Forgotten Authors No.48: Mary Renault

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appeared in 1953 and described a love affair between two young servicemen during the Second World War, but could not be published in the US for fears that readers react with hostility to a serious gay love story.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.