Renault, Mary (Vol. 17)
Mary Renault 1905–
(Pseudonym of Mary Challans) British novelist and nonfiction writer.
Renault is one of the most respected historical novelists writing today. Early in her career she wrote a few psychological dramas set in England around the time of World War II. These works, including North Face, a penetrating analysis of a troubled love affair, might now be considered sentimental, but at the time they gave her a reputation as a good contemporary novelist. Thus it astonished some critics when she published a novel set in Socratic Athens entitled The Last Of the Wine.
Most critics agree that with the historical novel Renault found her true métier. Her usual method is to have a first-person narrator about whom history knows nothing describe life as experienced by certain great historical figures, thus blending precise factual information with pure invention. The Thesean sequence was an exception to this pattern, as it was told through the eyes of its protagonist, the mythical king of Athens. Yet the first of these two novels, The King Must Die, is also characteristic of Renault's writing in that its description of Theseus's youth provides the background for exploration of one of her recurring themes: the loss of innocence and the corresponding gain in maturity and compassion.
Many readers appreciate her skill in portraying an individual's inner thoughts and enjoy her use of period detail, but some question the historical value of an approach designed to make her legendary characters comprehensible to a twentieth-century audience. Renault has also written history in a more traditional form. Both The Lion in the Gateway, a chronicling of the Persian Wars for young adults, and The Nature of Alexander, a conventional biography about the man who was the subject of two of her most successful novels, have been generally well received. However, she continues to write novels, fortunately for those readers who find them to be, as she says, evocative recreations of "the real beliefs and thought-modes" of ancient Greece. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
The background of this extremely fluent first novel ["Purposes of Love"] is that of a provincial hospital, as seen through the eyes of a young nurse. This is not a usual point of view for a serious work of fiction, but it is one which is admirably suited to the author's realistic and detailed style and her easy and convincing—if by no means subtle—way of handling bizarre contrasts….
Jan's best friend [Mic] … and Vivian [Jan's sister] fall in love with each other, and Mic being poor and Vivian being proud, live together "practically if not technically." [The love of Mic and Vivian], pursued in the face of difficult circumstances, is a tender and touching affair, although the author does not skimp a single one of the sordid shifts necessary for its conduct. Through a misunderstanding … they are estranged…. It says much for the author's skill that [the bitter tragedy of Jan's death] will cause many readers to flinch, but it brings together again the other two and thus fulfils the popular preference for a neat, if not an altogether happy ending, which, by the way, would be more artistically obtained if the last chapter were eliminated.
This story the author has told with humour, a supple intelligence and a peculiarly feminine sensitiveness, which should earn her a large public, particularly of women. Her minor characters are drawn with a sureness and an economy which suggest that she will do even better when she has stripped her style of some of its vivacity and fined it down into a harder and more austere vein.
"First Novels: 'Purposes of Love'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1939; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1934, February 25, 1939, p. 119.
"Promise of Love" [American title of "Purposes of Love"] is a first novel about first love, and possesses the rich, heady quality of the excitement of discovery of emotions and personalities…. With a fluid technique rare in a first novel, Miss Renault tells a story of emotional and psychological development which is engrossing because of, rather than in spite of, its familiarity.
In a twisted and tenuous way, "Promise of Love" holds the elements of a triangle. Jan Lingard, Vivian's brother, several years older than she, is a scientist at Cambridge…. The two are alike in many ways and it is not strange that Mic Freehold, warped by an unhappy childhood, should have his first emotions, snared for a while by Jan, deflected by Vivian. Here Miss Renault has handled an extremely difficult psychological situation with maturity and sensitive taste.
Though Jan is responsible for the attraction between Vivian and Mic, he becomes unimportant once they become lovers. The conflict between them is not Jan, but the unhappiness and bitterness implicit in love fulfilling itself in stolen moments. It is in the development of this theme that Miss Renault shows the hand of an artist….
Miss Renault does a splendid job in portraying two persons deeply in love with each other, aware of their physical and intellectual oneness, eager to give the best to each other, afraid of anything that might destroy the beauty of...
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Edith H. Walton
As a story of high-keyed passion, "Promise of Love" is both complex and intense, yet it never loses touch with the solider kind of reality….
On a double count … "Promise of Love" strikes me as an unusually excellent first novel. There is a fusion here between background and personal drama, between inner and outer reality, which enriches and dignifies both. The story of Mic and Vivian would not be nearly so arresting as it is if one were not so sharply aware of the pressure of their environment. One sees them at work as well as in love—an important dualism which too many novelists neglect. When one adds to this that Mary Renault's style has a sure, fluid quality, that she possesses humor as well as sensitiveness, that even her minor characters are shrewdly drawn—the sum total is quite impressive. "Promise of Love" is a good novel. It deserves success…. (p. 24)
Edith H. Walton, "Two Loves," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1939 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1939, pp. 7, 24.
