheid and produced her first openly gay romance. She had tackled the theme before, but in a more Platonic and oblique manner. The new book, The Charioteer, appeared in 1953 and described a love affair between two young servicemen during the Second World War, but could not be published in the US for fears that readers react with hostility to a serious gay love story.
Renault was drawn to romantic fiction but was anxious not to be labelled a gay writer. In the 1950s, the subject came with social and political issues attached, so she devised a way to express her fascination with the philosophical aspects of idealistic love by setting her novels in Ancient Greece.
Despite her lack of classical training, she found herself able to recreate the period in vivid, muscular prose that presented her as an eyewitness to history. Over the next 25 years she produced a cycle of eight novels, starting with The Last of the Wine, set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and then moving through the lives of Theseus, Plato, Dionysius and Alexander. In 1975, Renault produced her second non-fiction work, a biography of Alexander the Great.
Ironically, Renault's dedication to the politics of love was misinterpreted; feeling that passion had little to do with sexual orientation, she lost fans after expressing an antipathy with the nascent gay pride movement. She also managed to upset feminists by choosing to write about the world of powerful men. This is a tragedy, because her books have stood the test of time and deserve better treatment. Happily, they can still be found in print.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
- 2 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 3 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 4 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 5 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom?
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts