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
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).
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
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
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
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.