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[Renault's] subject in Kind Are Her Answers is love; her treatment of it is voluptuous, with an un-English physical directness. Her manner of writing has a tremendous feminine vitality—that sort of creative gusto which has proved first the strength and subsequently—controlled by no shaping intellectual maturity—the undoing of many a contemporary woman novelist….
This novel is about a love affair between a handsome, promising, unhappily married young doctor and an attractive, affectionate, promiscuous, child-like girl whom he meets in the course of his professional duties…. Many women readers will identify with her, finding her more appealing than I do…. [I] wish to point out the dreadful pitfalls yawning for Miss Renault: the flavour of self-indulgence, of facile lushness, of letting down the back hair by the fire, which might easily vitiate her natural gifts of imagination, the freshness of her sensuous impressions, and her power of creating character and atmosphere. Some of her minor portraits and landscapes are delightful. There is a superbly malicious sketch of some Oxford Groupers; and there is a description of a Victorian-Gothic house, its inmates, furniture, lawns, shrubberies and summer houses, which evokes in a rich, full-flavoured way not only itself but a whole period.
Miss Renault is, I feel, at a dangerous cross-roads in her career. Popular she will be. It is to be hoped that nothing...
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Edith H. Walton
"Kind Are Her Answers" is a slighter and shallower book than "Promise of Love"; more entertaining, perhaps, but less moving. Mary Renault remains an exceedingly talented and promising novelist, but she has not, since her first book, progressed in any way….
[There] is room for shrewd comedy in "Kind Are Her Answers," plus a rueful and gentle irony. Christie, though maddening, is a completely charming character. One sees why Kit can never escape from her. Again, the incidentals of the story are touched off with great effectiveness…. "Kind Are Her Answers" is, in short, a clever and diverting story as well as one which knows what it is talking about when it discusses the course and fluctuation of passion. Only it is not quite what one had expected of Miss Renault. There is no depth to it, no real feeling. Something is missing which "Promise of Love" had. "Kind Are Her Answers" is eminently readable, but it smacks a little too much of the run-of-the-mine English novel.
Edith H. Walton, "A Luckless Love," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1940 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 9, 1940, p. 7.
The early part of ["The Friendly Young Ladies"], a study of adolescence, or at any rate of a seventeen-year-old with a good deal of the arrested child in her make-up, is of a nice analytical delicacy and seems altogether just in...
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When the point of view [in The Friendly Young Ladies] is that of the girl, Elsie, [Miss Renault] is wholly and admirably successful. The opening chapters in Cornwall are amusing, sensitive and well written; the ridiculous middle-class parents and the atmosphere of the middle-class home are perfect…. As soon as Elsie gets into the world of the friendly young ladies, Miss Renault's troubles begin. Thenceforward, whenever things are seen from Elsie's angle, the book is lively and real; her misunderstanding of the personal relationships around her is well done, and so are the few later actions to which her author commits her, including the final one. Unfortunately, a fog descends whenever Miss Renault tries to get inside her grown-ups, and a most promising book gets lost. The book aims at depths which are impenetrable because Miss Renault has ignored the preliminary necessities of organisation on the surface. It is a real lack of invention that makes Leonora and Joe seem so unreal and so nebulously conceived: both have pasts which are left too much to conjecture for their pressure on the present to be comprehensible to the reader; and the love scenes between these and other characters which mark the progress of such story as there is do not bring the characters any more clearly before us. One cannot even tell precisely how friendly the young ladies have been to each other. Miss Renault is at the difficult stage of being able to express...
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["Return to Night"] has everything Hollywood could possibly want—an English town in the Cotswold, a tense scene in the operating room, upper middle class country house interiors, Romeo and Juliet love scenes by the dozen, tea every afternoon, rain or shine, and masses of old wartime tweed. There are also a few things which Hollywood will have to rearrange.
Possibly Mary Renault had something other than the M-G-M award in mind when she sat down to write "Return to Night." Her purpose may have been to explore the freedom of woman in the modern world. Bravely she has taken on those aspects of personality which she considers to be typically male—irritability, impatience and, so she thinks, objectivity. Actually the objectivity of which she is so proud is a negation of feminine tenderness, a cultivated remoteness fed by hyper-criticism of others….
Miss Renault writes with competence and beauty, but what does she mean?
Thomas Sugrue, "A Modern Love Affair," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), Vol. 23, No. 35, April 20, 1947, p. 16.
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[Miss Renault] is an artist to her finger tips. She writes prose that is precise and lyrical, arrestingly sensitive to the charms of nature as well as to the subtle dartings of the human mind—a fine fusion, in short, of apparent fragility with unsuspected strength….
