Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Masquing the Phallus: Genital Ambiguity in Mary Renault's Historical Novels

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Masquing the Phallus: Genital Ambiguity in Mary Renault's Historical Novels

Article excerpt

Mary Renault, born Mary Challans, published both nonhistorical and historical novels between 1939 and her death in 1983. Famous for her sympathetic depictions of male homosexuality, Renault was rumored to be a man herself. She was, in fact, a woman, living quietly near Cape Town, South Africa, with her lifelong companion Julie Mullard. But the confusion about her sexual identity is revealing; throughout her work Renault focuses primarily on male characters, and in many of them her narrator - and her sympathies - seem male. Theseus, in The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea, is a tough, womanizing hero who unites and civilizes Greece under the leadership of patriarchal Athens, and even makes an Amazon fall in love with him before he oversteps himself and tragically - through the machinations of a woman - causes his son's death. Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games, about Alexander the Great, chronicle the noble if doomed attempts of men to bring order to a chaotic world. Setting her novels in historical periods that allowed women little power - the legendary Greece of Theseus, fifth-century BC Athens, and fourth-century BC Persia - and narrating for the most part in the first person from the standpoint of a male character, Renault seems enamored of male dynamos like Theseus and Alexander the Great, alike in their "precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny" (King 333).

Why would a lesbian novelist, in novel after novel, focus on male characters, with women playing only marginal, often stereotypical roles as either monsters or victims? The most obvious answer is that once Renault had chosen to write historical fiction set in the ancient world, she could hardly do otherwise and remain plausible. This is the answer of Marguerite Yourcenar, another lesbian historical novelist prone to assuming male narrative masks, when she explains her focus on male experience in Memoirs of Hadrian. Women, she said, could not possibly be plausible subjects for historical fiction because their lives were so secret and limited. She writes:

Another thing virtually impossible . . . to take a feminine character as a central figure, to make Plotina, for example, rather than Hadrian, the axis of my narrative. Women's lives are much too limited, or else too secret. If a woman does recount her own life she is promptly reproached for being no longer truly feminine. It is already hard enough to give some element of truth to the utterances of a man. (Yourcenar Hadrian 327-28).

But then the question is: Why choose a genre and setting so uncongenial to the depiction of female experience? My argument here is that for Renault, as for Yourcenar, the choice is a strategy. Through her choice of subject, Renault was donning a male mask in order to trespass on particularly "male" turf; knowledge of the classical world had long served to define the British ruling class and to justify its position of cultural privilege. In the process, Renault's use of masks suggests that gender is itself more masquerade than biological essence and that the phallus, crucial indicator in Western culture of sexual difference, may not be as clear a gender marker as it seems. For while Renault's work at times echoes in troubling ways her culture's sexual stereotypes, it also works against them, depicting and celebrating sexual ambiguity. Renault does this in two ways: by depicting female characters who identify with masculinity rather than femininity and thus cross gender boundaries, and by depicting male and female bodies with such attention to their genitals that the exact location of those genitals becomes uncertain.

Renault's preoccupation with male characters led Carolyn Heilbrun to argue in a 1976 article that "Renault's work perfectly demonstrates the woman writer's deep need to affirm the patriarchal structure" (231). Ten years later, in No Word from Winifred, her 1986 detective novel, Heilbrun (writing as Amanda Cross) returns to the same problem when she has Kate Fansler complain of a Renault-like historical novelist:

All the protagonists are men; the only women characters of substance are seen negatively, like Ariadne, for example, who is made to become the worst sort of monster of male imagination, gnawing on pieces of human flesh. …

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