Mary Renault (rehn-OHLT) is the pseudonym used by a British novelist who acquired popularity in the United States through her skillful and artistic reconstruction of Hellenic civilization and her biography of Alexander the Great. Born Mary Challans on September 4, 1905, in London, England, where her father was a doctor, Mary Renault was the older of two daughters. Her earliest memory of London was of a Zeppelin raid during World War I, which she described in later life as a “splendid fireworks display.”
Renault attended Clifton High School, a boarding school near Bristol, from 1921 to 1925 and in 1927 graduated with honors in English literature from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University.
Although she had planned to teach after graduation, she realized that her main interest was writing. Convinced that successful writers must experience life in a personal way, Renault trained as a nurse at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, from 1933 to 1937, during which time she wrote only a few Christmas skits. With the outbreak of World War II, she returned to Radcliffe, where she worked in the neurosurgical ward from 1938 to 1945.
With the ending of the war she traveled extensively in France, Italy, Africa, Greece, and the Aegean Islands for three years. The enchantment she felt when viewing the ruins of classical Greece later served as a major source of inspiration for her Hellenic novels, and the allure of Africa resulted in her establishing a permanent residence in Dunbar, South Africa, in 1948.
Renault’s literary career is best evaluated in two phases: The years 1939 to 1953 were her apprenticeship, and the period from 1956 to 1981, the time of her mature, historical fiction. Renault’s apprenticeship saw six books published, all of which were a prelude to her Greek novels. Her first work, Purposes of Love (also published as Promise of Love), drew upon her experience as a nurse and was so candidly written that many of her coworkers were uncomfortable with its content. Although the work received very favorable reviews, it was her fourth novel, Return to Night, that established her credibility as a novelist on both sides of the Atlantic. In denouncing apartheid and censorship laws in South Africa, Return to Night was awarded the prestigious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer literary prize of $150,000.
Renault’s early work proved controversial in 1953, when her American publisher, William Morrow and Company, refused to publish The Charioteer, maintaining that American society was not ready for a work that described homosexual friendships as an ennobling experience. Six years after its appearance in Europe, Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, published the work and became Renault’s permanent American publisher.
The six volumes published during her apprenticeship reflect, in part, the author’s displeasure with the present and her veneration of the past. Increasingly she employed Hellenic situations as a medium for examining contemporary ones. This is reflected in her use of classical allusions and Platonic imagery to treat contemporary problems cast in a contemporary setting. Glory, honor, and the pursuit of excellence, all Greek ideals, were handled successfully in her early novels, but her treatment of homosexuality, another characteristic of antiquity, met with opposition. The difficulties she encountered with The Charioteer convinced Renault that if she was to progress as a novelist she must write about real Greeks in a Hellenic setting.
Historical fiction has its own critical canon which demands a creative use of sources, the interweaving of character and event, and a point of view that would be valid for the era in question. While Renault successfully fulfilled all these mandates, she was more than simply a popular novelist. She was a sophisticated artist who believed that literature should instruct as well as please, and in her efforts to combine creativity with scholarship she willfully sacrificed vast, popular appeal. Unlike most popular fiction, Renault’s novels manifest meticulous research, and most contain maps, a selected bibliography, and author’s notes on the use of primary sources. To make her books as authentic as possible, she never Latinized proper names, which tends to be troublesome for readers who are unfamiliar with Greek names. Renault’s artistic skills are best reflected in her ability to transform the historical into the fictive. Her creative but scholarly use of written and archaeological sources resulted in a reconstruction of the ancient past with authentic flavor and color.