She is sometimes too talky, too given to purely decorative effects. But ["Return to Night"] triumphs over this. And she knows how to tell a story. Unfortunately, the story she tells in the present case does not seem, to this reader at least, to do justice to all these obvious talents. It is different, but it is not compelling….
Reflection will have you shaking your head rather than tossing flowers at the story. But there is the redeeming virtue of Miss Renault's sharply perceptive writing. Her nearly flawless sense of detail, her poet's sense of beauty and mortality and loneliness, her sensitivity to the undercurrents of mind and heart, and her profound understanding of the intricate emotionalism of people gripped in the torments and ecstasies of love—all this makes her worthy of attention….
Charles Lee, "Out of Apron Strings," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1947, p. 4.
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D. S. Savage
[Miss Renault's theme in Return to Night] is love: the love between a woman doctor of thirty-four, bruised by an unhappy affair with a hospital colleague, and a much younger man whose will has been destroyed and his ambition crushed by the gentle domination of his mother. The story is well, though somewhat lengthily, told, and Miss Renault succeeds in engaging one's sympathy for her characters. The novel's construction shows, however, several faults of method. First, attention is concentrated upon the two principal characters throughout, when in so leisurely a novel one requires either a greater expansiveness … or, alternatively, a much more emphatic, intense and economical concentration upon the central issue. Secondly, there is a certain distortion through the employment of the third person method of narration, when in fact everything is presented from Hilary's—the doctor's—viewpoint. As a result of this one is able to see only the boy, Julian, as a "case," whereas it should be made much clearer to the reader that the woman's love for him has foundations as equivocal as his own for her…. Lastly, and in general, the relationship and its significance are not adequately pondered over and thought out, and the book ends, as a consequence, with unsatisfactory inconclusiveness. It is a story with undertones of unhappiness which Miss Renault doesn't seem to know what to do with. Shy of ending the book, as would have been appropriate, with the...
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Mary Renault is a highly intuitive Englishwoman who writes simple, lyrical prose, and whose portrait of the mental digressions of her characters in the course of a love affair can be as relentless as if she were following the trail of a hunted fox….
["North Face"] is as English to the core as the wooded and mountainous North Devon country in which the story is shrouded, so much so that it is difficult for an American reader to become interested at first in the inhabitants of the seaside guest house where Neil Langton goes to reflect on his ravished past. (p. 11)
As characters, both the forthright nurse and the woman teacher, who hides from her mind the grosser aspects of life, are as fully drawn as Neil and his Ellen. They are both admirable human beings, in their different ways, and their frustrations, since marriage and sex have passed them by, are as appealing to the reader's sympathy as the more tempestuous passions of the lovers. This kind of psychological novel, however poetically and sensitively written, inevitably contains some of the grosser aspects of the common mystery story. The villains are the neuroses hiding in the depths of the minds of hero and heroine, to be tracked down and put away safely in a cell like so many criminals. In real life they might eventually escape, larger and more menacing than ever. A part of Miss Renault's art is to convince the reader that there is only happiness in store for...
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["North Face"] has moments when one feels that one is witnessing love in its tenderest and purest form—how old-fashioned those adjectives are!—and at the same time it is treated in a rigorously analytical manner. Never does the name do service for the thing. It is marvelous that Miss Renault's analysis does not destroy its subject, but it does not.
Of course, there are other moments, when the author seems to be too much concerned with more hackneyed psychological effects. But that is understandable. It would be very difficult to portray a love affair between two simple people. Miss Renault finds it simpler to set her love affair between two people who are in deep psychological difficulties….
The course of [the love affair of Neil and Ellen] by which two problems are surmounted that singly had defeated them, is compared, by an unobtrusive but effective analogy, to a difficult climb. In this emotional ascent, as Miss Renault recounts it, there are moments which are as breath-less and as breathtaking to behold as there could be in the ascent of the most refractory alp.
The minor characters—there are very few of them—are all superbly done….
Thus it is that "North Face" is not only a moving book but a reassuring one. These people … are so very real, not merely so believable but so believed, that it is impossible not to believe also that, after all, romantic love is a...
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In 430 B. C. the sweet, heady wine of Hellas was running out and little was left but the sour lees. Spartans were pillaging farms outlying Athens and the city was struck by a ghastly plague. Soon Pericles died, the last great leader of the democracy. This is the time at which Mary Renault begins her remarkable novel of a dying way and the agonies of a dying city. By peopling this world for us she has made its terrible, inexorable crumbling vivid, and moving.
