Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Mary Renault: the history woman (and Nancy too...)

How nice to come across a full page feature on Mary Renault in the weekend papers .... as the writer of the article, Bettany Hughes, will be discussing Renault at the Hay Literary Festival (here in the UK) later this month. 

Renault (1905-1983), maybe rather forgotten now, was the author of those great historical novels which my generation grew up on: THE CHARIOTEER (an early 'gay interest' title, about two gay servicemen in the 1940s, it could not be published in America until 1959), THE KING MUST DIE, THE BULL FROM THE SEA, THE MASK OF APOLLO, THE PRAISE SINGER and in particular those novels about Alexander The Great, which I loved and read several times: FIRE FROM HEAVEN about the young Alexander and THE PERSIAN BOY ("one of the greatest historical novels ever written" capturing the ancient world completely) about when Alexander was Great and conquering the known world as he ventured into Persia and beyond. There was also a third novel FUNERAL GAMES about the aftermath of Alexander' death in 323 BC. She also wrote a non-fiction account of Alexander: THE NATURE OF ALEXANDER.

Renault herself was a fascinating character - one of those great novelists of my era, along with Patricia Highsmith, Iris Murdoch, Edna O'Brien and Muriel Spark. Renault was that rare thing: a happy lesbian with a lifelong relationship (with Julie Mullard - they moved to South Africa in 1949 where Renault wrote her novels, in a beach house called Delos)  - unlike Highsmith and her solitary life ending up alone in Europe. Renault died of cancer aged 78 in 1983. 
Mary Renault was a global best-seller with 8 Greek-themed historical novels, and six contemporary ones. Her real name was Eileen Mary Challans, born in 1905, in the London suburb of Forest Gate. How she developed that love and interest in the ancient world is astonishing. Luckily she got to Oxford where she was taught by JRR Tolkien.  She trained as a nurse and treated casualties in the Second World War where the sheltered graduate quickly learned of man's capacity for war and inhumanity.   
Her novels on same sex love are bold and dignified at a time when this kind of stuff was kept under wraps, and the certainly opened our eyes to the wonders of the ancient world, for which we thank her. 

Renault reminds me of that other well-known 1950s lesbian: journalist and writer Nancy Spain (1917-1964), a Roedean girl who became a prominent writer for the Sunday papers, was on TV a lot, and was friends with Marlene Dietrich among others. She was also pals with fellow broadcaster and "What's My Line?" game show veteran, that gruff 'confirmed bachelor' Gilbert Harding. Nancy and her girlfriend were killed when their plane crashed near Aintree racecourse on their way to the races in 1964, pity she didn't get to comment on the rest of the '60s. She was a high-living gal and was a lot of fun and just 46. Her pal Noel Coward wrote in his diary: "It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living." I've just had to splurge out on Rose Collis's book "A Trouser Wearing Character" on Nancy and her era. Collis also wrote that delicious bography of Coral Brown: "This Effing Lady". One can read more about Nancy here:

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