British writer Mary Challans achieved great success as a writer of historical novels. Using the pen name of Mary Renault, she explored such figures as Dion of Syracuse (408–354 B. C.E.) and such events as the Great War between Athens and Sparta. She is regarded as one the foremost historical novelists of her time.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youth Clouded by Parents’ Unhappy Marriage Mary Challans, whom the world would come to know as author Mary Renault, was born on September 4, 1905, in London, England, to Dr. Frank Challans and his wife, Clementine Mary (ne´e Baxter). Though she had an unhappy childhood because of her parents’ unhappy marriage, she found solace in literature. Renault was introduced to influential Victorian and Edwardian titles while a student first at Romford House School in London and later at Cliftons Girls’ School in Bristol. During her school years, World War I was fought. Beginning over territory in the Balkans and encompassing much of Europe because of entangling alliances, the war saw the loss of millions of lives, including much of a generation of young men in Great Britain.
Trained as Nurse Renault studied languages, mythology, philosophy, and history at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, then an all-women’s college. She graduated with a BA in Englishin1928. Renault had decidedatanearly age that she wanted to be a writer. Because she felt that a writer must participate actively in life and because she did not want to follow the traditional professional path of becoming a teacher, she enrolled in a nursing school in 1937.
She took her nurse’s training at Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary. There, she met the woman who would become her life-long partner, Julie Mullard. At the time, lesbianism was not socially acceptable in Great Britain, but women could often live together as companions without arousing much suspicion. However, Britain did legally regulate lesbian behavior with a Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed in 1922, which established a minimum age for sexual activities between females.
First Success Renault took a post in the infirmary’s brain surgery ward after completing her education. Her experiences as a nurse provided material for her first novel, Promise of Love, which she wrote under her pen name. It was published in 1939 under the title Purposes of Love, and was well received by the critics.
Nurse During World War II Buoyed by the success of her first novel, Renault decided to become a fulltime writer, but World War II intervened. While the war was primarily fought on the European continent during its early days, Great Britain was nonetheless deeply affected by the conflict. As Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, took over more and more territory in Europe, many refugees and people seeking exile came to Great Britain. Britain also faced aerial assaults from the Germans, including the so-called Blitz on Britain in 1940 and 1941, resulting in much damage.
Thousands of British women worked as nurses during the war, and Renault was no exception. She continued her nursing career at Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol and wrote in her spare time. Her second novel, Return to Night (1947), appeared after the war and brought her name to the attention of the American reading public when it received the $150,000 MGM prize, the largest financial award in the field of literature.
Move to South Africa Following the end of the war, Renault and Mullard moved to South Africa, where they lived for the rest of their lives. As scholar Linda Proud explains, the couple had found in South Africa a circle of fellow gay expatriates who had ‘‘escaped the repressive attitudes toward homosexuality in Britain,’’ and they found a place where they could live together without ‘‘causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home.’’
Historical Novels After World War II, Renault and Mullard also traveled extensively in France, Italy, Greece, and the Aegean Islands. Renault was most impressed with Greece, and it became the setting for many of her historical novels, including her first historical novel, The Last of the Wine (1956). The work earned her much critical praise. Her next two historical novels, The King Must Die (1958) and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea (1962), also earned accolades from critics.
Renault continued with Greek settings and themes in her last four historical novels—The Mask of Apollo (1966) and a trilogy comprising Fire from Heaven (1969), The Persian Boy (1972), and Funeral Games (1978). On December 13, 1983, Mary Renault Challans died at her Cape Town home.
Works in Literary Context
As a historical novelist, Renault’s gift lay in her ability to blend fact with fiction, making the reader guess which details are fictitious. Many of her works are historically based, and she especially favored Greece as a setting. Legendary figures are also employed by Renault to great effect.
Influential Power of History In the author’s note to The Mask of Apollo (1966), Renault writes, ‘‘The perpetual stream of human nature is formed into ever-changing shallows, eddies, falls and pools by the land over which it passes. Perhaps the only real value of history lies in considering this endlessly varied play between the essence and the accidents.’’ This ‘‘endlessly varied play’’ is a source of fascination to Renault. In her portrayal of the men of antiquity, she is alive to essential, in-dwelling qualities and to ‘‘accidents’’ by concerning her writing with the circumstances, conditions, and limitations which are peculiar to any life.