The story is told by a young Greek, Alexias…. (p. 5)
In this time of troubles Alexias comes under the influence of Socrates. Miss Renault has performed the immensely difficult feat of evoking a full-bodied, full-minded Socrates who walks through his disordered times with calmness and humane wisdom. (pp. 5, 30)
This canvas is rich in battles by land and sea, in the starvation of siege and the disaster of defeat, in a description that you will not forget of a wrestling match almost to the death at the Isthmian Games, and in sensitively poised emotional bonds between both man and woman, and man and man. Miss Renault moves through all aspects of Athenian relationships with disarming candor and flawless taste….
Not since Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" has there been such an exciting, living image of the ancient world on this grand scale. It is a glowing work of art. (p. 30)
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Miss Renault's historical novels are excellent. They hold their own as artistically wrought and moving stories and they are rich in the adult entertainment which is the special province of historical fiction. They are particularly welcome because they illuminate uncharted but essential passages and epochs in the formative stages of our civilization.
In "The Last of the Wine," her first historical novel,… Miss Renault showed how certain personal relationships and the practice of infanticide which we find distasteful and abhorrent could be an integral element in the luminous period of the Peloponnesian War. Now in "The King Must Die" she contributes a greater increment to our knowledge of our past and ourselves by clarifying grimmer and more horrifying elements in the mistier antecedents of the classical efflorescence….
Miss Renault has shaped a consistent and sympathetic personality [Theseus] whose driving ambition is to suppress the barbarism of the old order and establish the new. Theseus is no ordinary type, but neither is he so alien as to be unrecognizable, in view of the cultural background out of which he emerges and against which he acts.
The task makes the character credible, but so does the character the task. We are given to see that the monstrous institutions attributed to the old order may actually have flourished, and that its adherents were people like ourselves, in whom we can be...
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Any historical novelist worth his salt makes the material of his tale faithful to the realities of the age he wishes to revive, banishing stereotypes and bringing alive figures dimmed by the passage of years. Mary Renault did this in her 1956 novel, "The Last of the Wine."… In "The King Must Die,"… she does it again so well, in fact, that it puts her in the top echelon of historical novelists.
For her material this time Miss Renault has turned to the old Greek legend about Theseus, the hero-king of Athens….
Miss Renault does not tell the legend in its entirety, but culls from it and improvises. Nor does she rely alone on the eternal appeal of folklore material for the fascination of her tale. She ventures into the complex pre-Hellenic era confidently and, with imagination and insight, takes the myth out of mythology by creating a persuasively realistic and touchable canvas crowded with ancient people and places. What has previously been consigned to ancient vase paintings and frescoes—the cupbearers of age-old Crete, its snake goddesses, blue-robed and jeweled court ladies, bull trainers, acrobats—takes on new meaning in her retelling.
In portraying Theseus himself, Miss Renault invests him with gusto for athletics, politics, women, battle and bull-baiting. None of the dark complexes with which modern analysts like Carl Jung and Erich Neumann have saddled Theseus plagues Miss Renault's...
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[The] world into which Miss Renault guides us [in "The Charioteer"] is as alien and as insular as any evocation of ancient or archaic Greece.
It is the shadowy world of the homosexual, at once familiar and strange, like a hall of mirrors in which the reflections are subtly distorted. Beyond the flashlight of Miss Renault's attention we are aware of much unseen, much unspoken. It is a world of heightened sensibility and rare delicacy, so much so that heterosexual intrusions invariably strike a vulgar note, like an American entering a Japanese garden….
Tribute must be paid Miss Renault for remarkable literary talents. Her prose, at its best, is dazzling, her perceptions sharp and original, her dialogue natural to the ear. But she has succeeded better than she knows, or perhaps differently from what she intended. She has peopled her world with the hypersensitive, the bloodless, and the self-obsessed. Her characters are vivid, but they are exotics. Their untiring delicacy becomes, like a steady diet of English lady writers, tiresome—and the intrusion of some good old-fashioned heterosexual vulgarity welcome.
Miss Renault asks more of us than we can give. As well as sympathy she demands identification. But Odell's world is so alien that its conflicts are internecine; we watch bemused, like anthropologists at a native fertility rite that seems to bear some faint connection to our culture. Miss Renault...
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In two of the finest of modern historical novels, Mary Renault has established herself as a woman writer with a unique understanding of men…. In "The Charioteer," Miss Renault has examined aspects of love among men in a thoroughly contemporary setting. This book should make plain to American readers what her British audience has long known, that Miss Renault is one of the major novelists of our time. Her insights are phenomenal, her reading of the fine print of psychological history extremely acute, her rendering of truth as she sees it forthright, courageous, informative and stirring. Moreover, she can keep several themes moving simultaneously, each reinforcing the other; and she knows from the beginning where her chariot is bound. In this earlier work her style runs occasionally to preciosity; but this tendency is usually balanced by good sense, and is probably less the outcome of affectation than of the need to communicate intangible realities….
