Mary Renault
BornEileen Mary Challans[1]
(1905-09-04)4 September 1905
Forest Gate, Essex, England
Died13 December 1983(1983-12-13) (aged 78)
Cape Town, South Africa
EducationSt Hugh's College, Oxford
GenreHistorical fiction, contemporary romance, war novel, gay literature
Notable works
PartnerJulie Mullard (1933–1983)

Eileen Mary Challans (4 September 1905 – 13 December 1983), known by her pen name Mary Renault (/ˈrɛnlt/[2]),[1] was a British writer best known for her historical novels set in ancient Greece.

Born in Forest Gate in 1905, she attended St Hugh's College, Oxford, from 1924 until 1928. After graduating from St Hugh's with a Third Class in English,[3] she worked as a nurse and began writing her first novels, which were contemporary romances. In 1948, she moved to Durban, South Africa with her partner, Julie Mullard, and later to Cape Town, where she spent the rest of her life. Living in South Africa allowed her to write about openly gay characters without fearing the censorship and homophobia of England. She devoted herself to writing historical fiction in the 1950s, which were also her most successful books. She is best known for her historical fiction today.

Renault's works are often rooted in themes related to love, sexuality and relationships. Her books attracted a large gay following at the time of their publication, when few mainstream works depicted homosexuality in a positive light. Her work has had a generally positive reception by critics. She has received numerous awards and honours, both during her lifetime and posthumously.


Youth and education

Eileen Mary Challans was born on 4 September 1905 at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex. She was the elder daughter of physician Frank Challans and (Mary) Clementine Newsome, daughter of dentist John Baxter, who claimed descent from the Puritan church leader Richard Baxter.[4] Her mother was "a desperately aspirational housewife, whose favourite word was 'nice'".[5] She had one younger sister, (Frances) Joyce,[2] who Challans always felt was the favourite daughter. She had a comfortable, yet strained childhood; her parents had a contentious relationship, and her father was neglectful of his children.[6] When she was 15, her mother's sister Bertha paid for her to be sent to a boarding school in Bristol, and then to attend the University of Oxford. As a result of entering boarding school later than most of her peers, Challans struggled to catch up in mathematics and Latin. She relied on the Loeb Classical Library to read Greek and Latin texts with English translation.[7]

Challans was educated first at Levick Family School and Clifton Girls School in Bristol. She began attending St Hugh's College, Oxford, then an all-women's college, in 1924.[8] While at St Hugh's, she studied history, mythology, philosophy and ancient literature.[9] Although her studies included classical languages such as Latin, her Ancient Greek language skills were self taught.[8] She graduated with an undergraduate degree in English in 1928.[6] One of her tutors was J.R.R. Tolkien, who encouraged her to write a novel set in medieval times, but she burned the manuscript because she felt it lacked authenticity.[10]

Nursing and early writing

Challans' mother encouraged her to take an interest in marriage.[11] Following her degree, when her father refused to support her career as a writer, she left home and, to support herself, trained as a nurse.[5] She began her training in 1933 at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. During her training she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a lifelong romantic relationship. Despite the mores of the time and the fact that Mullard had received an offer of marriage from one of her male lovers, they were determined to be a couple. They snuck into each other's rooms at night, and on one occasion had to hide beneath the sheets when a matron burst in.[5]

Challans worked as a nurse while writing her first novel, Purposes of Love,[12] using the pseudonym Mary Renault to keep her writing secret should it meet with disapproval.[13] She chose this pseudonym from Froissart's Chronicles and used it for the entirety of her professional literary career.[13][14] The novel was published in 1939 by Longman in the United Kingdom, and by William Morrow and Company in the United States. After receiving a cash advance from Morrow, Challans bought an MG sports car. Although Challans had failed her driving test, she decided to drive the car anyway along with Mullard, who also did not have a driving licence. They were involved in a road traffic accident in June 1939 which seriously injured Mullard, who was hospitalized for facial injuries. A few weeks later, the two women retreated to a small cottage in Cornwall where they lived off the income from Purposes of Love. Challans had nearly completed her second novel when World War II began. By May 1940, both Challans and Mullard had been called in to treat patients at Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol. There, they briefly treated evacuees from the Battle of Dunkirk.[15] Renault worked in the Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945.[16]

