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 what they possess, but powerless to wage a fight against the hands of a clock, against weariness of body and spirit, against outside destructive influences….
The crucial episode which separates them is difficult to swallow in the face of Vivian's love for Mic, but, that accepted, the tragedy of Mic's bewilderment and confusion is completely real.
The writing in "Promise of Love" is excellent, the portrayal of the principal characters convincing and moving, the description of life in an English hospital interesting, the narrative swift and dramatic. In the hands of a lesser artist the novel might have been sensational and melodramatic. Miss Renault makes it a sensitive picture of two persons of courage and integrity who seek to make the fulfillment of love as fair as its promise.
Rose Feld, "Courage and Integrity in Love," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), Vol. 15, No. 28, March 12, 1939, p. 3.
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.
[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 and no one will persuade her to pour herself out in an unstemmed flow of fiction during the next few years.
Rosamond Lehmann, "New Novels: 'Kind Are Her Answers'," in The Spectator (© 1940 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 164, No. 5840, May 31, 1940, p. 758.
"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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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…....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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….
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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