The Masks of Mary Renault: A Literary Biography

The Masks of Mary Renault: A Literary Biography

The Masks of Mary Renault: A Literary Biography

The Masks of Mary Renault: A Literary Biography


Born Eileen Mary Challans in London in 1905, Mary Renault wrote six successful contemporary novels before turning to the historical classical fiction for which she is best known. While Renault's novels are still highly regarded, her life and work have never been completely examined. Caroline Zilboorg seeks to remedy this in The Masks of Mary Renault by exploring Renault's identity as a gifted writer and a sexual woman in a society in which neither of these identities was clear or easy.

Although Renault's life was anything but ordinary, this fact has often been obscured by her writing. The daughter of a doctor, she grew up comfortably and attended a boarding school in Bristol. She received her English degree from St. Hugh's College in Oxford in 1928, but she chose not to pursue an academic career. Instead, she decided to attend the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, where she trained to be a nurse. In 1939, she was assigned to Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol and briefly worked with Dunkirk evacuees. She went on to work in the Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward and was there until 1945.

It was during her nurse's training that Renault met Julie Mullard, who became her lifelong companion. This important lesbian relationship both resolved and posed many problems for Renault, not the least of which was how she was to write about issues at once intensely personal and socially challenging. In 1939, Renault published her first novel under a pseudonym in order to mask her identity. It was a time when she was struggling not only with her vocation (nursing or writing), but also with her sexual identity in the social and moral context of English life during the war.

In 1948, Renaultleft England with Mullard for South Africa and never returned. It was in South Africa that she made the shift from her early contemporary novels of manners to the mature historical novels of Hellenic life. The classical settin


In the process of writing this book, I have often been asked how I came to choose my subject. Most people with whom I discuss it recognize Mary Renault as the author of historical novels about the classical world; many confess to remembering a title or two; and some vividly recall The Last of the Wine, her first “Greek” novel, published in 1956, or the King Must Die, the first of her two books about the mythical Theseus, or her sweeping trilogy about Alexander the Great. I was drawn to her by none of these. Indeed, I dimly recall looking at the King Must Die in my school library and deciding that it was about experience so distant from my own that I made another choice.

Then, after a summer of European travel in 1992, my family and I headed to Berlin for eight days in a pension on Knesebeck Strasse. We arrived early on a sunny August afternoon, but we found the doors locked and no one at home. As we strolled about in front of the building, waiting for the proprietor, I perused the display tables under the awning of a nearby bookshop, discovering among the secondhand volumes an alluring paperback copy of the Charioteer. the trove of books we had brought with us was nearly completely read, and I was very tempted by this one, even at six Deutschmarks. My children (two boys, then aged thirteen and twelve, and two girls, then nine and seven) needed to use the lavatory, so we wandered into the shop, were directed through and out into a nineteenth-century courtyard, to a small room on the left. I had seen the saleswoman raise her eyebrows at my request, but I was used to that: Any mother with four young children is used to such looks—there seem so many of us. When we returned to the shop, however, my husband beckoned me outside into the street. He was astonished; he had found a book he had long been seeking, Käte Kollwitz's Tagebucher, but when he took it up to the . . .

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