Her novel The Friendly Young Ladies (1943), about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, is thought to be inspired by her relationship with Mullard. It is the only lesbian novel written by Renault.[17]

Academic and writing career

In 1948, after winning an MGM prize worth £37,000 for Return to Night, Challans was able to leave nursing and devote herself to writing full time. Challans and Mullard emigrated to Durban, South Africa, which was home to a community of gay and lesbian expatriates who had left the more sexually repressive environments of Britain and the United States. Because of this, Challans and Mullard were able to live together as a couple without causing much controversy.[18] Challans worked successfully as an author after the couple's arrival in South Africa in 1948, and continued to write until her death in 1983. In 1964, she became president of the South African chapter of International PEN, an association of writers, a position which she held until 1981.[19] Both women were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, and participated in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.[9] However, Challans was occasionally disillusioned with the Black Sash on account of its insufficiently radical leanings, such as when it refused to protest against the implementation of anti-homosexuality laws in 1968.[20]

Challans travelled in Africa, Greece and Crete, but never returned to Britain.[10] She had a mutual admiration for the novelist Patrick O'Brian, with whom she exchanged letters.[21] Her earlier British reputation as a writer of sensationalist bestsellers faded, and in 1983 she was listed as one of the famous alumnae who had brought honour to the Radcliffe Infirmary Nurses' Home.[22] Challans became ill in August 1983, and was diagnosed with lung cancer and pneumonia. In her final days she tried to complete a final novel, which remained unfinished after she went into residential hospice care. She died in Cape Town on 13 December 1983.[23]

Chronology of writing

Beginning with Purposes of Love, Challans' first six novels had a contemporary setting. She published Return to Night in 1947. This was followed by The North Face in 1948.[24]

Challans' last contemporary romance novel, The Charioteer (1953), marked a change in theme. It tells the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium. It echoed themes which Challans later revisited with her historical novels.[25]

Between 1956 and 1981, Challans turned to historical fiction, all of which was set in ancient Greece.[26] Challans, by then in her mid-fifties, made her first foray into historical fiction with The Last of the Wine. The novel was her greatest financial and critical success to date, and she followed it with several other historical novels. Her historical novels include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great.[25]



Marble statue of Alexander the Great

A central theme in Challans' work, both contemporary and historical, is the presentation of love as a struggle between the pursuer and the pursued. This dynamic was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Plato, in particular Phaedrus, his dialogue on love.[27] Hierarchical relationships, involving age gaps or differences in social status, are frequently explored in Challans' novels. In her novels featuring same-sex couples, these hierarchies serve as an alternative to traditional gender roles. Fire from Heaven centres on the relationship between Alexander and his lover Hephaestion, while The Persian Boy is about the relationship between the enslaved Bagoas and Alexander.[28] The novelist Linda Proud described Purposes of Love as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance".[18] Challans' Return to Night, another hospital romance, explores the power dynamics between Hillary, a doctor, and a younger man with whom she has an affair.[29]


Many of Challans' contemporary romance novels explored same-sex love and desire through their characters. For example, Colanna, an openly lesbian character, features in Purposes of Love.[14] The Charioteer has been noted as an early example of the "Gay novel".[30] It was written during a period of time when male homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom, particularly under the policies implemented by David Maxwell Fyfe, 1st Earl of Kilmuir, who was Home Secretary from 1951 to 1954.[31] Simon Russell Beale described its contemporary context as "that sombre, twilit world of the early 1950s, when so much of homosexual life was threaded through with fear of exposure."[32] The protagonists of the novel, Ralph and Laurie, look to Greek ideals as a template for how to understand their own masculinity and homosexuality. The society of Classical Greece acts as a more tolerant and liberating alternative to contemporary British society.[28]

Challans' American publishers refused to publish The Charioteer for fear of prosecution. Renault attributed this hesitancy to the rise of McCarthyism in the United States.[33] It was not published in the United States until 1959, which made it a somewhat later addition to homosexual literature in the United States because American readers and critics had accepted serious gay love stories in such works as Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936), Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948).[25]