Greece as Setting Renault’s fictional country is immediately recognizable, and her later works show an intimate understanding of classical and Hellenistic Greece. The Last of the Wine (1956) is set in Attica during the Peloponnesian War, and The Mask of Apollo is set in Greece and Sicily during the fourth century B. C.E. The Praise Singer (1978) takes place in Keos, Samos, Athens, and Sicily in the sixth century B. C.E.
Historical Characters and Related Themes Renault explores the legendary history of Theseus in The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull from the Sea (1962). Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games testify to Renault’s enduring preoccupation with Alexander the Great. In the author’s notes to The Persian Boy, she explains her fascination, saying, ‘‘No other human being has attracted in his lifetime, from so many men, so fervent a devotion. Their reasons are worth examining.’’
This devotion translates well to Renault’s themes: the love of man and man; the clash between justice and expediency; and the power of art—these are concerns that stamp her work. In her earlier novels, it was especially important to Renault to explore the ambiguities or complications of gender identification, whereas in her later novels, she examines the challenges of homosexuality. In The Charioteer (1953), for example, the author pursues the efforts of the main character to come to terms with his orientation toward men. An obituary writer for the London Times determined that Renault treated such themes ‘‘sympathetically, even aggressively—almost as a panacea for the world’s ills.’’
Works in Critical Context
Critics have generally embraced Renault as a writer, respecting her historical novels as a blend of fact and fiction. She was praised for her skill in portraying an Promise of Love Renault’s early works were well received by critics, starting with her first novel, Promise of Love (1939). A reviewer for the New York Times stated, ‘‘On a double count Promise of Love strikes me as an unusually excellent first novel. There is a fusion between background and personal drama, between inner and outer reality, which enriches and dignifies both. The story of Mic and Vivian would not be nearly so arresting as it is if one were not so sharply aware of the pressure of their environment... .When one adds to this that Mary Renault’s style has a sure, fluid quality, that she possesses humor as well as sensitiveness, that even her minor characters are shrewdly drawn—the sum total is quite impressive.’’
Return to Night Echoing the enthusiasm of many other critics, a New Yorker reviewer described her fourth novel, Return to Night (1947), as ‘‘an expert, vivid novel,’’ explaining that ‘‘Miss Renault sets forth the characters of three extremely complex people with a penetrating lucidity and a certain moderate reasonableness, making this not just an impassioned love story but a novel of considerable depth.’’
The Last of the Wine Renault also provided through her works a challenge for critics and scholars—to appreciate and then to discern where her historical novels are fact-based and where they are fictional. ‘‘To read The Last of the Wine,’’ wrote a critic in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, ‘‘is to walk for a while in the shadow of the Acropolis with Plato and his friends.’’ Observed the Times Literary Supplement: ‘‘The Last of the Wine is a superb historical novel. The writing is Attic in quality, unforced, clear, delicate. The characterization is uniformly successful and, most difficult of all, the atmosphere of Athens is realized in masterly fashion. Miss Renault is not only obviously familiar with the principal sources. She has disciplined her imagination so that the reader ceases to question the authenticity of her fiction.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Some scholars have suggested that Renault’s novels interpret history from a feminist perspective. Consider one or more of the author’s works in this context, and set up a debate. Determine whether you think Renault’s novels are feminist. Be sure to defend your position with textual examples by citing lines or passages.
2. The King Must Die is a historical novel. It is also classified as a Bildungsroman—a building novel, or novel of personal development and growth. Find textual examples that support the notion that the novel is indeed a Bildungsroman.
3. Search the Internet and research some facts about Alexander the Great. What facts are included in Renault’s book Fire from Heaven? Discuss why Alexander would make a worthy character in a historical novel.
Abraham, Julie. Are Girls Necessary? Lesbian Writings
And Modern Histories. Oxford: Routledge, 1993. Dick, Bernard F. The Hellenism of Mary Renault.
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1972. Sweetman, David. Mary Renault: A Biography. New
York: Harcourt, 1993. Wolfe, Peter. Mary Renault. Boston: Twayne, 1969.
Hadas, Moses. Review of The King Must Die by Mary
Renault. New York Herald Tribune Book Review
(July 13, 1958). Kenner, Hugh. ‘‘Mary Renault and Her Various
Personas.’’ New York Times Book Review (February
10, 1974): 15. Obituary for Mary Renault. [AP1]Times (London)
(December 14, 1983). Review of The Last of the Wine. New York Herald
Tribune Book Review(October 14, 1956). Review of Promise of Love. New York Times (March 12,
1939). Review of Return to Night. New Yorker(April 19, 1947).