Terrence Lockyer

The Works of Mary Renault (1905-83)

In Classics on November 25, 2010 at 6:48 am
MARY RENAULT was the pen name of Eileen Mary Challans (1905-83), an English writer born in London and educated in London and Bristol, and at Oxford, who emigrated to South Africa in 1948, where she lived first in Durban on the East coast and later in the Cape, and was active in the international writers’ organization PEN.   She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1959.   Her present reputation, however, rests largely on her later work:   a sequence of eight historical novels set at various periods in the history of ancient Greece, and which may be grouped by their correspondence to ancient Greek history, rather than by date of publication, as follows:-

The King Must Die (1958)
The Bull from the Sea (1962)

form a pair dealing with the myths of Theseus from a rationalizing perspective, and therefore standing in a tradition going back to ancient authors including Palaiphatos, Dionysios Skytobrakhion, Euhemeros, and parts of Diodorus Siculus.   Next, in order of ancient chronology, and moving to historical rather than mythological or legendary figures, come

The Praise Singer (1978)
The Last of the Wine (1956)
The Mask of Apollo (1966)

dealing respectively with the lyric poet Simonides and the sixth century;   the period of the end of the fifth century (which saw the conclusion and aftermath of the Peloponnesian War), and Sokrates;   and Plato and the fourth century leading up to the dominance of the Macedonian kings, Philip II and Alexander III (“the Great”).   Finally, there is the trilogy

Fire from Heaven (1970)
The Persian Boy (1972)
Funeral Games (1981)

covering the life and death of Alexander, and his period.   He was also the subject of Renault’s biographical monograph

The Nature of Alexander (1975)

Prior to the historical fiction that was to dominate a quarter century of her literary career, Renault had published a series of novels with contemporary settings, drawing partly on her own experiences as a nurse in Oxford, Bristol, and London immediately before and during the Second World War;   for which profession she had trained after reading English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where J. R. R. Tolkien was apparently among the teachers with whom she came into contact, and she is said to have written a novel with a medieval setting, with which she was unsatisfied and which she destroyed.   In 1982, shortly before her death, Renault was elected Honorary Fellow of her former Oxford college.

The published novels of her early career are

Purposes of Love (1939;   revised 1968;   US title Promise of Love)
Kind are her Answers (1940)
The Friendly Young Ladies (1944;   new afterword by the author 1984;   US title The Middle Mist, 1945)
Return to Night (1947)
North Face (1949;   US 1948)

These titles earned Renault the means, both from the books themselves and especially from a substantial award from MGM for her fourth novel, Return to Night (which, however, was not subsequently filmed), to emigrate to South Africa in 1948 with her companion, Julie Mullard, whom she had met while both were training as nurses.   Her financial independence also allowed her to travel, and she did so widely in Greece, which was to become the setting of her later and best known novels, which combined information drawn from ancient sources with the insights of modern work on ancient history.

Last among her works with modern settings, and shortly before her first historical novel, was published

The Charioteer (1953;   US 1959)

which deals with the relationship between an injured serviceman and an RAF pilot during the Second World War, and draws both its title and some of its imagery and references from Plato’s image of the chariot and horses in the Phaidros;   and which took some time to find a US publisher due to its subject matter, though its reputation has risen considerably since, and even by the middle 1960s it was well regarded, as the entry in Benét attests.   For younger readers, she wrote

The Lion in the Gateway (1964)

with illustrations by C. Walter Hodges, on Greek history in the period of the Persian Wars.

Renault’s historical novels, and other works, were all originally published in the UK by Longmans, Green & Co. (London), apart from The Nature of Alexander from Allen Lane (London).   In the US, the first five novels appeared with William Morrow & Co. (New York);   all works after 1950 with Pantheon Books (NY);   except for The Lion in the Gateway (1964) from Harper & Row (NY).   The historical novels especially are quite easy to find, having been frequently reprinted.   In the UK that was by Penguin Books, and more recently under the Random House imprint Arrow Books.   In the US, the historical novels have appeared in recent decades under Random House’s Vintage imprint, and The Charioteer from Harcourt, Brace & Co. (having originally appeared in the US with Pantheon Books, presently a Random House imprint).   The 1984 edition of The Friendly Young Ladies (a. k. a. “The Middle Mist“) was from Virago Press (London), and for those interested in Renault’s overall career is worth finding for the afterword in which she discusses some reactions to the novel and her own opinions on it, on [Marguerite] Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and on some events and attitudes of the 1970s.   There is also a 2003 US edition of this novel from Vintage under the original title with an afterword by Lillian Faderman.

In chronological order of first (UK) publication, Renault’s works are

Purposes of Love (1939;   revised 1968;   US title Promise of Love)
Kind are her Answers (1940)
The Friendly Young Ladies (1944;   new afterword by the author 1984;   US title The Middle Mist, 1945)
Return to Night (1947)
North Face (1949;   US 1948)
The Charioteer (1953;   US 1959)
The Last of the Wine (1956)
The King Must Die (1958)
The Bull from the Sea (1962)
The Lion in the Gateway (1964)
The Mask of Apollo (1966)
Fire from Heaven (1970)
The Persian Boy (1972)
The Nature of Alexander (1975)
The Praise Singer (1978)
Funeral Games (1981)

There have also been several works about Renault, including at least

– Dick, Bernard F., The Hellenism of Mary Renault.   With a preface by Harry T. Moore (Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press 1972) [Crosscurrents / modern critiques] ISBN 0809305763

– Sweetman, David, Mary Renault:   A Biography (London : Chatto & Windus 1993) ISBN 0701135689 [reprinted New York : Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1993 ISBN 0151931100; London : Pimlico 1994 ISBN 0712660445]

– Wolfe, Peter, Mary Renault (New York : Twayne 1969) [Twayne’s English authors series 98]

– Zilboorg, Caroline [Crawford], The Masks of Mary Renault:   A Literary Biography (Columbia and London : University of Missouri Press 2001) ISBN 0826213227

References

The information on this page was obtained from consultation of copies of the works mentioned, of the following general reference works:

– David Adey, Ridley Beeton, Michael Chapman and Ernest Pereira, Companion to South African English Literature (Johannesburg : Ad. Donker 1986), p. 166, column 1, s. v. “RENAULT, Mary”

– William Rose Benét, The Reader’s Encyclopedia.  Second edition (London : Adam and Charles Black 1965), p. 850, column 1, s. v. “Renault, Mary”

– Margaret Drabble (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature.  Fifth edition (Oxford, New York, Tokyo, and Melbourne : Oxford University Press 1985 [corrected reprint 1990]), p. 819, column 1, s. v. “RENAULT, Mary”

– Jenny Stringer (ed.) and Joan Sutherland (intr.), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English (Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press 1996), p. 566, column 2, s. v. “RENAULT, Mary”

and of the on-line public access catalogues maintained by COPAC and the Library of Congress.   In addition, two of the bibliographical references to secondary reading on Renault first came to my attention through an article by Paula Martinac, dated the 28th August, 2002, and published on the Q-Online magazine website for the South African gay and lesbian community, operated at the time by South Africa’s Mail&Guardian weekly newspaper.   Martinac’s article is no longer on-line at its original address on that domain, but remains accessible via the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive.

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