Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768
Renault, Mary 1905–
An award-winning British novelist, Ms. Renault writes imaginative, well-wrought historical fiction. Her special milieu is the cultural, social, and political ambience of pre-Classical, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece.
Mary Renault is, first of all, a sophisticated artist. As an artist, she neither has nor needs a systematic philosophy…. [She] is chiefly concerned in her later novels with deepening and reconstructing myth for the purpose of describing contemporary problems. (p. 15)
Although Mary Renault published only one novel before 1940, it is hard to find a better term for her than that of a 1930's novelist. (p. 16)
The mood and the movements of the 1930's provide a cultural framework to which Mary Renault imaginatively responds. But she is not a political propagandist. Her social views must be seen as absorbed, not applied—as artistic events, not political manifestoes. So long as we see her writings as assimilated works of literature, we will not ask misleading questions about partisan doctrine. (p. 20)
Nearly all of her major characters are dogged by guilt, lone-liness, or failure—often by the failure to love. (p. 24)
Like Lawrence, Mary Renault urges … the exploration of the spontaneous, unlaundered, self. Like Lawrence, she seems also to advance an encompassing social ethic in her later fiction, the contours of which sharpen when we place them within the intellectual framework of the 1930's. (pp. 24-5)
In Mary Renault, power is a trap and a curse. More often than not, her strong characters evoke pathos because power is a quality they neither understand nor want. The ethical, morally sensitive individual often has the responsibility of power forced upon him by the mediocrity, or even the downright moral weakness, of his associates. Power usually afflicts the exceptional person. (pp. 26-7)
To overlook the subject of homosexuality in Mary Renault's works would be evasive. Fortunately, the subject can be easily compressed into a survey of the sexual context of the 1930's. The age's endorsement of freedom of any kind dovetailed with the overall repudiation of received moral imperatives. As Muggeridge and then Graves and Hodge indicate in The Sun Never Sets and in The Long Week-End, sexual freedom was viewed in the 1930's as a solemn duty. (p. 30)
When we understand that Miss Renault's use of cultural materials from the 1930's is not documentary, we may begin to appreciate her artistic merits. Her awareness of the decade, intuitive and organic, allows her to fabricate a well-specified context for her plots. Her imaginative thrust is inward, not outward. Although novelistic conventions demand a solid temporal and physical setting for dramatic interplay, her abiding fictional interest is consciousness in the Jamesian sense. For this reason, we must describe her as a social moralist rather than as a social critic. She uses the 1930's as a palpable social medium through which she communicates her social observations. Although … a fundamental lack of creative intensity and, possibly, of judgment prevents her work from rising to the artistry of writers like Lawrence and Auden, within her natural limitations she can be very fine indeed. The moral focus of her novels and the importance she grants to the sensitive reaction to event places her work within the best humanistic traditions of English fiction—the strain familiarly associated with authors like George Meredith, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bowen. (p. 32)
Except for North Face, a tour de force that cracked under the weight of its motive impulse, The Bull from the Sea is probably Mary Renault's weakest book since The Middle Mist. On the other hand, successes like The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo indicate that the Classical mood is now her natural milieu. Critically, she cannot be ranked alongside the more popular type of historical novelist as a writer of sheer adventure tales based on history. Although her classical novels bristle with excitement and adventure, the action is carefully monitored by technique. The first-person narrative in the four classical novels creates a critical perspective, deepened by time, from which to view the action, and it does so without any corresponding loss in dramatic impact. Stylistically, too, Mary Renault's classical fiction overtakes the conventional romantic legend or adventure story. The sonorous cadences of the two Theseus novels match the heroic exploits described in the books…. This genius for clinching language to theme allows Mary Renault to use historical fiction as a comment on her own times. (pp. 187-88)
Peter Wolfe, in his Mary Renault (copyright 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, Inc.), Twayne, 1969.
Mary Renault is one of those rare genre-writers whose mastery of a special form lifts them above its confines; nowadays, the readers who class her as a "lady historical novelist" might be expected to call Lewis Carroll a "bachelor children's novelist." Still, much of the charm of her work, particularly of Fire From Heaven, derives from the remoteness and half-remembered schoolboy romanticism of the periods in which the novels are set. We may say she is good enough to be good without the exotic advantages she allows herself, but reading her, we never forget to be grateful for the luminous strangeness of the atmosphere. Nor, for that matter, how killingly dull these same effects might be and have been in less skillful hands….
