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.