Mary Renault Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mary Renault (rehn-OHLT) is the pseudonym used by a British novelist who acquired popularity in the United States through her skillful and artistic reconstruction of Hellenic civilization and her biography of Alexander the Great. Born Mary Challans on September 4, 1905, in London, England, where her father was a doctor, Mary Renault was the older of two daughters. Her earliest memory of London was of a Zeppelin raid during World War I, which she described in later life as a “splendid fireworks display.”{$S[A]Challans, Mary;Renault, Mary}

Renault attended Clifton High School, a boarding school near Bristol, from 1921 to 1925 and in 1927 graduated with honors in English literature from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University.

Although she had planned to teach after graduation, she realized that her main interest was writing. Convinced that successful writers must experience life in a personal way, Renault trained as a nurse at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, from 1933 to 1937, during which time she wrote only a few Christmas skits. With the outbreak of World War II, she returned to Radcliffe, where she worked in the neurosurgical ward from 1938 to 1945.

With the ending of the war she traveled extensively in France, Italy, Africa, Greece, and the Aegean Islands for three years. The enchantment she felt when viewing the ruins of classical Greece later served as a major source of inspiration for her Hellenic novels, and the allure of Africa resulted in her establishing a permanent residence in Dunbar, South Africa, in 1948.

Renault’s literary career is best evaluated in two phases: The years 1939 to 1953 were her apprenticeship, and the period from 1956 to 1981, the time of her mature, historical fiction....

(The entire section is 717 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mary Renault (the pen name of Mary Challans), a physician’s daughter, was born on September 4, 1905, in London. At eight, she decided to become a writer, and she read English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, from 1924 to 1927, where she preferred to study the Middle Ages, the setting of an attempted historical novel she destroyed after several rejections. She had once thought of teaching, but after graduation she entered nurses’ training at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, where she received her nursing degree in 1937. She dated her literary career from 1939, though she continued as a neurosurgical nurse at Radcliffe Infirmary throughout World War II, writing in her off-duty hours. Her first novels were widely popular, but she claimed, according to Bernard F. Dick, that “if her early novels were destroyed irrevocably, she would feel absolutely no loss.”

Renault’s postwar travels in the eastern Mediterranean provided the impetus for a new literary phase marked by her emigration to South Africa in 1948. After this move, her exhaustive self-taught knowledge of ancient Greek history and philosophy made her a mesmerizing novelist able to re-create a lost world. In the estimation of Dick, Renault was “the only bona fide Hellenist in twentieth century fiction.” Renault remained a resident of South Africa until her death on December 13, 1983.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Queen Victoria died four years before Mary Renault (rehn-OHLT), the pen name of Mary Challans, was born. Victoria’s death, however, did not end the spirit of Victorianism in England. Renault lived much of her first thirty years rankling under the prudish Victorian constraints that her father, Frank Challans, a physician, and others imposed on her.

Mary’s mother, Clementine Baxter Challans, daughter of a dentist, apparently never loved her husband nor their first child, Molly, as Mary Challans was nicknamed. Losing a boy in childbirth, Clementine in 1911 gave birth to Frances Joyce Challans, always called Joyce. What small affection she had to bestow was reserved for Joyce, who ultimately became Clementine’s sole heir.

Throughout the period of her life that Renault lived with her family, her mother made no pretense of being fond of her, always preferring Joyce. Clementine nagged her husband incessantly and argued with him. At his funeral, Clementine made a point of walking into the church with Joyce, leaving a solitary Molly to trail behind.

In her parents’ eyes, Renault’s future was determined at birth: She was to become an obedient wife and dutiful mother. When she showed signs of being bookish, her mother was horrified, knowing that bookish women do not find husbands. Molly began a relentless and clandestine course of reading around six, hiding in her father’s crumbling stable with favorite books. She quickly graduated from reading cowboy-and-Indian stories to immersing herself in medieval romances. At the Levicks’ School she studied French and the Bible and enjoyed singing hymns.

Joyce was the frilly, compliant little girl Clementine needed. Molly was the out-of-control tomboy but always off reading books, she at least stayed out of the way. So invisible was she that her parents apparently did not notice that her front teeth protruded, a condition that her maternal grandfather could easily have remedied had it been called to his attention.

During World War I, Frank Challans served his country in the medical corps in India. Molly and Joyce were packed off to Buckinghamshire to escape the air raids. At war’s end, Molly returned to the Levicks’ School, relearning the lessons she had been studying when she left. In 1920, she entered the Clifton Girls’ School, where she completed her secondary education.

The school’s headmistress, a graduate of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, which had only a short time before begun to accept women,...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)