MARY RENAULT – A Biography

Mary Renault: A Biography (Harvest Book)Auth:David Sweetman

Pub: Harvest Books

The blurb on the [paper]back of this book claims it is "well-written . In the sense that all the facts are in their proper order and it isn’t actually ill-written, this is accurate. But it’s quite pedestrian, especially compared with RenauIt’s own writing, which Sweetman analyses in terms of “deviant sexuality”. .

Despite the fact that he uses words like “gay” (even though on one of its first appearances it is in inverted commas); this being an incident during Mary’s second visit to Greece, in 1962, when, wearying of a search for the distinguished musician Mikis Theodorakis, she insisted on going to a club her (male, straight) hosts considered …notoriouSeand hardly the place for a woman. It was a gay club. It is typical of Sweetman’s approach, on this as on other occasions in his biography he mentions the incident in passing. He is not interested in how, or why a woman in her late fifties, who lived at the other end of a different continent, acquired the knowledge of such an establishment.

This would be quite acceptable if he had not offered the reader interminable information about Mary’s shabby-genteel upbringing. Her mother, Clementine Challans (the name is Huguenot in origin) comes in for a great deal of criticism, but the poor woman only had normal, ordinary, human, faults. A snob, having married a doctor, she had the odd experience of sliding down the social scale. Her husband was not wealthy and could not buy a ‘smart’ practice so they spent most of their married life on the border of London’s East End.

Mrs Challans found the tom-boyish Mary hard to control, and turned to her other child, the more amenable Joyce. The Challans’s refused to divorce, though they argued incessantly. Sweetman places, the responsibility for this at the wife’s door, but Dr Challans’ aloofness (it seems to me) would have vexed Job. Clementine lived to a great age and Joyce nursed her in her last illness.

Mary Renault (she pronouned it Ren-olt: it was taken from a character in a Jacobean play), loved the theatre, but was spectacularly bad at acting, after a number of false starts, simply walked off the street in Oxford, and into the Radcliffe infirmary, saying she wanted to be a nurse. She was 28. She met her lover Julie Mullard, in her first place of work, and remained a professional nurse until taking up residence in South Africa in 1948.

Renault’s literary life is divided by the latter event, she wrote five books before and during the war. Her first was well-received but war-weariness soured the response to the later ones. She dealt with lesbianism in some of them, which, along with the (male) homosexuality dealt with in The Charioteer of 1953 almost put paid to her chances of publication in America.

Her New York publisher, Morrow, were scared by the anti-Gay hysteria raised by Senator Joe McCarthy, and his help-meet, the odious faggot Roy Cohn. Her first "Greek" novel The Last of the Wine was published in 1956 by Parthenon, a smaller imprint than she imagined (she remained over here, with Longmans, until she found she’d been sold to Allan Lane [Penguin] with the rest of their chattels in 1972. She then moved to John Murray). Sweetman implies that it was Parthenon’s marketing that made the Americans take Renault Sun more seriously than the British. The idea that the Yanks might be more perceptive than the Brits doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind.

But it is clear that they were more perceptive and welcoming of a major talent – so was America’s Gay scene, which was purchasing (in great numbers) Mary’s books on the most exulted form of male homosexual love well before Gay Liberation came along.

Sweetman does not ask why a lesbian, brought up in a repressed age (she was nine when the Great War broke out in 1914) should have exaulted (and she did!) in male beauty. There are, from her private letters, lyrical descriptions: of a Xhosa youth, of surfers on the beach near her Cape Province home, and of rioting (!) Zulus. It was the men who attracted her to ballet. There are interesting, but not strong, women in her "hospital novels, but only one genuine central character is female: Eurydike, Alexander the Great’s sister in law, in Funeral Games, her last novel. She is a destructive Kali-like figure.

This is a straightforward chronicle of Renault’s life, her battles, victories … and defeats. He is good on the war-weariness afflicting Europe, during and immediately after, WWII. It and an award of a large amount of money from MGM – drove Mary and Julie Mullard to South Africa. Mary became involved in the anti-Apartheid “Black Sash” movement in the ’50s/’60s, but was accused of being a reactionary in the 70s/80s. This was due to her insistence on the PEN (the international association of writers) Centres in Cape Town – of which she was Honorary President – and Johannesburg not lowering their entrance requirements.

Renault’s imagination dwelt in ancient Hellas (many scholars deemed her the greatest of their company), her dealings with contemporary politics are of little real consequence. Peter Elstob, sent to the RSA by PEN’s International Centre, in London, had been shocked by Renault’s attitude when he met her at the very start of his tour. He wasn’t so sure that he had all the answers by the end of it. The Xhosa and Zulu loathed each other, Black and Cape Coloured had problems relating, the two White tribes were at odds. Renault realised, after a while, that many Anglos in “Black Sash” were motivated by distaste (or worse) for the Boers, rather than a commitment to liberal values. She was quite right in refusing to patronise Black and Coloured writers by allowing PEN to lower its’ standards in South Africa.

[Sean McGouran]

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply