I discovered Mary Renault quite by accident. A most happy accident, indeed.
There are many ‘types’ of novels I enjoy reading (well-written ones that is). Isolation stories, The Templar Knights, thrillers involving a hunt for a religious artifact, autobiography as fiction, classics, gothic stories, and Greek Mythology and history to name a few.
Mary Renault, to me, is the ‘Anne Rice’ of Greek history with a wonderful catalogue of novels of Ancient Greece, several twentieth century set novel, and a wonderful biography of Alexander the Great. She has a few ‘romance’ type novels, but I’ve not ventured into those.
Renault’s most revered works depict numerous familiar names from Greek history and mythology and paints a far broader canvas for her characters than history books ever could. In her Ancient Greece set novels, as in her contemporary (1950’s) work The Charioteer, Renault’s writing does not shy away from depicting the ‘commonplace’ relationships that men shared with other men in their society and time. Socrates, Dionysius, Theseus, and Plato all gain greater depth and apotheosis under the skilled pen of a writer clearly in love with the society and rituals she chose to devote the greatest part of her career writing about. Under Renault’s artisan treatment, the characters, social mores, and settings all come to resplendent life where the day to day affairs of a long since passed civilization are offered in greater abundance than many textbooks can boast.
Renault herself lived with another woman, Julie Mullard, whom she met during her training as a nurse upon graduating from college. Long rumored to be in fact a gay man writing under a female pseudonym, based upon her affectionate and compassionate treatment of relationships between males (even of a significant enough age difference that they would be labeled as pederasty at the time her works were published and still today but were considered unexceptional and pedestrian at the time Renault wrote about), the writer lived relatively openly with her female partner, but sought to distance herself from being labeled as a ‘gay’ writer, either male or female, and was herself a fervent detractor of the pride movement of the 1970’s.
Finding herself wanting to forsake the repressive atmosphere and attitudes that gays and lesbians faced in Great Britain at the time, Renault and Mullard moved to South Africa where they spent the remainder of their days. Finding a much more relaxed posture and even a community of expatriated gay and lesbian compatriots in their new home, although they were still dismayed enough with some of the other non-liberal views in their adopted home and took a stand against apartheid in the 1950’s.
Mary Renault’s health declined into her seventies; first becoming evident when she developed an ‘irritating’ cough and fluid was found on one of her lungs which had been aspirated, but at the time it appeared there were pockets of the fluid that could not be reached. The cause of the fluid developing was cancer. Renault passed away in 1983 at the age of 78, leaving behind a legacy of having eased the stress of accepting themselves and then coming out to others that many gay and lesbian readers had experienced finding a ‘champion’ in the voice of Mary Renault. Although she was criticized by some for her negative view of the post-Stonewall push for greater tolerance and acceptance for gays and lesbians in such a public fashion, Renault believed that a person should not accept a label of being gay as their primary identifying characteristic.
Renault also left behind eight historical novels of Ancient Greece, six ‘contemporary’ novels, as well as her Alexander biography (some criticizing of this work calls it overly romanticized and not critical enough of the person and man) and a non-fiction treatment of the Persian wars. Having read all but one of her Ancient Greece works (I am saving one, just one, for a years from now revisit to one of my favorite authors), I encourage anyone with an interest, either romantic or scholarly, in the society Renault brought to vivid life to seek out her works. Her Alexander trilogy is amongst my favorites, yet all are eminently readable and highly enjoyable.