Fire From Heaven keeps as fine a balance as anyone could ask between human tragicomedy and high adventure. It is a book of the sort whose disappearance people having been mourning off and on for a hundred years: a rich and wholly unintroverted tale, cinematic in the sense that is older than cinema, the sense of life's textures and directions crisply rendered.
David J. Dwyer, "Colossus as Tad," in Catholic World, September, 1970, pp. 279-80.
Ideally a historical novel should work almost as well for the ignorant as for the informed; to some extent Mary Renault's [The Persian Boy] does this, as a finely written chronicle of event and character. But if one is relatively ignorant of the period, one does feel a loss of background that might have been made clearer, particularly in the early part of the book, set amid the intrigues of the Persian empire, before the boy hero's fortunes lead him to become the favourite of Alexander the Great during the last seven years of the emperor's life. These seven years are seen through Bagoas's devoted eyes; an exquisite Persian child, he was snatched from his murdered family, castrated, prostituted, trained in the arts of service, dance, and sexual pleasuring, and eventually, after Darius's defeat, presented as a special tit-bit to Alexander. The pitilessness of the age, as well as the refinements of Persian manners and the contrasting simplicity of Greek ways, are made vividly clear.
"Tit-bit," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), November 3, 1972, p. 1306.
Mary Renault is an experienced and widely admired player of the high game of the historical novel. This time [with "The Persian Boy"] she aspires to throw more light on Alexander the Great; more, that is, than historians, ancient and modern, have provided. A different light, more accurately, for she is a poet. She is erudite: she knows the tools and objectives of scientific history and what sort of truth emerges from all that. But she is not out to set the dovecote of the technical historians a-twitter….
Mary Renault's story goes aground finally on the shoals of implausibility. She imputes to Bagoas a perception of historical importance that rivals prescience, if not omnipotence. But we do not know how the Persian eunuch comes by such formidable capabilities; or why his contemporaries are not as impressed by them as we may be. In fact Bagoas' perceptual powers create an illusion of You are There…. This is because Mary Renault has superb powers of poetic evocation.
Thus there is much that is lovely in this book. Much of that is dedicated to the proposition that an essential part of Alexander's greatness lay in being wonderfully lovable: he is adorable as well as world-commanding. The proposition appeals to a vestigial romanticism. It throws a very modest amount of light on Alexander in his world. Perhaps it throws more on us in ours.
Julian N. Hartt, "Two Historical Novels," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), pp. 450-54.
Miss Renault is always dismayed when someone calls her a classicist; at Oxford, she read English, and whenever an interviewer inquires about her research, her reply has been, "I never do any; the classicists and the archaeologists do it, and amateurs like me only pick their brains." And yet the academics who popularized the Classics were brain-pickers themselves, transforming scholarship into criticism while Miss Renault transforms it into art.
As a result of her Hellenic novels, Mary Renault has become an anomaly. We know where her contemporaries stand: William Golding excavates as if he were on a perennial dig; Iris Murdoch mythologizes; Doris Lessing is evolving a feminist sexual ethic; John Updike has returned to Harry Angstrom and the banality of angoisse; Norman Mailer has discovered America's source of power in Uncle Sam's rectum. But Mary Renault stands outside their circle; in fact, she stands outside any circle that is currently in vogue, a fact that explains why she is rarely taught or discussed in the quarterlies….
Mary Renault can accept antiquity on its own terms without modernizing or embossing it. But antiquity's terms are not ours; while other novelists bring the era to the reader (the ultimate act of condescension), Mary Renault brings the reader to the era, offering him no concessions but an Author's Note and occasionally a selected bibliography….
If one were to isolate the tradition to which she belongs, it would not be the Bulwer-Lytton-Robert Graves school. Actually, there is something Herodotean about her fiction; except for Fire from Heaven, all of her classical novels are written in the first person—"presentations of research", as Herodotus called his History. The novels are memoirs or reminiscences in which the narrator reconstructs his life by framing it within the history of his times….
The Persian Boy is Bagoas's hypothetical memoir; like Alexias's in The Last of the Wine, it moves from the personal to the historical, finally becoming a testament to an age and a tribute to the man who shaped it. The Renault memoirist always begins with some indelible memory from his boyhood: a father's hatred for his son in The Last of the Wine, an animal sacrifice in The King Must Die. With Bagoas, it was his father's murder and decapitation followed by his own ignominy: castration and prostitution.
Bernard F. Dick, "The Herodotean Novelist," in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by the University of the South), Autumn, 1973, pp. 864-69.
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