By introducing conscientious objectors into her military hospital, Miss Renault balances her somewhat parochial main theme with one of larger importance. Pacifism has necessarily become a major question of our times, and conscientious objection in war time provides a real test of its validity. Miss Renault shows the force and integrity which enable those who have refused military service to win the respect of hostile soldiers. She makes it plain that pacifism is not passivity…....
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In a sense it is easy to understand how [The King Must Die] remained on the best-seller lists through much of 1958, for it very neatly combines those essentials of popular historical fiction: sex, adventure and a romantic setting. Theseus admirably fits the general requirements, for he is conceived of as a man small in stature but quick in his reflexes who, believing invincibly in his own destiny, compensates for his lack of height by physical and sexual aggressiveness. Furthermore, in the major episode the cruel Minotaur makes a dangerous opponent, the lovely Ariadne a desirable companion and the mysterious Labyrinth a suitable background for the action. Yet much of this action, as might be guessed, is either contrived or melodramatic, and all the characters throughout the story remain two-dimensional and never quite come alive. The style of the book also fails, for, in seeking to surround the story with the splendor of an epic past and the hero with an aura of secret wisdom, it succeeds only in being trite and wearying. The significance of this book rests, therefore, not in its quality as historical fiction, but in the fact that it is to my knowledge the first novel-length treatment of the Theseus theme written in the realistic manner with regard to the various episodes, and especially the major one, of the hero's career. (p. 176)
Kevin Herbert, "The Theseus Theme: Some Recent Versions," in The...
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[The] less inhibited cousin [of the historical novel], the legendary romance—a freer form because it is by nature exempt from the restrictions of historical fact—is no less honorable and may offer even more in the way of inventive and persuasive entertainment.
Mary Renault's evocations of the Greek past, starting with "The Last of the Wine" (1956), are admirable examples of this genre, perhaps the best we have…. [In "The King Must Die"] an act of scholarship and art combined to give us a novel that was at once ancient and contemporary, as beautifully and horribly moving as the wild legends upon which it was based.
In her new book, "The Bull From the Sea," we have the sequel, which carries the story on to the death of Theseus. Sequels are a tricky business, as are afterthoughts in general; but this one is no falling off, no perfunctory attempt to extend the excitement of a past success. In certain respects it is even finer work—more lucidly constructed and more firmly self-contained than its predecessor. The archaeologizing is less overt, for one thing, less in love with itself; the psychological insights, particularly with respect to Theseus and his innocent, chaste son, Hippolytos, somehow run much deeper into the tragic nature of these self-doomed agonists. The result, once again, is excellent entertainment, but the implications of the saga are perhaps more expertly set forth….
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Joseph G. Harrison
[It] is with some trepidation that this reviewer places himself athwart the throng of hand-clappers and ventures the view that, while competently written, "The Bull from the Sea" is very far from being a great historical novel, an unusually good re-creation of antiquity, or a masterpiece of writing. Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, this book seems surprisingly shallow and lacking in any feeling for antiquity.
For if Theseus, the tough, doughty, deedful legendary founder of Athens, if Hippolyta, the equally rough-and-ready Queen of the Amazons, if Pirithoos, leader of the untamed Aegean sea-rovers were as they are set forth in this book, then Hollywood is right after all. In fact, the encounter, combat, and love affair between Theseus and Hippolyta would make a grand spectacular, however poor Homer or Aeschylus it may be.
Not that Miss Renault is not able on occasion to call forth the sights and sounds of the far classical eld. And this lends an air of truthfulness to parts of the book. But basically, it does not wash….
In truth, the story of Theseus, of the Amazons, of Hippolytos and of the others who appear in this book is among the mightiest of the tales of ancient Greece. They are towering figures of tragedy, activity, and beauty. Unfortunately, they do not so appear in "The Bull from the Sea," where they and their deeds seem planed down, smoothed off, and better adapted to paperbacks...
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Landon C. Burns, Jr.
The Last of the Wine (1956) is an excellent historical novel by all the standards which we usually use to judge such work. Miss Renault's reconstruction of the past is vivid and exciting, for she has been able to make us believe in a world remote from ours, but one in which we recognize problems and people who reflect our own society. The Athens of Sokrates and Alkibiades comes alive for us because Miss Renault has made it consistent, colorful, and interesting. But unlike many historical novelists who use their recreation of the past as an excuse for sensationalism or pseudo-history, Miss Renault has used her setting as a reinforcement of theme and character. Sokrates and what he teaches are central to the meaning and to the structure of the novel, though he himself remains a secondary figure…. [She] gives us a real "flavor" of the period, since we are constantly seeing people and events with which we are familiar from other sources.
