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Renault, Mary (1905-1983)  
 
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After five novels which included suggested lesbianism, Mary Renault turned to open male homosexuality in the last nine, which included The Charioteer and eight celebrated historical novels set in ancient Greece.

Renault was born Eileen Mary Challans in London, September 4, 1905, daughter of Frank Challans, a physician, and Clementine (Baxter) Challans. (Her pen name, which she used throughout her career, was taken from Otway's Venice Preserved.)

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Although she wrote short stories, radio plays, and nonfiction, Renault is best known as a novelist. The last eight of her fourteen novels, historical fictions set in ancient Greece, are the most highly regarded. All of her novels, however, deal at some level of explicitness with homosexuality: a diffused or suggested lesbianism in the first five and an openly presented male homosexuality in the last nine.

Educated in London and Bristol, Renault read English at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, from which she graduated in 1928. In 1933, having rejected most of the conventional options available to women, Renault entered nurses' training. At Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse who became her lifelong companion.

Renault's first novel, Purposes of Love, was published in 1939 and like the next five was based more or less directly on her nursing and hospital experience. Her fourth novel, Return to Night (1947), won the MGM Prize of $150,000. The money provided a financial base for Renault and Mullard, and in 1948, they emigrated to South Africa where they lived, first in Durban and, after 1960, in Cape Town, until Renault's death.

Renault's first five novels have the trappings of "nurse romances" but go beyond the norm of that formulaic genre in their shrewdness of observation and their submerged hints of lesbian relationships.

Renault subsequently repudiated them; in an afterword to a reissue of The Friendly Young Ladies, she called its ending silly--silly in that the tomboyish Leo (Leonora) after a two-year relationship with Helen leaves for the kindly (and thoroughly heterosexual) Joe: "more . . . impossible unions happen in real life every day," Renault writes, "but it is naive to present them as happy endings."

Three things mark Renault's progress from a competent popular novelist to a master of her craft: first, the change of emphasis from female to male homosexuality with The Charioteer in 1953; second, the move from contemporary to ancient setting in The Last of the Wine (1956) and after--her choosing, that is, to become a historical novelist; and third, her adoption of a first-person narrative point of view.

By moving into the distant past, specifically a past where homosexual relationships were not just accepted but in some contexts celebrated, Renault could show the integrity and fitness of such bonds.

Adopting a first-person narrator allowed Renault to imagine her way more deeply into Hellenic culture, just as Hellenic culture itself allowed her to imagine her characters' sexuality more liberally.

Of course not all Renault's historical novels are written in the first person (Fire from Heaven and Funeral Games are not) and not all of her major characters are homosexual (Theseus in The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea and Simonides in The Praise Singer are not), but their world accepts male-male ties without compunction.

Such acceptance is not found in the modern world of The Charioteer. A young soldier wounded in the Dunkirk withdrawal confronts his emerging homosexual feelings and discovers that an adored older schoolmate had been--and still is--equally drawn. The novel is a courageous treatment of a vexed subject, but it is still constrained by being set in the 1940s and by having been written in the 1950s. The repressive power of a society can be seen not only in character behavior but also in authorial strategies.

In ancient Greece, Renault could stop disguising youths as tomboys, could finesse modern shame, and could simply omit the heartlessly incompetent mothers who litter her earlier books. Still, however dramatic a shift of twenty-five centuries is, the change is less a break than a revelation--Renault had been, as Bernard Dick has shown, a secret Hellenist all along.

Renault's first classical novel, The Last of the Wine, illustrates well enough her postulates about sexuality in ancient Hellas. There is first the union of two young men or youths of equal station, a friendship or comradeship-in-arms like that of Lysis and the narrator Alexias, a tie that also has a strong sexual element.

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