Her Alexander Trilogy was one of the first mainstream literary works to feature homosexual relationships prominently.[34] By turning away from the twentieth century and writing stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead, she was free to consider larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership.[25]

Role of women

Women do not play a large role in Challans' historical fiction, and are relegated to the role of wives and mothers. They often behave in stereotypical ways, being simultaneously helpless and ruthless.[35] Critics have remarked on the negative portrayal of women, particularly mothers, in her work.[36] This is often attributed to the fraught relationship Challans had with her own mother. David Sweetman remarks in his biography of Challans that her novels generally portray mothers in a poor light and that, particularly in her later novels, this is extended to women in general. Daniel Mendelsohn said that both her "contemporary and the Greek novels feature unsettling depictions of bad marriages and, particularly, of nightmarishly passive-aggressive wives and mothers."[26] Her generally negative depiction of women has also been noted by the critic Carolyn Gold Heilbrun.[37]


Challans was a Platonist, which influenced her personal views on love and relationships.[27]

Gay liberation

Though Challans appreciated her gay following, she was uncomfortable with the "gay pride" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots, and she was reluctant to identify as a lesbian.[5] Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself primarily by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life she expressed hostility to the gay rights movement, troubling some of her fans.[38] Her views on the gay rights movement were elaborated upon in an afterword to The Friendly Ladies written shortly before her death in 1983.[39]

Congregated homosexuals waving banners are really not conducive to a goodnatured 'Vive la difference!' ... People who do not consider themselves to be, primarily, human beings amongst their fellow humans, deserve to be discriminated against, and ought not to make a meal of it.[39]


After relocating to South Africa in the late 1940s, Challans was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, although not as actively as many of her contemporaries. In a 1979 interview, Challans said that although she signed petitions and written protests against apartheid, she did not "pass [herself] off as a heroine. You don't get locked up for writing protests."[40] According to Challans, she did not feel strongly compelled to write about apartheid in her novels because it made no major impact on her life, saying "I have never profited from apartheid and I have never been segregated."[40]

Reception and legacy


Challans' work was generally well received during her lifetime, and has enjoyed a continuously positive reception in retrospective reviews. The historian Tom Holland said that "No other novelist has so successfully evoked the beauty, the charisma and the terror of ancient Greece."[41] Peter Parker of The Telegraph, described The Charioteer as a "classic" in a 2014 review.[31] Her novels, both historical and contemporary, have been republished by Virago.

Fire from Heaven, her novel about Alexander the Great, was one of the six books shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010.[42]

Noël Coward's reception of Challans' work and her portrayal of homosexual relationships in particular was less warm:

I have also read The Charioteer by Miss Mary Renault. Oh dear, I do, do wish well-intentioned ladies would not write books about homosexuality. This one is turgid, unreal and so ghastly earnest. It takes the hero – soi-disant – three hundred pages to reconcile himself to being queer as a coot, and his soul-searching and deep, deep introspection is truly awful. There are 'queer' parties in which everyone calls everyone 'my dear' a good deal, and over the whole book is a shimmering lack of understanding of the subject. I'm sure the poor woman meant well but I wish she'd stick to recreating the glory that was Greece and not fuck about with dear old modern homos.[43]

Historical accuracy

Although not a classicist by training, Challans was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the ancient Greek world. Her work was critically acclaimed for the meticulously researched historical detail she included. Some of the history presented in her fiction and in her non-fiction work, The Nature of Alexander, has been called into question, however.[44] Her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and take liberties in depicting the society of ancient Crete. Mary Beard and John Henderson observed Challans' novels create "in mythical prehistoric Crete [...] a weird 'other world', where a society free from 'our' inhibitions (particularly sexual) can be realized."[45]

Some of her portrayals of individual historical figures have also been criticized. Her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticised.[46] Kevin Kopelson, Professor of English at the University of Iowa, felt that Challans "mischaracterise[d] pederastic relationships as heroic."[47] Defying centuries of admiration for Demosthenes as a great orator, Challans portrayed him as a cruel, corrupt and cowardly demagogue.[46]

Legacy and influence

Challans' work drew a wide readership. When asked who his favourite author was, John F. Kennedy replied "Mary Renault".[10]

