Much of the worldwide audience that admires Mary Renault’s novels, especially her vivid and accurate accounts of life in the ancient world, knows almost nothing about her private life. Indeed, because her works reveal so profound an understanding of love between men, there were persistent rumors that the author herself was actually a man. Later, because she drew back from involvement in South African politics, Mary Renault was assumed by some people to be a fascist or a racist. In this carefully researched biography, David Sweetman eliminates such false views of his subject, showing Renault as a woman who not only wrote brilliantly about ancient Greece but also, in her own life, attempted to live by the highest ethical standards of the civilization that she and her readers found fascinating.
Sweetman divides his biography into two parts, each of them covering roughly half of Mary Renault’s life. The first section, “England 1905-1948,” covers her formative years and her education, the development of her relationship with Julie Mullard, and, after the financial success of her books made it possible, the decision of the two women to move to South Africa. The second section, “South Africa 1948-1983,” traces their efforts to settle down in an unfamiliar country, which was moving rapidly into political turmoil, and ends with Renault’s long illness and her death.
It might seem surprising that a woman who was as wholeheartedly united to another woman as Mary Renault was to Julie Mullard had little patience with most other members of her own gender. Renault disliked most women, abhorred the thought of marriage, and, as a matter of fact, generally sought the company of gay men. In the first chapters of his book, Sweetman suggests that the early life of Mary Renault (or, to use her real name, Eileen Mary Challans) may explain her later prejudices.
As the biographer points out, it was evidently not long after their marriage in 1904 that the young doctor Frank Challans and his bride, Mary Clementine Newsome Baxter Challans, discovered that they had nothing in common and, even worse, that neither of them could fulfill the other’s expectations. Frank Challans believed that the only function of women was to make men comfortable; therefore, when she was no longer needed, he expected his wife Clementine to leave him alone, amusing herself as best she could while he disappeared into his study. Thus excluded from his life, Clementine Challans spent her time embroidering, gardening, and hoping for visitors with whom she could chatter about superficialities. The two emerged from their separate worlds only to quarrel. Subconsciously searching for some area in which she could challenge her husband’s authority, Clementine became preoccupied with what she called “being nice,” and criticized Frank’s manners. Meanwhile, he made it clear that he thought her a fool.
Thus the gender roles in the Challans household were established. Men were supposed to be intelligent, women merely “nice.” Unfortunately, the firstborn of the two Challans children, Eileen Mary, or “Molly,” did not fit these arbitrary categories. Although Mary shared her father’s bookish interests, he ignored her because she was not a boy; on the other hand, her mother found her inadequate as a girl because she read too much to be attractive to men-unlike her younger sister, Frances Joyce Challans, who was everything that Clementine admired.
Fortunately, one of Clementine’s sisters, who was university-educated, had a less restrictive attitude toward gender roles than Mary’s parents, and she persuaded Frank to send Mary to a boarding school and then to St. Hugh’s, a woman’s college at the University of Oxford. Sweetman explains at length why in 1925 the faculty and students in her own college did not offer Mary Challans much in the way of intellectual stimulus. As the chapter entitled “Oxford Made Me” suggests, however, the total Oxford experience did have an important effect on Mary. It was there, as she listened to lectures of the classicist Gilbert Murray and browsed among the exhibits in the Ashmolean Museum, that she began to develop her interest in Greek culture. It was also at Oxford that Mary decided to be a writer. Even though the medieval novel that she began during her final term at Oxford was never destined for publication, it did mark a beginning and a commitment.
Fourteen years were to elapse before a novel by Mary Renault would appear in print. As Sweetman shows, however, by the time Purposes of Love was published in 1939 (in the United States as Promises of Love, 1940), the future Mary Renault would know much more about life and about herself.
After recovering from an extended bout with rheumatic fever, Challans made a typically impulsive decision that would change the course of her life. She...
(The entire section is 1995 words.)