It was Renault, pronounced Renolt, not as in the car: this is one of the many things her admirers will not have known about the low-profile, best-selling author of some of the most remarkable historical fiction of the century. David Sweetman met Mary Renault in 1981, when he interviewed her for the BBC; he had been under the spell of her books since he read them as ‘an awkward, insecure teenager’. He brings to the art of biography a well-intentioned gentleness that is rare; but it is odd and unfortunate that by the end of his book one admires his subject less rather than more.
Born Mary Challans in 1905, she was the daughter of a London doctor. Her parents were unhappily married, it seems; one has to say ‘it seems’, because there is no independent testimony. This is what bedevils Sweetman’s book; his subject did not grow up among literary people who save every scrap of paper, and she did not live like someone who meant to have her biography written. Sweetman’s main source has been Julie Millard, who was Renault’s companion and lover for many years, so the narrative depends very much on what Renault told her; we must trust the perceptions of an awkward, studious little girl with big feet, prominent teeth, and a passion for playing cowboys and Indians. Perhaps Mary didn’t know what her parents felt at all. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. She got no encouragement to write or to read, or to exercise her imagination. When she was 15 an aunt took an interest in her, and she was sent to boarding school. It was too late for her to catch up on the Latin and Greek she had missed, but she began to read Plato in translation; then, it seems, life began to make some kind of sense.
When she went up to Oxford to read English, Auden was at Christ Church, and Waugh had just left Hertford. Renault’s Oxford might have been on another planet. Five years before her arrival, women had been granted full membership of the University; but St Hugh’s was governed by quarrelsome and eccentric schoolmarms, and the undergraduates were treated like unruly girls. Cocoa parties were the greatest thrill on offer, and it was expected that Mary and her fellow students would become teachers, who would educate more girls who would themselves become teachers – a woman’s duty being always to the next generation, not to her own talent and inclinations. She rebelled against this expectation, and the rebellion was a costly one.
Home life was on offer; she could huddle under the parental roof until marriage provided a different shelter, or cage. She already took the dimmest view of a woman’s role. She moved out, took a room, took menial jobs, lived on stock-cube soup which she made on a gas-ring. Sweetman describes her as trying to fit herself to her notion of what a writer should be – striking up friendships with unlikely people and studying their ‘characters’. Her work itself sounds unpromising. Most would-be novelists have an instinctive grasp of how to move a narrative on, how to condense life into fiction; Mary hadn’t. Everything her characters did or thought went down on the page. In the light of this, the eloquence and control of her later work seem the more remarkable.
The stock-cubes were not enough to sustain her ambition. She developed rheumatic fever, had to return home for months of bed rest. She was 28, and her bid for independence had failed. In the summer of 1933 she did something quite unpredictable: she applied to become a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. After an unpaid preliminary training, there would be three exhausting years, in which once again she would be treated as a child, and shut up – she who despised her own sex – in an all-female institution. But it was a living of a kind, and it was to provide security and the material for her first books.
But: now comes one of Sweetman’s baffling bits. Was the nurses’ home a hotbed of lesbian passion; and if so, why? Is he extrapolating from a knowledge of boys’ boarding schools? Did pre-existing lesbianism draw the young ladies to be nurses, or was the sexual preference somehow a product of shift-work and starched caps and ritual humiliation? His account of Renault’s first night in bed with Mullard manages to be both coarse and coy. Having implied that it took place at a near-orgy, he says: ‘They did not think of themselves as lesbians because they thought what they were doing was unique, that they had invented it’.
Julie had a couple of affairs with men over the next few years, but always returned to Mary, although after they qualified their work often separated them. Renault began to write again. Drawn to a medieval theme, she had no opportunity to research, made use of what was to hand and produced Purposes of Love, a superior doctor-nurse romance in which both doctor and nurse are incidentally attracted to their own sex. Longman bought the book, the US rights were sold, the reviewers were divided; controversy generated sales, and Mary Challans had a bestseller; she adopted a pseudonym to protect her from the wrath of her nursing superiors. For years she had eked out an existence. Now she bought herself a bright red sports car. She took a driving test with no preparation, failed, decided to drive her car anyway, turned it over, wrecked it, injured Julie quite seriously. The reader wishes, sometimes, that Sweetman would throw out his hands, shake his head in an I-don’t-know, whatever-next? fashion – that he would at least raise an eyebrow, acknowledge the joke. In so far as the reader has any image of Renault by this stage, he is likely to think that she was provokingly peculiar – but Sweetman hardly seems to notice. At a later stage, coming into money, she decided to buy herself a disused gunboat; the incident alluded to, Sweetman sails serenely on.
It was difficult for Renault to follow her early success. The novels she published in wartime simply disappeared. Then came Return to Night, yet another dark hospital love story. The more perceptive saw that its characters were in disguise, that their modern selves were shells enclosing beings who re-enacted the myth of Demeter. In her early fiction, characters had often, incongruously, thrown in scraps of philosophy and myth, worked a bit of Plato into their day-to-day banter. This first post-war book attempted something more profound, but she was not at ease with herself as an author until she abandoned the pretence of contemporary themes.
Still, this book changed her fortunes. Three years earlier, someone in Hollywood had noticed that films are often made out of books. MGM had a bright idea: they would encourage books! A prize for novels was founded. In 1947 Renault won it. It was £25,000 – an unbelievable sum. Mary and Julie, whose lives – the sports car apart – had always been so cramped and grim, decided to buy themselves an escape from post-war Britain; to buy the sun, and a fresh start. They sailed to South Africa, settled in Durban, and began to kick up their heels. They gave parties, cultivated actors – Mary had always been stage-struck – and became part of a camp coterie of easy-living English-speakers, careless with money, judiciously unconventional. Even then, Julie has said, ‘if people talked about “lesbians” we used to draw our skirts away.’ What did they think they were? Sweetman doesn’t go into the matter, and is not clear either about how much of the £25,000 the taxman left for Mary; it seems that much of it was thrown away in a speculative building venture, which left her with unsaleable houses and severed friendships.