At the time they were published, Challans' works were among the few novels to present love between persons of the same sex as a natural part of life, rather than a problem.[14] Daniel Mendelsohn discussed the impact that Challans' work, and their correspondences, had on him as young boy.[48] The Charioteer has been described as "a historical gay document", providing guidance and comfort to gay men through classical literature in an essentially hostile world.[32] Her sympathetic treatment of love between men won her a wide gay readership, and led to rumours that Challans was a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Challans found these rumours amusing but also sought to distance herself from being labelled a "gay writer".[49]

Challans' work has influenced historical fiction and classical literature. The historian Bettany Hughes credited Renault with capturing the "hardcore, drug-saturated sensuality of the ancient world."[50] Hughes later wrote the introduction to reprints of her work, including The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea.[51]

She has been cited as an inspiration by novelists such as Douglas Stuart[52] and Kate Forsyth.[53] Suzanne Collins said that The Hunger Games was partly inspired by The King Must Die, which reimagined Minos' Labyrinth as an arena where Athenian tributes had to fight for their lives to entertain the Cretan elite.[54]

Bernard Dick wrote The Hellenism of Mary Renault (1972), which analyzed the classical influences reflected in her corpus of work. Dick corresponded with Challans from 1969 until her death in 1983. The letters were eventually donated to the St Hugh's College archive, which also holds other letters and transcriptions of interviews with Challans before her death.[55]

An hour-long documentary about her life titled Mary Renault – Love and War in Ancient Greece was aired on BBC Four in 2006.[56] The documentary included contributions from Hughes, filmmaker Oliver Stone, and broadcaster Sue MacGregor.[57] The Mary Renault Prize is offered at St Hugh's College, Challans' alma mater. It awards cash prizes to the best essays on the Classical reception, funded by royalties from Challans' work.[58]

Adaptations of her work

The King Must Die and its sequel The Bull from the Sea were adapted by Michael Bakewell into a single 11-part BBC Radio 4 serial entitled The King Must Die. It was directed by David Spenser and broadcast between 5 June 1983 and 14 August 1983. It starred Gary Bond (Theseus), John Westbrook (Pittheus), Frances Jeater (queen of Eleusis), Carole Boyd (Aithra), Alex Jennings (Amyntor), Sarah Badel, David March and Christopher Guard.[59]

The Charioteer was adapted into a ten-episode serial for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, read by Anton Lesser and produced by Clive Brill, which was broadcast over two weeks from 25 November 2013.[60]


