Book Review / Breathless in Knossos with Ms Renault: 'Mary Renault: A Biography' - David Sweetman: Chatto & Windus, 18 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE WAS always something strange about Mary Renault. A vicar in Bath believed he had cracked the mystery. He wrote to her saying that he and his friend had decided her name was assumed and that she was really a man. He was at least half right. Her real surname was Challans, and as for her gender, well, the way she put it, her inner persona occupied two sexes.

Many of us discovered her novels about ancient Greece in our teens, when they seemed an easy, slightly racy read. The King Must Die, for example, told the story of Theseus and the Minotaur with gripping realism and the kind of fastidious attention to detail that is all the better for being inconspicuous. At the end of her life Renault received a letter telling her that a Regius Professor of Greek had recommended her books with the words: 'Perfect for historical accuracy, perfect for atmosphere'. 'That really bucks me up,' she said.

The Greek novels, however, are only part of the story. She had six books under her belt before starting them and they belong to a very different genre.

The first of them, Purposes of Love, is a hospital romance. Although it contains hints of things to come, its subject is a reasonably conventional heterosexual doctors / nurses affair. Gradually, though, these novels became more overtly homosexual, culminating in The Charioteer, which Sweetman considers 'the best novel to come out of the Second World War', a large claim. By then, as a character in a later gay melodrama remarked, nobody was reading Mary Renault in public. 'It's a dead giveaway.'

Rather to her surprise, the fourth of these, Return to Night, was given an award by MGM. Its plot featured a tough woman brain surgeon called Hilary who falls in love with her patient, the younger, weedier Julian: it was never filmed. With the prize-money, the author and her companion Julie sailed away to tax-free South Africa, home to both of them for the rest of her life.

It is hard to ascertain just how much she won. David Sweetman writes that it was ' pounds 150,000, over pounds 37,000 at the time . . . a sum quite beyond belief'. Quite. One of the main problems with this book is this kind of editorial carelessness that crops up with irritating frequency. For example, Mary Renault was born in 1905, yet Sweetman has her writing her first novel 'just before the end of the war, at the age of eight'. Or again, her companion Julie is said to have attended the Three Choirs Festival at Chichester, which is one cathedral city that never had anything to do with it.

It is ironic that this sloppiness should occur in a book about someone who was famously fierce about accuracy, so fierce that she flew into a rage when an American paperback edition of one of her books showed the Knossos bull-dancers in classical Greek rather than Mycenaean clothes. Sweetman has no truck with footnotes or references, nor does he seem to have established much contact with the people who knew his subject. Robert Liddell, the novelist and critic, for example, who once found himself unwillingly escorting Mary Renault to a very outre Athenian nightclub, was just the man to be interviewed about her, but Sweetman settles for some untypically vague remarks.

David Sweetman clearly admires Mary Renault, but his picture of her is curiously unsatisfactory. In his eyes, she was a champion of homosexual freedom, a woman who disliked most other women, hero-

worshipped the Duke of Windsor and wished she had been born a man. His own style is more breathless than scholarly and reads like a romantic novel at times: the child Mary had 'soft bubble curls'; her nanny was 'a simple, good-hearted woman'; an early friend was 'very slim, with silvery fair hair', the student nurses were 'high-spirited and longing for fun'. There is an account of Julie's first meeting with a young doctor which is straight Mills & Boon: 'Even in the blackout she could tell he was handsome, with an appealing smile, blond hair and blue eyes. He introduced himself as Robbie Wilson - Dr Robbie Wilson.' Wow.

But it's easy to get things wrong. Though Sweetman gushes a bit, he is probably more accurate than the television critic of the Daily Express. Having seen Sweetman's Omnibus tribute, this anonymous critic was certainly wrong to call that strong-willed stickler for authenticity 'a sweet old thing'.