Although a lesbian, Mary Renault, born September 4, 1905, focused on writing historical fiction about male gay lovers.
Born Eileen Mary Challans, Mary studied as a nurse after her doctor father refused to support her to sit home and write. Her nurse training gave her two important gifts. An income while she launched herself into a writing career — and the love of her life. Mary met Julie Mullard at the age of 19 and they remained together for life.
The income from Mary’s first novel Purposes of Love enabled the pair to move into a cottage in Cornwall. But the outbreak of WWII saw them both return to nursing.
However, Mary continued to write and in 1943 published her only lesbian novel, The Friendly Young Ladies.
The Liverpool Post reviewed the book favourably while only barely hinting at the lesbian undertone. The story concerns two sisters who run away and join a female friend on a Thames houseboat.
“This menage is nearly the last thing in modernity and manages to hold together in spite of the impact of two males.”
However, the reviewer sounded a note of caution in his final words.
“Perhaps toward the end, the analysis of emotion is carried too far.”
By 1948, Mary earned enough from writing to give up nursing. She and Julie emigrated to South Africa, the refuge de jour for gay and lesbian couples escaping British and American puritanism.
Mary Renault and Julie Mullard both participated in the anti-apartheid Black Sash. Formed by six middle-class white women, the Black Sash was a non-violent resistance organisation that campaigned against apartheid right up until it ended in the early 1990s.
However, in 1968, the Black Sash leadership disappointed the couple when they refused to protest new anti-gay laws. Nevertheless, Mary continued to sign petitions and compose written protests against the racist regime.
Mary gave her early romance novels a contemporary setting. But the last of the six marked a new direction. The Charioteer told the story of two young gay servicemen modelling their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium.
Despite praise for the book from English reviewers, Mary’s American publisher turned it down worried about his countrymen’s loathing of ‘sexual deviants’.
Following The Charioteer, Mary launched into the works of historical fiction that made her famous.
By setting her books in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, she could ignore the anti-gay prejudice of her era and focus on the power dynamics of gay male relationships.
The Last of the Wine
The Birmingham Post picked up on the tactic when it reviewed the first of the historical novels.
“[She] sets The Last of the Wine in a period when those relationships were accepted and admired.”
Alexias, the noble Athenian youth who narrates The Last of the Wine is a noted beauty and champion runner. Older Athenian men woo him and his peers, the society debutantes of their age.
The success of that first book led to a series of similar books and a devoted audience of gay men. Although, not all gay men were fans —notably not Noel Coward.
“I have also read The Charioteer by Miss Mary Renault. Oh dear, I do, do wish well-intentioned ladies would not write books about homosexuality. This one is turgid, unreal and so ghastly earnest. It takes the hero – soi-disant – three hundred pages to reconcile himself to being queer as a coot, and his soul-searching and deep, deep introspection is truly awful.
“There are ‘queer’ parties in which everyone calls everyone ‘my dear’ a good deal, and over the whole book is a shimmering lack of understanding of the subject. I’m sure the poor woman meant well but I wish she’d stick to recreating the glory that was Greece and not f_ck about with dear old modern homos.”
Mary probably found the flamboyant Mr Coward a little loud for her liking anyway. Despite her own lifelong relationship and a career heavily dependent on gay male love, she only reluctantly identified as a lesbian and ridiculed the gay pride movement of her later years.
“Congregated homosexuals waving banners are really not conducive to a good-natured ‘Vive la difference!’
“People who do not consider themselves to be, primarily, human beings amongst their fellow humans, deserve to be discriminated against, and ought not to make a meal of it.”
However, modern readers should not judge her too harshly. She spent most of her life in a world that punished open homosexuality harshly. And she brought immense joy to many by portraying same-sex love as normal and a thing of beauty.
Mary Renault died aged 78 in 1983.
Read also: Michael Field, the most famous author you never heard of — not a man, but an aunt and niece lesbian couple.
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