In addition, the period is fascinating not only because it includes Sokrates and the familiar members of his circle, but because of the political struggles which were destroying the Athenian state…. Miss Renault makes us realize, in a way that Plato does not, how much of what Sokrates said had a particular application to his own time as well as an abstract universality. (pp. 102-03)
Miss Renault, however, is trying to do more than establish an historical period and characters...
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[Mary Renault] has chosen to write a story for children about the Greeks defying the Persian empire ["The Lion in the Gateway"] and there is never any question about the purpose of the story. She tells it freshly, exultantly, as though it had never been told before. She has caught Herodotus's trick of making her heroes a little larger than life. She has a proper respect for Persian opulence and magnificence, and when she describes Darius or Xerxes she paints them in rainbow colors; and she does not underestimate the Persian bravery. But the Greeks run away with the story…. She gives pride of place to Pheidippides, who ran to Sparta to announce the coming of the Persians and saw the great god Pan along the way. It is a measure of her skill that she makes his meeting with the goatgod perfectly credible, and that the young runner himself becomes the personification of the Greek genius. He is an excellent choice for a hero, and it is odd that no one ever thought of it before.
Children deserve the best, and they have it here in full measure. Meanwhile let us hope that Mary Renault will tell them about Periclean Athens, and then of Alexander.
Robert Payne, "New Volumes for the Younger Reader's Bookshelf: 'The Lion in the Gateway'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 4, 1964, p. 26.
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Priscilla L. Moulton
[Mary Renault's colorful style in The Lion in the Gateway] imbues history with immediacy but also makes it difficult to determine fact and sequence. Major aspects of the wars are fascinatingly, although not always clearly, presented; a host of historical figures are briefly introduced. The author's prowess as a writer is not as evident here as in her fiction, yet style-conscious readers may go on to enjoy her as a storyteller.
Priscilla L. Moulton, "Early Fall Booklist: 'The Lion in the Gateway'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1965, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XL, No. 5, October, 1965, p. 510.
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Miss Renault is able to write about ancient Greece as if she had been there. I don't know whether I admire this gift of hers more in the Theseus novels, where her imagination was free to build as it could on a meager foundation of facts, or in the Athenian novels, which might so easily have suffered from an excess of documentation…. The world Miss Renault shows us is sufficiently in harmony with the one we have read about in history books, and yet it is a world she has created….
As we follow [the] apprenticeship and rise to fame [of Nikeratos, the narrator of The Mask of Apollo,] we get a fresh sense of what the classic Greek theater was like and what it meant to the Greek people in a score of Mediterranean cities…. A mask of Apollo, with which he carries on imaginary conversations, symbolizes his devotion not only to his art but also to the good, the true, and the beautiful. In the long run the symbol is overworked, but it leads to several impressive passages.
Niko is also concerned with the theater as theater, and Miss Renault writes about the conventions of Greek drama in a way that brings the theater to life…. Scenery, costumes, the foibles of actors, the peculiarities of the theaters in various cities, details of particular performances—she writes about them all with an air of authority. But the details are never allowed to submerge the story, which moves forward vigorously through a series of...
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"The Mask of Apollo" returns with a difference to the ancient Greece of Miss Renault's "The Last of the Wine."… The difference is of locale and emphasis. The Athens of Socrates and Plato is moved into the background, though it continues to control, or at least color, the political and moral action; and the scene is shifted to Greek Sicily, chiefly Syracuse. (p. 4)
The sources for the historical events are relatively late and unreliable, chiefly the choppy "Library of History" of Diodoros Siculus and Plutarch's idealized account in his "Life of Dion." Miss Renault also draws, perforce, on Plato's own highly subjective record of his experiences at the Sicilian court….
In addition, she has harmonized and made entertainingly credible a great deal of information about the Greek theater … and she has managed to make even her idealist philosophers sound like flesh and blood, which is no minor feat. In general, then, and for what such things are worth, "The Mask of Apollo" is a romance solidly enough based on fact to permit speculations, fictive reconstructions, that really can be neither proved nor disproved. The question: Does it win our faith for the moment? My own response, thanks to Miss Renault's grace and skill, is yes….
The fictive plot is the story of the development of a famous actor, whose profession necessarily involved his traveling all over the Greek world and hence becoming an observer...
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The Mask of Apollo brilliantly combines several major subjects that, stated boldly, sound absurdly incompatible: the Greek theater, the fortunes of Syracuse under tyranny and democracy, the politics of Plato's Academy, the ambiguous nature of virtue in men….
Miss Renault has been "touched by the god," as she might put it. For sheer inspiration must have prompted her to tell the story of Dion through the reminiscence of the actor Nikeratos….
