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Mary Renault

Mary Renault
Born Eileen Mary Challans[1]
(1905-09-04)4 September 1905
Forest Gate, Essex, England, UK
Died 13 December 1983(1983-12-13) (aged 78)
Cape Town, South Africa
Occupation Author
Nationality English
Education St Hugh's College, Oxford
Period 1939–1981
Genre Historical fiction
Spouse Julie Mullard

Mary Renault (;[2] 4 September 1905 – 13 December 1983), born Eileen Mary Challans,[1] was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.


  • Biography 1
  • Themes 2
  • Legacy 3
  • Bibliography 4
    • Contemporary fiction 4.1
    • Historical novels 4.2
    • Non-fiction 4.3
  • Adaptations 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Sources 8
  • External links 9


Born at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex (now in London), Renault was educated at St Hugh's College, Oxford, then an all-women's college, receiving an undergraduate degree in English in 1928. In 1933 she began training as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. During her training she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a lifelong romantic relationship.

She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees at the Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol, and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945. She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939: it has a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, and the novelist Linda Proud has described it as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance".[3] Her novel The Friendly Young Ladies (1943), which is about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems to have been inspired by her own relationship with Mullard.

In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won an MGM prize worth $150,000, Renault and Mullard immigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There, according to Proud, they found a community of gay expatriates who had "escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban.... Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home."[3] However, both Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, and participated in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.

Shortly before her death, Mary was listed as one of the famous alumnae who had brought the Radcliffe Infirmary Nurses' Home much honor. [4]Due to the especially wet winter of 1983 in Cape Town, Mary picked up a small cough. At first, the cough was no more than a mild irritant for Mary, but it soon "become a persistent, hacking attempt to clear her lungs and catch her breath." After Julie voiced her fears to their mutual friend Dr. Sonnenberg, x-rays were performed, and Mary was diagnosed with pneumonia and was directed to a nursing home. After failing to eliminate the pneumonia with antibiotics, a visiting British surgeon performed a bronchoscopy under general anesthetic. Shortly after, the doctor revealed to Julie that he had "found fluid on the lung and had aspirated some it: the cause was cancer." Julie begged the doctors to say nothing to Mary unless she demanded to be told. By October, a friend of Dr. Sonnenber, Dr. Slome, was draining off liquid twice a week and was convinced that there was a pocket he could not reach. Mary was then put on oxygen in order to ease her breathing. On December 12, 1983, as a last hope, the doctors wanted to inject a new chemical into the pleura early the next morning in the hope that it would stop further fluid from forming. Before the operation even began, Julie received a phone call, which she knew "could only mean one thing". [5] Mary Renault died in Cape Town on December 13, 1983.


In South Africa Renault was able to write forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time. Her sympathetic treatment of love between men won her a wide gay readership, but it also led to rumours that Renault was really a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Renault found these rumours amusing but also sought to distance herself from being labelled a "gay writer".

Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the 20th century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership. The Charioteer could not be published in the U.S. until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.

Although not a classicist by training, Renault was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the ancient Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction and in her non-fiction work, The Nature of Alexander has been called into question, however. Her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized.[6] According to Kevin Kopelson, professor of English at the University of Iowa, Renault "mischaracterize[s] pederastic relationships as heroic."[7] Defying centuries of admiration for Demosthenes as a great orator, Renault portrayed him as a cruel, corrupt and cowardly demagogue. Renault defended her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books.

Though Renault appreciated her gay following, she was uncomfortable with the "gay pride" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots. Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself primarily by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life she expressed hostility to the gay rights movement, troubling some of her fans . David Sweetman remarks in his biography of Renault that her novels generally portray mothers in a poor light and that, particularly in her later novels, this is extended to women in general.[8] Her generally negative depiction of women has also been noted by the critic Carolyn Heilbrun.[9]


The powerful impact Renault's work may have had on many readers, especially emerging young gay men, is suggested in a moving personal memoir by author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn.[10]


Contemporary fiction

  • Purposes of Love (US title: Promise of Love) (1939)
  • Kind Are Her Answers (1940)
  • The Friendly Young Ladies (US title: The Middle Mist) (1944)
  • Return to Night (1947)
  • The North Face (1948)
  • The Charioteer (1953)

Historical novels


  • The Nature of Alexander (1975) — a biography of Alexander the Great
  • The Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae (1964) — about the Persian Wars


The King Must Die and its sequel The Bull From the Sea were adapted by Michael Bakewell into a single 11-part BBC Radio 4 serial entitled The King Must Die. It was directed by David Spenser, broadcast between 5 June 1983 and 14 August 1983 and starred Gary Bond (Theseus), John Westbrook (Pittheus), Frances Jeater (queen of Eleusis), Carole Boyd (Aithra), Alex Jennings (Amyntor), Sarah Badel, David March and Christopher Guard. It was repeated on BBC7 17 June 2003.

"The Charioteer" was adapted for BBC Radio 4's Book At Bedtime across ten episodes, broadcast over two weeks from 25 November 2013.[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b The College Archive
  2. ^ "She always pronounced it 'Ren-olt', though almost everyone would come to speak of her as if she were a French car." Sweetman, David (1994). Mary Renault: A Biography. Orlando, FL: Harvest/HBJ. p. 74.  
  3. ^ a b Proud, Linda (1999). "The Glimpse of a Strong Greek Light". Historical Novel Society. Retrieved 23 October 2007. 
  4. ^ Sweetman, David (1993). Mary Renault. United States of America: Harcourt Brace & Company. p. 307. 
  5. ^ Sweetman, David (1993). Mary Renault. United States of America: Harcourt Brace & Company. p. 301-304. 
  6. ^ Reames, Jeanne. "Beyond Renault: Alexander the Great in Fiction". Retrieved 23 October 2007. 
  7. ^ Kevin Kopelson (1994). Love's Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics. Stanford University Press. Introduction. .
  8. ^ Mary Renault David Sweetman, 1993 p.166
  9. ^ Reinventing Womanhood Carolyn Heilbrun, 1979 (Chapter Three)
  10. ^ Mendelsohn, Daniel. "Personal History The American Boy". Conde Nast. Retrieved 30 January 2013. 
  11. ^


  • Brian Alderson. "Challans, (Eileen) Mary" Dictionary of National Biography. Supplement, 1980-1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
  • David Sweetman. Mary Renault: a biography. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), ISBN 0-7011-3568-9.
  • Caroline Zilboorg. The masks of Mary Renault: a literary biography. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), ISBN 0-8262-1322-7.

External links

  • The Friendly Young LadiesReview of
  • "Thursday Sep. 4, 2014", Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, birthday tribute.
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