With the move to South Africa, the biography loses much of its impetus. There were two trips to Greece and Italy; for the rest of her life, Renault got on with her novels, protected by Julie. She published two more contemporary novels, including The Charioteer (1953). It seems over-written and unsensational now, but its sympathetic treatment of homosexual men was sufficiently revolutionary to delay its US publication for several years.
Then came a change of direction which flabbergasted her publishers. The Last of the Wine – which is perhaps her best novel – is the story of a boy called Alexias, who grows up during the wars between Athens and Sparta. It is a first-person narrative, and from its opening sentence there is a directness of tone which is arresting and beautiful and moving. Renault’s trademark as a historical novelist was this: she took her created world for granted, and expected her readers to do the same.
For some tastes, she over-described, but she never over-explained. Rather than acting as an interpreter of the past, she seemed to open a door and wave the reader in. Her preoccupations were large ones – freedom, responsibility, power; she did not impose the values of the present on the past, or allow her characters to have thoughts, impulses, wishes which they could not have had. In The Last of the Wine there is an episode in which Alexias’s young stepmother gives birth to a daughter, while his father is away fighting. When the baby is a day old Alexias receives a letter from his father, saying that if the child is a girl she is to be exposed. He tears his father’s letter up, throws it in a privy, and pretends it has not arrived. He has seen the child with her fine silver hair. He thinks of a bitch whose puppies he once drowned. He thinks of his stepmother: just a woman, weak, lonely. His concession is a one-off; Renault does not permit him even the glimpse of a shadow of a notion that infanticide might in itself be wrong. Of course, she should not: but how many writers would resist it, and still carry their readers with them? Not until her last novel does the reader feel more revolted than improved.
Her characters inhabit a world where moral standards are stern, but values completely different from those common in the West today; she is impressively consistent, a kind of ethical mimic. Or so one had believed, at least. The surprise – and one which diminishes respect for her – is to learn that, when one thought she was making a huge effort of imaginative sympathy, she was sneakily expressing her own views. She describes the idealised, sublime sexuality of heroes who go into battle together as it turns out, she really did believe that homosexual love is superior, not equal. One imagined a woman author flinching as she portrayed the spiritless, ignorant, powerless child brides of her heroes, and applauded her for her realism: a lesser author might have softened the picture, or implied they were all Kate Millets beneath their draperies, or deployed irony to dissociate herself as narrator from the story she had to tell. Renault sets the story down plainly; this is how it was. But this simplicity is not an aspect of her technical skill; she’s only saying what she thinks. Women really are brainless and cloying and incapable creatures, and she’s – well, she’s not a woman. David Sweetman has refused the opportunity for deep analysis of Renault’s work or the attitudes that lay behind it. Her books became so popular that many people suspect them on that account. She was disappointed by reviews of Fire From Heaven, the first of her trilogy about Alexander the Great. Even when the critics were complimentary, they didn’t seem to see what she was trying to do. She had fallen into the trap that waits for historical novelists. Historians are often hostile to fiction, and don’t anyway know how to review a novel; literary critics don’t know enough history to make a judgment, or spend their review space showing off the little they do know.
Fire from Heaven is a desperately ambitious book; it engages with the great, and puts them squarely at the forefront of the action. It makes Alexander a creature of flesh and blood, yet leaves his mythological dimension intact. This is just about possible, because she is dealing with his childhood. Its sequel, The Persian Boy, sees Alexander’s later career through the eyes of Bagoas, a eunuch – who, despite his missing bits, has a lot of fun in bed. His existence is attested by a scrappy chronicler’s reference; Renault furnished him with a history, a singular fate, and a frail and touching dignity. She was now something of a heroine for the emerging gay rights movement, but she did not like mass movements of any kind, and referred disparagingly to ‘sexual tribalism’. Sweetman says that she had always ‘pictured human sexuality as a line along which people should be free to move as they choose’. There is something very wise and humane in her recognition that sexual identity is fluid and mutable. Her contempt for her own sex mars the impression of wisdom, but perhaps at its basis lay fear; she could not shake off the fact of being a woman, and the vulnerability it brings.
Sweetman’s favourite among the novels is The King Must Die, Renault’s reworking of the Theseus myth. He admits that the books are uneven; she was often under pressure from her publishers, who at times treated her with insensitivity, and she did not develop the ability to look at an idea and say unerringly ‘That will make a novel’ – some of her material is over-stretched. The best is very good; and perhaps the most serious criticism of Sweetman’s book is that he doesn’t show you this, he doesn’t seek to convert the wary. Renault is not fashionable; perhaps he is afraid of the censure of the smart and the cool and the people with no heart? When it comes to her record as a resister of the South African regime, he is unnecessarily defensive. There was much sense in her views, even if they were not those held by Nadine Gordimer. When she first lived in South Africa, she was naive. Later, perhaps, she was desolated. Her best novels are written with a kind of appalled pity for the human condition; but in her last book, Funeral Games, there is simply a dry-eyed recitation of horrors. There are pages that are almost impossible to read. She cannot have been impervious to the society around her; she was peculiar perhaps, an élilist with violent whims, but she had considered the matter of what justice is, and she was not a fool. She died in 1983. How did she want to be remembered? ‘As someone who got it right’.