[His] memoirs are a superb imaginative creation. The peculiar conditions of the Greek stage … are perfectly integrated, the natural setting for a man who shudders at the impious idea of actors appearing on stage without masks, as modernists are advocating and occasionally doing. Nikeratos is the eternal actor, vain, cynical, forever lapsing into recollections of stage gossip and former parts, measuring himself against rivals, concerned about money and career, and given to promiscuity. But he is also—and herein lies Miss Renault's irony—more of a pattern of virtue than Dion himself.
Yet, after all, the actor himself is telling the story, and there are hints that he may be inflating his own part. This possibility gives an added dimension to Nikeratos, just as seeming parallels between the Syracusan experience and the present widen the scope of the novel. The author insists, however, in a prefatory note that "No true parallel exists between this...
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The gravest and most ubiquitous fault of [The Mask of Apollo] is that stylistic embarrassment which comes from trying to combine a weighty and archaizing tone with the kind of modern colloquialisms which are meant to bring the long-dead to life again. It is easy enough to see how the fault came to be committed, but less easy to excuse it. If all the language used were to be modern—including, presumably, such anachronistic monstrosities as the use of Freudian terminology—then it becomes difficult to excuse the choice of a remote historical period….
But if, on the other hand, the narrator and all the protagonists of a historical novel speak an unmitigated gadzookery how will the reader ever be able to lend them his credulity? They will remain pasteboard figures, in whose fustian conversation and behavior no modern man can be expected to take an interest.
Another fault of the genre … is the tendency of the writer to show off his detailed historical knowledge. A niggling circumstantiality, a pedantic exactitude, are constantly holding up the action in order to create an atmospheric verisimilitude. But it is just the opposite effect which is achieved….
Again there are dreadful perils in wait for the historical novelist who introduces real people into his narrative. We can accept the quoted remarks of an imaginary character much more easily than the same remarks ascribed to someone who...
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[In The Last of the Wine] Miss Renault gives us both sides of the coin, the very special and precious relationship that could exist between men who were lovers, and the pathetic lot of Athenian women of good family, who could aspire to nothing higher in life than playing the role of housekeeper and brood mare.
Writers too often have looked at this dazzling age through rose-colored glasses. Miss Renault sees the shadows as well as the highlights…. [She shows us] the people who once prided themselves on their heroic resistance to tyranny dumbly submitting to the viciousness of a committee of tyrants handpicked by victorious Sparta. The tragic story was first told by Greece's great historian, Thucydides, with clinical dispassion; Miss Renault retells it as living human experience. The Last of the Wine is her masterpiece. None of the novels that followed quite comes up to the mark it set.
Her next book [The King Must Die] departed from history for the filmy stuff of legend….
In The King Must Die Miss Renault retells the legend in the form of Theseus's autobiography…. It is a riproaring tale à la H. Rider Haggard, but with one significant difference: all Miss Renault's fertile inventions are ingeniously derived either from elements in the legend or from material unearthed by the archeologists' spades.
The Bull from the Sea takes up where The...
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In Fire from Heaven [Mary Renault] continues to work in the vein that has brought her so much success—justifiably, since she has reconstructed her historic period with all the care of an archaeologist…. [Where] she excels is in her close eye for detail. Apart from rather ordinary set-pieces connected with Alexander's childhood—the snake that he keeps in his bed, his relationship with his mother, Olympias, his antagonism towards his father, King Philip, all of which could mutatis mutandis have been lifted from any novel of childhood—the book develops a convincing picture of the young man who was to have such an impact on the world. His sense of ambition, his physical beauty, his grace, his courage, these are all built up in a credible way. And the background is just as convincing, from the bisexuality of Greek society down to the minor details of household effects, musical instruments, and the food people ate. Among historical novelists, Mary Renault has no real equal in this graphic reconstruction of a civilisation long dead. (p. 389)
Campbell Black, "Court Manoeuvres," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 80, No. 2062, September 25, 1970, pp. 388-89.∗
[The] story Miss Renault has to tell [in Fire from Heaven] goes deeper than the pseudohistoric recounting of a handful of authentic, individual...
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Robert J. Lenardon
The multiple facets of Renault's art, familiar to a host of admirers, are once again apparent [in The Persian Boy], a particularly sensitive depiction of boyhood and youth; an astounding grasp of the facts and the spirit of the ancient world; an unerring sense of the dramatic which, along with her superb descriptive powers, brings to life a great historical period. There is plenty of joy and terror in this book, tempered by a gloriously romantic idealism which is uplifting because it reflects a profound sympathy for the infinite variety in the beauty, power, and mystery of love.
Robert J. Lenardon, "Book Reviews: 'The Persian Boy'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 15, 1972; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 97, No. 18, October 15, 1972, p. 3334.
