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One of the great historical homos was Ancient Greece's all-conquering hero Alexander The Great whose success on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. Following the success of films like Gladiator and Braveheart, there's a race in Hollywood to get the first of a new generation of Alexander epics onto the big screen.

Oliver Stone's Alexander starring Colin Farrell is rumoured to have begun pre-production in India, whilst Moulin Rouge's Baz Luhrmann is teaming up with Leonard DiCaprio who was to star in a Martin Scorcese directed version of the story.

How far either of these films, if they reach the screen, will airbrush out Alexander's homosexuality is not known. For that you'll need to read lesbian author Mary Renault's historical novels which have become gay classics. But who was Mary Renault whose books caused a sensation in the 1950's? Paula Martinac has been delving into gay literary history for OutUK.

Reflecting on the choice of male subjects for most of her novels, Mary Renault once said simply, "Men have more fun."


Mary Renault : "Men have more fun"
Interestingly, the author remembered today for creating some of the earliest, most positive depictions of gay male love in fiction was a lesbian who started her career writing novels with lesbian undertones.

Born Eileen Mary Challans in 1905, Renault was the daughter of a London physician. However, it wasn't her father's career, she later said, that influenced her to train as a nurse after her graduation from Oxford University in 1928. Instead, she was looking for colourful characters and exciting experiences to enrich her creative writing, which was her real passion. As a student, she had written a novel set in medieval times, inspired in part by the lectures of one of her professors, J.R.R. Tolkien. But she thought her finished work lacked authenticity, and she burned the manuscript.

Student Affairs

In nursing school at the Radcliffe Infirmary near Oxford, Renault found not only ample subjects for fiction but also her life partner - Julie Mullard, seven years her junior. When Renault took on the task of writing a play for the school's 1934 Christmas celebration and created a role especially for Mullard, whom she admired, the two became friends and then lovers. They secretly consummated their relationship in Mullard's room after a party that Christmas, beginning a lifelong union.

There were only two short breaks in the very early years they were together, when Mullard twice experimented with dating men. Renault, who was monogamous, battled jealousy when Mullard went on a weeklong trip with the second of these men; the separation brought on "a curious feeling of sudden vacuum," Renault wrote a friend. But Mullard returned to stay, and they remained together until Renault's death 48 years later.

After completing her nursing studies, Renault took several jobs in succession as a school nurse while Mullard worked at a tuberculosis sanitarium. In Renault's free time, she continued to write - her first published novel, Purposes of Love (1939), featured a contemporary hospital setting. Renault's presentation of sexuality was complex, with the main characters, a brother and sister, enamoured of the same man, and the sister intrigued by the advances of a lesbian co-worker. Because of the subject matter, the author adopted the pen name "Mary Renault" to spare her family embarrassment (Renault is the name of a character in a 17th-century play, Venice Preserv'd, by Thomas Otway).

Financial Freedom

Kind Are Her Answers (1940) and The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) also took place in the medical world and hinted broadly at lesbianism. Her fourth novel, Return to Night (1947), about the forbidden love affair between a female doctor and a younger male patient, marked a turning point in Renault's career. It won a $150,000 award from MGM Studios, and, although it was never filmed, afforded Renault financial independence. She and Mullard emigrated to South Africa in 1948, where Renault eventually became active in the Cape Town chapter of PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) International and worked against apartheid.

The 1950s saw a decisive shift in Renault's writing. In The Charioteer (1953), she switched from lesbian subplots and hospital settings to a novel about a young gay soldier facing a homophobic society. Rejected by Morrow, the American publisher of her first five books, before being picked up by Pantheon, The Charioteer is now considered as pivotal to gay literature as Gore Vidal's City and the Pillar (1948) or James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956).

Homosexual Love

With money worries behind her, Renault was finally free to tackle historical novels, which she had long wanted to write. Her interest in ancient Greece had begun at Oxford, when she spent long hours enjoying the antiquities of the Ashmolean Museum. A trip to Greece in 1954 helped solidify the research for The Last of the Wine (1956), the story of the Athenian Alexis and his male lover, Lysis. In this novel, she brought her two interests - ancient history and male homosexuality - together for the first time, and to enormous success.

Renault went on to write seven more bestselling novels set in ancient Greece, including two that retold the legend of Theseus, one about Apollo, and a trilogy about Alexander the Great. Among these novels, The Persian Boy (1972), the story of the young eunuch who becomes Alexander's lover, is often considered her career triumph.

In all these works, Renault showed a talent for using passing references to people and events in historical records to create complex characters and plots, and for presenting homosexuality in a positive - and unthreatening - light, as part of the continuum of human sexuality. Her strong grasp of ancient history helped her to depict vivid detail an era that many readers found fascinating but knew little about.

Renault continued writing fiction until shortly before her death from cancer in 1982. The last novel she worked on returned to the medieval themes she had tried to write about as a student at Oxford. But she did not finish the manuscript, and, honouring Renault's wishes, Mullard destroyed it.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books, including The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites.

Further Reading

Many of Mary Renault's novels are out-of-print but they can be ordered through Amazon. Click on the covers of Mary Renault's Persian Trilogy for ordering information. Gay author David Sweetman's excellent biography of Mary Renault is also available from Amazon.

 

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