Democratic Elitist

Mary Renault: A Biography

by David Sweetman

Harcourt Brace, 322 pages. $24.95


Mary Renault (1905-1983) was not only one of the best historical novelists ever but also, as David Sweetman shows in Mary Renault: A Biography (Harcourt Brace, 322 pages. $24.95), one of the more remarkable women of her day. Her novels of ancient Greece so awed historical scholars with their unerring geographical and period detail and their author’s seemingly preternatural understanding of Hellenic manners and morals that many thought she must have studied the classics and lived in Athens: yet in fact she trained as a nurse and made only two brief trips to the Mediterranean.

Likewise, Renault’s respectful and astonishingly perceptive portrayals of affectionate male relationships in such novels as The Last of the Wine and The Charioteer led many to assume she must be a gay man writing under a pseudonym. They were half right: Though she was no man, Renault did use a pen name. Born Eileen Mary Challans, she was the daughter of a middle-class London doctor and a housewife named Clementine whom Mary disappointed with her lack of interest in dolls.

Like Renault’s life, Mr. Sweetman’s book breaks down into two parts. The first covers her years in England, a period of war, drudgery, poverty and icy winters. Here, while working as a nurse (one of the few professions open to an educated woman who wished to support herself), Renault turned out a series of romantic novels, set largely in hospitals, that are notable now mainly because of their daring hints of lesbianism and because the author later dismissed them as apprentice works. An MGM award for one of these books, Return to Night, enabled Renault and her lifelong companion, Julie Mullard, to move to South Africa, where she wrote her novels of Greece.

Renault’s politics did not fit easily into the ideological molds of her time. Though her books contributed mightily to a greater understanding of homosexuality, and though she bravely fought attempts to pass antigay legislation in South Africa, Renault wasn’t enthusiastic about the gay-liberation movement, seeing it (as she did all movements) as a threat to individuality. Nor, though she would seem an ideal feminist role model, was Renault fond of women’s liberation. To the argument that “women had never produced a Shakespeare or a Beethoven because they had been kept at the kitchen sink,” Renault responded sardonically: “as if you could keep Shakespeare at a sink, if she was Shakespeare she wouldn’t let you.”

Culturally, Renault was an unabashed elitist. To be sure, like the ancient Athenians whom she idolized, she believed in democracy; but she also felt that civilization’s highest accomplishments are the work of extraordinary individuals who triumph over difficult circumstances by virtue of their willpower and native gifts. If modem historians disparaged Alexander as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Renault refused to judge him by standards that had not existed in his own day. Instead, in Fire Over Heaven and The Persian Boy, she celebrated him for his valor, strategic brilliance and mercy in victory.

Apartheid brought Renault’s cultural elitism into dramatic conflict with her democratic principles. From the beginning, she resisted segregation; When a “Whites only” sign was posted on the beach near her house, she went outside with a screwdriver and removed it. Yet as the antiapartheid cause spread around the world, Renault was widely seen as racist because she opposed cultural boycotts of her country and because, in her role as honorary chair of the Cape Town branch of PEN, the international writer’s organization, she refused to extend membership invitations to underqualified black authors. In her view, such invitations not only represented a relaxation of literary standards for  political  reasons — something of which she disapproved without exception — but reflected a patronizing racial attitude. In this regard, she stood in sharp contrast to Nadine Gordimer, the head of Johannesburg PEN, whose well-publicized support for black authors helped win her worldwide fame.

Ms. Gordimer doesn’t come off well here. After her PEN cronies tried to expel the Cape Town branch, Renault wrote angrily to a friend that “I have never played literary politics, I have never sucked up to anyone to get my work  promoted; so far as I have influenced PEN policy on behalf of banned writers, I have always gone along with the direct approach to the Minister, which has often achieved results, rather than the self-advertizing protest which hardens his attitude towards the writer while turning the limelight on oneself. Naturally this does not get into the papers, but the writer benefits, which is what PEN is supposed to be all about.”

Mr. Sweetman has not written the most deeply probing of biographies. We don’t come away with a strong sense of Renault’s inner life. But we do get a pretty good idea of what it might have been like to know this tough, hard-working woman whose insight into other people and other times, and whose serious attention to the principles by which those people lived, made her oeuvre one of the nobler moments in 20th-century fiction.