Mary Renault's is a special brand of historical fiction, at once imaginative, dramatic, seductive, and scrupulous. In her best books (The Last of the Wine, The King Must Die, The Bull From the Sea) an intense, yet controlled, homoerotic aura—a Renault trademark—heightens and particularizes her re-creative insights into ancient history and myth. In The Persian Boy the focus seems slightly off; the aura is pervasive but less intense and purposeful and tends to dull and clog the story rather than breathe into...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
The controversy created by Alexander has outlasted his glory. [In "The Nature of Alexander"] Mary Renault lists the detractors and their accusations that Alexander was no more than an egoistic despot, a lustful conqueror riding fast to dust and judgment; then the witnesses idolizing a magnetic military genius. From the conflicting testimony, propaganda and legend, she sets out to discover the real Alexander.
What she discovers is not long in doubt, nor, to readers of her novels, much surprise. From his precocious boyhood Alexander presumed fear and defeat did not exist…. He never ratted on friendships, never missed his morning prayers, never boasted….
Taking into account the author's concession that he was also "one of the vainest men in human history," a skeptical reader might begin to wonder if the embodiment of such a load of virtue isn't going to emerge as an insufferable prig. But Mary Renault does not challenge the consensus of historians that Alexander was dedicated to aggressive war and in a gigantic trail of rapine, slaughter, and subjugation, built little of lasting value. Nor does she conceal Alexander's aberrations and shortcomings.
Ronald Harker, "Alexander the Great Finds a Sympathetic Biographer," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1975 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all...
(The entire section is 217 words.)
There have been many books about Alexander the Great, but history books written by historical novelists are rare. The result in this case is an Alexander personally alive. [The Nature of Alexander] is remarkable for the sharpness of its style….
Mary Renault's opening chapter explores the growth of Alexander's legend, with especial attention to the Persian romances…. What other alien conqueror became a hero to the people he conquered? Her motive in writing the book is to see Alexander in his own context, as his subjects and companions saw him, as he saw himself; her first concern is to rescue him from ideologies, ours and his own enemies. (p. 135)
One of her best passages treats of Aristotle. Having shown that Aristotle was chosen as Alexander's tutor not because he was Plato's successor, but because he was the son of Philip's family doctor, she relates Alexander's character to his teaching in a compelling manner. Aristotle conceived the 'great souled' man as an image or role a man must live up to, as opposed to being 'true to yourself'; Alexander's dominant motive was, in her book, pride, rendered intense by the need, born during his tumultuous childhood, of self-assurance. 'To be truly what he wished to seem was his passion to his last breath'. That is her key to Alexander.
It has a curious consequence, in her approach to the discussion of controversial points. The method is a...
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Renault's novels fall into two distinct periods, the first comprising several short psychological melodramas written during and after the Second World War and noteworthy for their offbeat themes, excellent structure, and sharp characterization. Her second period consists of historical novels covering various stages of ancient Greek history. Each volume in this series has resulted in an increase in Renault's reputation and popularity. Her recent novels on the life of Alexander the Great, atypically panoramic in scope, romantic in theme, and controversial, were immensely popular and represented a major shift in her main character focus by dealing directly with a figure who had immense impact on his age and on history.
The Praise Singer is less ambitious in scope and represents a return to Renault's earlier formula of selecting a relatively obscure but representative historical figure and telling his tale against a backdrop of personalities and politics during a crucial stage of ancient Greek history. The present character is Simonides the Poet, and his tale is in the form of memoirs reluctantly dictated by the poet in his old age. Simonides laments the erosion of traditional values in a cultural system that has changed dramatically and frequently during his long lifetime. His is a tale of fierce dedication and pride in his craft….
Renault presents Simonides with her characteristic historical authenticity and...
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[The Praise Singer] is an honourable and painstaking account of the first half of the life of Simonides, a 6th-century BC Greek poet from the island of Keos. It is less romance than reconstruction and readers will not be swept along as by the powerful current of Robert Graves's Claudius books or Mary Renault's own Cretan works….
Alas, these alleged Greeks seem too bland and well-mannered. They smell more of English public-school refectories and college halls than of wine and garlic. They are kitted out with personalities of sorts (although it is hard to remember what distinguishes, say, one Pisistratan from another) but never erupt into passion or even blossom into convincing humanity.
A large part of the trouble is the prose. This is literate and flexible enough to produce substantial variety of effect but a sorry instrument to ascribe to one of the greatest singers of the ancient world. Simonides was especially celebrated as an epigrammatist. These pages are barren of anything approaching an epigram.
Another disappointment lies in the failure of the narrative to convey naturally information which, being part of everyday awareness, would not normally have been specified in a first-person narrative at all. Mary Renault has found no more satisfactory solution to this classic problem than the cumbersome conventional one of sneaking data into the account for the benefit of us...
(The entire section is 292 words.)