Identity, Idealisation and Love: Defining Mary Renault

There is a seeming paradox about novelist Mary Renault. The truism that novelists write about what they know is both true and false of her. As someone who wrote historical fiction that Renault would write about worlds which were morally and socially alien is obvious. It is also true of all writers to an extent. But the paradox goes further. Renault wrote from her own experiences but she also explored concepts and ideas of identity that were far from her own world.

Born Eileen Mary Challans in 1905 to a middle class family, she attended St Hugh’s College Oxford where she studied under J. R. R. Tolkein. She later wrote a historical novel set in medieval times but destroyed it for its supposed lack of authenticity. After graduating she worked as a hospital nurse and during the war she treated Dunkirk evacuees. Her first novel The Purposes of Love (1939) was a love story set in a hospital. After she found success as a writer, she moved to South Africa where she thought social attitudes more liberal. She involved herself in the anti-apartheid struggle but eventually became disillusioned with activism preferring to tackle the world through writing. It was there as well where, noting the parallels of modern and ancient societies, she began to explore the ancient world. It was before she left England that she made her most significant departure.

The Charioteer, Renault’s sixth novel, is perhaps her most daring. It was undoubtedly ahead of its time. In many ways it still is.

Set during World War Two, the central character is Laurie Odell, an injured soldier who is recovering in hospital. He meets and falls in love with Andrew, a hospital orderly and conscientious objector. Laurie strives to maintain the purity of his love for Andrew, not only avoiding sexualising it but even avoiding confessing his sexuality. While Laurie's love for Andrew is pure, his old school friend Ralph, practical and earthy, gives contrast and conflict. Influenced by Platonic concepts of male friendship and love, Laurie idealises Andrew without even knowing what the other thinks of him, while he rejects Ralph’s open and honest embrace of his nature.

Fifteen years before gay sex between consenting adults was decriminalised, characters infer that their sexuality is one of choice not nature. Concepts of shame and self-loathing, pervasive ideas at the time, are never far from the surface. The homosexual nature of the relationship is subtly portrayed, perhaps not just because of the censorious times but also to reflect the masks gay and bisexual men were forced to wear. 

Published in 1953, Renault wrote The Charioteer at the height of a post-war moral panic over homosexuality, itself referred to by Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe as “a plague over England”. In what was perhaps the biggest gay scandal since Oscar Wilde’s trial, the actor John Gielgud had been arrested for cottaging in 1951. There was a Cold War link between the subversion of communism and homosexuality, fed by the exposure of well-known defectors such as Burgess and Maclean. Edward Douglas-Scott, himself arrested and convicted for homosexual acts, described the clampdown which saw thousands arrested as a witch hunt. Amongst all this Renault writes a tender novel where realism includes problems, such as blackmail and depression, faced by many men who identified as gay or bisexual, or merely committed same sex acts.

there is undeniable authenticity

After The Charioteer, Renault wrote the books for which she became best known. Her last contemporary novel had presented a choice for its central character of sexual identity versus a romanticised ideal of Platonic male friendship. Her historical (and mythological) books, set in ancient Greece, freed Renault not only of prevalent social attitudes towards homosexuality but also emerging ideas of definition by sexual orientation. Through historical fiction she was able to explore the ethics of friendship without modern hindrance. Much has been disputed about her historical books, including her almost heroic characterisation of Hellenistic homosexuality and her uncritical approach to Alexander who was the subject of three works; her books on Theseus rely heavily on Robert Graves’ disputed theories. Historical fiction is not history. It always remains fiction. Few, however, criticise her historical accuracy or her ability to envelop the reader in the spirit of the time. Customs and beliefs are taken for granted. And, as with The Charioteer, there is undeniable authenticity.

Although her Alexander the Great trilogy has become the benchmark by which other works on the Macedonian leader are judged, the most significant novel has to be The Last of the Wine. Set in 5th century Athens the book tells of the growth into manhood of Alexias during the Peloponnesian War, which saw the two principle city states of Greece - Athens and Sparta - fight one another over a generation. 

It is at its heart a story of love between Alexias and the beautiful Lysis but explores not just what it means to be in love and the beauty of friendship but also the tug between democratic and patrician values, between a respect for traditions and the nature of Socratic query; it encompasses their experiences of war, the social and political arguments of the time and the noble thrill of their athletic competition. Alexias and Lysis’ romantic story is told with delicacy. Their is a depth of human beauty and an understanding of loss. As Renault mixes the personal with the battles of politics and war, the book is filled with historical characters such as the iconoclastic and controversial Alkibiades, a leading political figure who was to change his allegiance several times during the war; through Alexias's narration her admiration for Sokrates, and his devotion to intellectual enquiry, is clear. It has to be one of the most poetic evocations of the ancient world ever written.

It perhaps says something that Renault is not given the credit she deserves. She is undeniably more comfortable writing about the ancient world where identity politics was non-existent. Her later novels focus on homosexuality but their theme is friendship and love. So convincing was her characterisation that many readers thought Mary Renault a pen name for a gay or bisexual man. However, she never identified as gay and was later in life uncomfortable with the 1970s politics of gay liberation.

Hers is a world without social identity but one which allows the reader to identify

Renault has not been neglected as an author since her death in 1983, but she rarely makes those all-important lists of acclaimed writers. Why is she not mentioned in the same breath as Isherwood and Vidal? She understands living in shame, in fear and in hiding, the essentially duplicitous, even exhausting, nature of not being able to be publicly honest. Maybe there is a strange preconceived notion that writers should remain within the realm of their own experiences. Yet male authors regularly tackle female characters - sometimes to acclaim. 

In The Charioteer Laurie says to a friend that he need not live in fear because he is more of doctor than homosexual. Is this a reflection of the social stigma attached to homosexuality, even by those who identified as such. Or is it an acknowledgement that sexual orientation is not the only thing that defines a person, whether they are straight or gay? Definition - especially self-definition - is complicated. It is an astonishingly advanced concept for someone writing in a socially conservative age. It rejects the idea of simple labels, even tribal identity. The concept becomes more pronounced by the sentence’s ambiguity. The self-awareness of the statement (which acknowledges such identity even if it rejects them) is only available to some who struggle for an equal consciousness.

We read to understand that we are not alone - or maybe to try to get at least some understanding of the other. Perhaps novelists write to prove that they too are not alone. Renault writes with beauty and intelligence. Her writing is not only to be read but it is to be considered. It is not voyeuristic or intrusive. She matches the subtle with the revelatory. And she certainly has a claim to genius in her ability to capture the essence of relationships, where often what is not said is as important as what is spoken. She undoubtedly had literary pedigree.

Her fan base mirrors her characters and the setting of her novels. But, in fact, she was not writing about homosexuality and her books set in ancient Greece are only superficially historical fiction. By writing about homosexual love and by giving much of it a historical, that it is say foreign setting, she is actually giving the reader needed distance in order to explore something sometimes too close to distil. Hers is a world without social identity but one which allows the audience to identify. As such it is human. And when one removes overweening definition, the paradox disappears.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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