Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Mary Renault is in general acknowledged as a fine novelist and, indisputably, a master of the historical novel. Unfortunately, her general critical reputation has been diminished by the reputation of the historical novel as a genre. Genre fiction historical, detective, Western, science fiction, romance is not usually accorded a high critical standing. The historical novel as a genre presents special difficulties to the critic. With a range of examples to consider which includes Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (1950; English translation, 1951), and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), conventions and forms are not easily defined. Conversely, a genre whose practitioners include several Nobel Prize winners and which numbers established classics cannot be dismissed as mere escapist entertainment. One difficulty is that few critics are qualified in both history and literature; fewer still have these qualifications and a mastery of the language, if the work and its sources are not in a language with which the critic is familiar. Most authors of major historical novels, however, have also written novels dealing with their own time and place. Renault’s contemporary novels are all early works and, with the exception of The Charioteer (1953), are apprentice work.


(The entire section is 579 words.)