Born at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex, (now Greater London), Renault was educated at St Hugh's College of Oxford University, then an all-women's college, receiving a undergraduate degree in English in 1928. In 1933, she began training as a nurse at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary. During her training, she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a life-long romantic relationship.
She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees at the Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol, and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945. She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939; it had a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, which novelist Linda Proud described as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance". Her 1943 novel The Friendly Young Ladies, about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems inspired by her own relationship with Mullard.
Mary Renault was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In 1933, Renault began training as a nurse at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary. During her training, she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a life-long romantic relationship. Her novel The Friendly Young Ladies (1943), which is about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems to have been inspired by her own relationship with Mullard. In 1948 she and Mullard immigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives.
In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won a MGM prize worth $150,000, she and Mullard emigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There, according to Proud, they found a community of gay expatriates who had "escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban.... Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home." (Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, participating in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.)
It was in South Africa that Renault was able to write forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time — in her last contemporary novel, The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen who fall in love during World War II, and then in her first historical novel, The Last of the Wine (1956) , the story of two young Athenians who study under Socrates and fight against Sparta. Both these books had male protagonists, as did all her later works that included homosexual themes; her sympathetic treatment of love between men would win Renault a wide gay readership. It would also foster rumors that Renault was really a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Renault found these rumors amusing, but also sought to distance herself from being labeled a "gay writer."
Her subsequent historical novels were all set in ancient Greece, including a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer — the story of two young gay servicemen during World War II who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium — is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the 20th century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and antigay prejudice as social "problems"; instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership. (Ironically, The Charioteer could not be published in the U.S. until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.)
Although not a classicist by training, Renault was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction (and in her nonfiction work, The Nature of Alexander) has been called into question: her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized. According to Kevin Kopelson, professor of English at the University of Iowa, Renault "mischaracterize[s] pederastic relationships as heroic." Renault defended her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books, and even her critics generally credit her with providing a vivid portrait of life in ancient Greece.
Defying centuries of admiration for Demosthenes as a great orator, Renault portrayed him as a cruel, corrupt and cowardly demagogue.
Though Renault appreciated her gay following (and the income it provided), she was uncomfortable with the "gay pride" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots. Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of her 1953 novel The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life, she expressed hostility toward the gay rights movement, troubling some of her devoted fans.
On April 18, 2006, BBC Four aired a one hour documentary about the author's life entitled Mary Renault – Love and War in Ancient Greece.
Mary Renault died at Cape Town, South Africa, on 13 December 1983.
Purposes of Love (US title: Promise of Love) (1939)
Kind Are Her Answers (1940)
The Friendly Young Ladies (US title: The Middle Mist) (1943)
Return to Night (1947)
North Face (1948)
The Charioteer (1953)
This is simply a gorgeous book. There’s sadness and joy in it. Set during World War II, it’s hard to see these young men having been sent off to war and the aftermath of it. The slowly developing relationships are fantastically done, and I found it very moving. I couldn't tell you who I cared more deeply for, the idealistic Laurie or the more pragmatic but very-hard-on-himself Ralph. Beware, there is a love triangle of sorts, even if I never found the outcome of that in question. (And I felt for the third man.) --Joely Skye
In this our life, Renault fell in love with Julie Mullard and lived with her happily ever after in Australia. Not that this lovely tale has anything to do with the fact that her beautifully crafted historical novels set in Ancient Greece mean the world to me. All eight of them. However, it is this World War Two novel--Gads, another war novel set in a UK military hospital?-- that gave me the gift of Mary Renault's treasure chest. Laurie Odell falls in love with one Andrew Raynes. There are complication, natch, before the two are united. The title takes us to the heart of the matter. It refers to Plato's “Phaedrus” in which Socrates divides the soul into three parts, "two of them having the forms of horses and the third that of a charioteer" who, when "he holds the vision of love" has to deal with those two horses; one is a loyal prince of guy (Andrew) and the other a rebel (Ralph) who "prances away and gives all manner of trouble to his companion and to the charioteer who urges them on toward the beloved and reminds them of the joys of love." There's the plot in a Plato nutshell. (Of course, both horses reside in us, our soul.) Laurie has to choose between the rebel or the swell Quaker pacifist. The most sublime thing about Renault's great books is she lived the dream of Socrates: to "cultivate and make music." It is my dream, too. The cynical Ralph insists the charioteer's desire to abide by true love is foolish because it "doesn't exist anywhere in real life, so don't let it give you illusions. It's just a nice idea." No wonder he loses out to Andrew and for me, to the music of Mahler who knew how to describe the variations on love better than anybody. --Vincent Virga
I think that “The Charioteer” has to be on my list. Mary Renault was a wise and compassionate writer. In that book she asked a lot of questions I ask. I couldn’t put that book down. It was such a wonderful well-written novel. --Z.A. Maxfield
This is the sort of book which makes me consider saying, “That’s it, I’m not writing anything else because this puts us all in the shade”. Brilliant, beautiful, moving, a Happy Ever After that isn’t really a (or the) Happy Ever After that Laurie wants. I’ve read this again and again and will keep on doing so. Miss Renault’s abilities stun me. --Charlie CochraneHistorical novels
The Last of the Wine (1956) — set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War; the narrator is a student of Socrates
The King Must Die (1958) — the mythical Theseus up to his father's death
The Bull from the Sea (1962) — the remainder of Theseus' life
The Mask of Apollo (1966) — an actor at the time of Plato and Dionysius the Younger (brief appearance by Alexander near the end of the book)
Fire from Heaven (1969) — Alexander the Great from the age of four up to his father's death.
