September 4, 1905 – Mary Renault:
“To hate excellence is to hate the Gods.”
At a time in my youth when I would gobble up any book that had anything to do with being a queer, one of the very first gay-themed novels I encountered was The Persian Boy (1972) by Mary Renault. I had my hardback copy for decades, but when I went to look for it just now I couldn’t locate it. It wasn’t in the Gay Fiction section of my bookcases, or LGBTQ History, or even books with red bindings (The Husband sometimes organizes books by the color of the spine). Maybe you have my copy? I think it was you who borrowed it.
When John F. Kennedy was asked who his favorite author was, he replied: “Mary Renault”.
She was born Eileen Mary Challans in Essex, during an era when homosexuality could only be publicly mentioned with repulsion. It wasn’t until 1967 that sex acts between males were decriminalized in Britain. It was never criminal for females. It was another six years before the American Psychiatric Association declassified Homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Renault met her lifelong partner, Julie Mullard, while the two women were studying at Oxford, where Renualt studied writing with some guy named J.R.R. Tolkien.
Interesting that as a lesbian, Renault focused on writing stories of love between men. In 1953, her sixth novel, The Charioteer, about the attraction between a soldier and a conscientious objector during World War II, is one of the first novels to take on gay love without being coy. Her honest, sympathetic portrayal of gay male characters as complex people rather than as sad, perverted, or campy figures, provoked outrage in Britain.
The Charioteer could not be published in the United States until 1959, which made it a somewhat later addition to LGBTQ literature because American readers and critics had already encountered serious queer love stories in such works as Carson McCullers‘ Reflections In A Golden Eye (1941), Truman Capote‘s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Gore Vidal‘s The City And The Pillar (1948), all bestsellers.
The Charioteer is a gay classic. With its eye for the detail that instantly establishes character and its fine attention to the nuances of feeling and emotional intelligence, this novel is beautifully written and deeply moving.
The Charioteer caused controversy, yet, MGM went ahead and bought the rights to her 1947 novel Return To Night for enough money to allow the two women to move to tax-free South Africa. Although they traveled extensively in Africa and Greece, the couple never returned to England.
They both became citizens of South Africa. Unlike most white citizens at the time, they also joined Black Sash, the women’s movement that fought against apartheid. In case you are too young to remember, Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. Apartheid was part of an authoritarian culture based on white supremacy, which encouraged state repression of Black Africans, mixed-race, and Asian South Africans for the benefit of the nation’s minority white population.
In 1960, their activism forced Renault and Mullard to move from Durbin to Cape Town. But, as she grew older, Renault became disillusioned with radical politics. She even expressed a discomfort with the Gay Pride Movement of the 1970s after the Stonewall Riots.
Renault noticed parallels between the racial crisis in South Africa and 5th Century BC Athens. She was freed from handling society’s attitudes towards gayness by focusing on the basic nature of love and of the leadership in ancient Greece.
She was scrupulous in the accuracy of detail in her novels. Along with her girlfriend, Renault spent extended time in Greece becoming familiar with the architecture and landscape.
Beginning with The Last Of The Wine in 1959, she combined a thorough but lightly worn knowledge of ancient Greek life with a lively prose style to create bestsellers. Their popularity is more remarkable because, unlike generations of embarrassed Classics teachers who felt obliged to gloss over “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”, Renault placed gay male relations at the center of her fiction.
Eventually there were eight historical Greek-themed novels by Renault. Yet, her observations did not go unchallenged. Some Greek scholars labeled her image of Alexander the Great as “romantic” after the publication of her first work about Alexander’s youth, Fire From Heaven (1969). Still, even her critics credit her with making reading about ancient Greece popular and providing a vivid and perceptive grasp of famous figures and accuracy in her historical details. Her success was enormous. All of her novels were bestsellers.
Her contribution towards a tolerance of gayness is tough to consider in this century. After all, there was her reticence for not standing up strongly for LGBTQ rights. For me, the best thing about her novels is the sophistication of saying so little about gayness. Being queer is offered as a natural and nonthreatening state. Renault believed that sexuality was innately in flux. She rejected the notion that you can characterize people primarily by their sexual orientation.
After a long, very prolific career as a writer, Renault was taken by that damn cancer in 1983. She was 78 years old. Her obituary in the New York Times failed to mention that she was gay and had not a single mention of Mullard even though Mullard and Renault were together for 50 years! Mullard left this world in 1996.
I think Renault’s four Alexander T. Great novels would make a great limited series on HBO Max.