Mary Renault World Literature Analysis
Mary Renault’s career may be divided into two periods: one of novels set in roughly contemporary time, and one of novels set in ancient Greece. When she began to write seriously, Renault was working full time, but she was employed as a boarding school nurse; the demands on her time were sufficiently light to afford her the time she needed to write. Seeking subject matter, she wisely chose to write about what was most familiar to her.
Her first novel, Purposes of Love, is set in a hospital where Vivian, a nurse, and Mic, a pathologist new to the hospital, have a romance. Mic is a friend of Vivian’s brother Jan, on whom he had a boyhood crush. His basic attraction to Vivian is attributable to her resemblance to Jan. Renault also introduces a lesbian nurse, Colonna, into the story and has her make advances to Vivian, who is neither enticed nor repelled. Colonna is having an affair with another nurse, Valentine, and when this affair ends, Colonna faces a bleak, lonely future.
The central story in Purposes of Love, which critics commended and compared to the work of such authors as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, revolves around a conventional heterosexual attachment. Renault, however, is bent on demonstrating in this book that love has many faces, none being any more legitimate than another.
Each of Renault’s next four books contains homosexual elements. Kind Are Her Answers, rushed into print because of the anticipated exigencies of an impending war, tells the story of Kit Anderson, like Renault’s father a physician in general practice, whose marriage to Janet, a vacuous socialite, founders after Janet has a miscarriage and a hysterectomy. Kit falls in love with Christie, the niece of one of his patients.
It turns out that Janet is a lesbian. Renault, however, shows her in neither a complex nor understanding light but rather uses her sexual orientation as a means of disposing of Janet. She falls in love with another woman on a trip to South America, leaving Kit and Christie to their own devices. Renault realized the weaknesses of this book and its lack of the compelling detail found in her first novel, but because war was about to erupt, Renault’s American publisher pressed her into submitting a manuscript that rethinking and rewriting would have strengthened.
The Middle Mist has strong autobiographical elements, which are found in much of Renault’s writing. The protagonist, Leo, is a young writer driven from home by her parents’ bickering. Leo shares a houseboat with Helen, a woman somewhat like Julie Mullard, and is described as being manlike and tomboyish, much as Renault’s mother viewed her firstborn.
Into the story are introduced a young physician, modeled on Renault’s friend Robbie Wilson, convinced that he can cure patients with love, and Joe Flint, an American neighbor. Joe claims Leo’s virginity, which she thinks will be a turning point for her, but it is not. She leaves Joe, and at the end of the novel, not much has changed. Leo and Helen are still together, presumably in a lesbian relationship.
Return to Night is a tougher book than the two that preceded it. Hilary Mansell is a physician in love with one of her patients—Julian Fleming, eleven years her junior. She saves Julian’s life by performing emergency brain surgery on him. Upon recovering, Julian begins to court Hilary, but his possessive mother scuttles his romance. Finally, Julian, bisexual and dominated by his mother, wanders into a cave, where he is about to commit suicide. Hilary saves him a second time, but she realizes that a shared life can hold nothing for the two of them. The mother theme that always intrigued Renault is well developed in this novel.
The Charioteer is Renault’s most overtly homosexually oriented novel of her first creative period. Whereas her earlier novels deal only obliquely with homosexual love, this best-selling novel deals directly with it, tracing the sexual development of Laurie Odell from age five through manhood.
In this novel one finds Renault’s characteristic (and sometimes confusing) use of names that can be either masculine or feminine. Also depicted are the kinds of troubled family relationships that were a fundamental part of her own childhood. She also broaches the question of pacifism and of standing up for what one believes in the face of public vilification. The book is infused with the ethics found in the early Greek literature that Renault was devouring at the time, particularly Plato’s dialogues about Socrates’ trial and death.
For the next thirty years, Renault’s writing centered essentially on Greek themes, although she was always quick to point out that in dealing with such themes, she was also dealing obliquely with many of the social problems of her own age, particularly those brought about by McCarthyism in the United States and apartheid in South Africa.
The Charioteer was rejected by Renault’s American publisher, Morrow, because in 1953, when it was published in the United Kingdom, McCarthyism was stifling a great deal of creative expression in the United States. In that year, Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill prohibiting government employment of homosexuals. The Charioteer was not published in the United...
(The entire section is 2190 words.)