Another writer that needs to be represented here is Mary Renault. Her novel The Charioteer made a huge impact on me, and I thoroughly enjoyed many of her books on ancient Greece. For this list, I'm including Fire from Heaven because it more than any other novel spurred my own interest in classical history and literature. --Keith Hale
As I recall, Renault's work was my first experience of queer content literature. I discovered her books in high school because I love Greek history and mythology, and here if I first found gay characters in the mainstream of the plots, often as the heroes, in the process. In Fire From Heaven, Alexander the Great comes of age, and falls in love with his best friend, Hephaestion, just like Achilles and Patrocles. It was all so beautiful and heroic and exciting. I believe that comes out in my own work and I thank Renault for that early influence. As for the Persian Boy? Well, who doesn't love a sexy slave boy story? I know this one shows up on a lot of people's list of favorites. Seriously, though, the history is well done. That's right; the history. --Lynn Flewelling
Though Renault’s The Persian Boy is the one that everyone talks about, Fire From Heaven is, to my mind, her masterpiece. Possibly one of the greatest male/male love stories of all time Alexander’s lifelong relationship with his lover Hephaestion -- is woven through a riveting story of the young Greek’s early years from birth until he assumes the throne of Macedon. The author’s prose is like poetry and I defy any young gay man not to fall hopelessly in love with Renault’s Alexander by the end of the book. Other notable male/male themed novels from Renault are The Last of the Wine (also set in Classical Greece) and the heart-wrenching and brilliantly sub-textual The Charioteer (a relatively unknown work set in England during World War One). --Hal Bodner
The Persian Boy (1972) — from Bagoas's perspective; Alexander the Great after the conquest of Persia
My hero in life is Alexander the Great. He was a fearless warrior king who united the Eastern and Western World. My fascination with him has inspired the reading of several books of historical fiction. None compare with Mary Renault’s well researched, lyrical and eerily detailed accounts of his life in her novels Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games. Though the language and ancient names can take a few chapters to get your tongue around once immersed Renault spins a world around you in a way that you’d swear she was witness to the events. The Persian Boy is my favorite in the triad because it examines a unique time in Alexander’s life. He and his life partner Hephaestion have an unbreakable bond and yet in Greek style he has taken a Persian Boy, Bagoas as a second lover. As fascinating as his adventures in the discovery of the East are the finely woven relations in this ancient love triangle between Alexander, Hephaestion and Bagoas. As one can imagine dating the King of the Known World at the time was ripe with both jealousy and love. A superb accomplishment and true labor of love. --Charlie David
An m/m historical erotic romance far ahead of its time that has a singular place in my personal library, THE PERSIAN BOY by Mary Renault, is the life story of a eunuch set during the rise and fall of Alexander the Great's reign. I love it as a story of awakening m/m erotic romance between a young man forever denied his physical right to procreate, and another with everything he could ever hope to have, except that once-in-a-lifetime selfless love coupled with unbridled passion that we all wish for. Neither, in Renault's compelling story, was born to same-sex love, but each finds in it, something that he values. It is the circuitous path of their slowly-evolving, dialectically cultural, flagrantly dangerous relationship and its unique outcome that make this one of my precious, lifelong rereads. --Gary Martine
Which writer of gay erotica has not read this fabulous tale of lust from the queen of gay literature? Mary Renault was so far ahead of her time, that no one quite got the fact that she was writing gay fiction, or surely she would have been censored. Out of her Alexander trilogy, this is by far my favorite. --G.A. Hauser
This is the book that started it all for me. I was given a copy as a birthday gift when I turned fifteen and, like many readers before and after, found a voice for the way I felt - betwixt and between, other, but, thanks to this book, not alone. I went on to read most of Renault´s work including the "gayer" The Charioteer. But I was an adult when I made my way to that marvelous book and though I reread it every few years, it´s the tale of Bagoas (not even Bagoas and Alexander - it´s not about the romance for me - but Bagoas himself) that continues to resonate now, more than a quarter-century later. It doesn´t hurt that Renault is a historical novelist beyond compare. --Lee Benoit
This is the apotheosis of slave-boy fic, in which Bagoas, a noble young Persian youth, is captured by enemies, gelded and then sold as a pleasure slave. Given to Alexander the Great as part of a bribe, he falls in love with the great man, accompanies him on his military campaigns, and schemes to win first place in Alexander's affections from his wife, Roxane, and his long-time lover Hephaistion. My sympathies are with Hephaistion, but that didn't stop me from adoring the lush detail, the amazing historical accuracy, the beauty of the language and setting, the excitement of the plot and the large as life and twice as ugly characters in this book. Justifiably a complete classic. --Alex Beecroft
The Praise Singer (1978) — the poet Simonides of Ceos
Funeral Games (1981) — Alexander's successors
The Nature of Alexander (1975) — a biography of Alexander the Great
Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae (1964) — about the Persian Wars
The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea have been adapted as an 11-part BBC Radio 4 serial entitled The King Must Die.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
Amazon (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500563323/?tag=e
Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MZG0VHY/?tag=e
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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