Contemporary fiction

Historical novels


See also


  1. ^ a b "Discover – St Hugh's College, Oxford". Archived from the original on 21 October 2010. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  2. ^ a b "She always pronounced it 'Ren-olt', though almost everyone would come to speak of her as if she were a French car." Sweetman, David (1994). Mary Renault: A Biography. Orlando, FL: Harvest/HBJ. pp. 74. ISBN 0-15-600060-1.
  3. ^ 'Oxford University Calendar 1932', Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932, p. 271
  4. ^ Krebs, Albin (14 December 1983). "Mary Renault, Novelist, is Dead; Based Works on History of Greece". The New York Times.
  5. ^ a b c d "The Charioteer by Mary Renault – review". The Guardian. 3 November 2013. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  6. ^ a b "Renault, Mary (1905–1983)".
  7. ^ Sweetman, 1994, 26-27
  8. ^ a b Dick, Bernard F. (1972). The Hellenism of Mary Renault. Southern Illinois University Press. pp. xiv. ISBN 978-0-8093-0576-6.
  9. ^ a b Endres, Nikolai (2017), Parker, Grant (ed.), "Athens and Apartheid: Mary Renault and Classics in South Africa", South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 376–394, doi:10.1017/9781316181416.015, ISBN 978-1-107-10081-7, retrieved 23 February 2021
  10. ^ a b c "Who Is Mary Renault?". Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  11. ^ Cooke, Bill (2009). Dictionary Of Atheism Skepticism & Humanism. Prometheus Books. p. 444. ISBN 978-1-61592-365-6.
  12. ^ Dick, Bernard F. (1972). The Hellenism of Mary Renault. Southern Illinois University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-8093-0576-6.
  13. ^ a b Room, Adrian (2014). Dictionary of Pseudonyms: 13,000 Assumed Names and Their Origins (5th ed.). McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-5763-2.
  14. ^ a b c "Mary Renault". Legacy Project Chicago. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  15. ^ Zilboorg, pp. 79–84
  16. ^ Zilboorg, p. 127
  17. ^ Haggerty, George (2013). Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures. Routledge. p. 742. ISBN 978-1-135-58506-8.
  18. ^ a b Proud, Linda (1999). "The Glimpse of a Strong Greek Light". Historical Novel Society. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2007.
  19. ^ Zilboorg, p. 168
  20. ^ Zilboorg, pp. 167–168
  21. ^ Tayler, Christopher (6 May 2021). "For Want of a Dinner Jacket". London Review of Books. Vol. 43, no. 9. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  22. ^ Sweetman 1993, p. 307.
  23. ^ Sweetman 1993, pp. 301–304.
  24. ^ Barr, Donald (26 September 1948). "Old Love in a New Way; North Face. By Mary Renault. 280 pp. New York: William Morrow & Co. $3". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  25. ^ a b c d Slide, Anthony (2003). Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Routledge. pp. 1–2. doi:10.4324/9780203057230. ISBN 978-0203057230.
  26. ^ a b "A Life-Changing Correspondence with Mary Renault". The New Yorker. 31 December 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  27. ^ a b Walton, Jo (18 September 2014). "Love as Contest in the Work of Mary Renault". Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  28. ^ a b Busse, Kristina (2014). Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays. McFarland. pp. 101–110. ISBN 978-0-7864-5496-9.
  29. ^ "Book Reviews, Sites, Romance, Fantasy, Fiction". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  30. ^ Bawer, Bruce (2008). Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. Simon and Schuster. p. 199. ISBN 978-1-4391-2848-0.
  31. ^ a b Parker, Peter (7 December 2013). "The Charioteer, by Mary Renault, review". Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  32. ^ a b "Mary Renault's The Charioteer is an antidote to shame". The Guardian. 15 November 2013. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  33. ^ Gunn, Drewey Wayne (1 October 2014). Gay Novels of Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, 1881–1981: A Reader's Guide. McFarland. pp. 95–97. ISBN 978-1-4766-1841-8.
  34. ^ Holland, Tom (1 August 2021). "Mary Renault: how classical Greece reflected her own troubled life". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  35. ^ Carlà-Uhink, Filippo; Wieber, Anja (2020). Orientalism and the Reception of Powerful Women from the Ancient World. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-350-05012-9.
  36. ^ Sweetman 1993, p. 166.
  37. ^ Reinventing Womanhood Carolyn Heilbrun, 1979 (Chapter Three)
  38. ^ Moore, Lisa Lynne (2003). "Lesbian Migrations: Mary Renault's South Africa". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 10 (1): 23–46. doi:10.1215/10642684-10-1-23. S2CID 145739773.
  39. ^ a b Taylor, Charles (15 August 2003). "Powell's Review-A-Day: The Friendly Young Ladies". Archived from the original on 29 September 2007.
  40. ^ a b Mitgang, Herbert (21 January 1979). "Behind the Best Sellers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  41. ^ Holland, Tom (1 August 2021). "Mary Renault: how classical Greece reflected her own troubled life". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  42. ^ "Fire from Heaven | The Booker Prizes". Retrieved 18 January 2023.
  43. ^ Coward, Noël (1983). Graham Payn; Sheridan Morley (eds.). The Noel Coward Diaries. London: Macmillan. p. 445. ISBN 0-333-34883-4. OCLC 12477691.
  44. ^ "A Week to Remember: Mary Renault". Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  45. ^ Beard, Mary; Henderson, John (2000). Classics: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-19-160643-4.
  46. ^ a b Reames, Jeanne. "Beyond Renault: Alexander the Great in Fiction". Archived from the original on 12 October 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2007.
  47. ^ Kopelson, Kevin (1994). "Introduction". Love's Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics. Stanford University Press.
  48. ^ Mendelsohn, Daniel (31 December 2012). "Personal History The American Boy". Condé Nast. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
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  50. ^ "Mary Renault's hardcore classicism". 25 May 2015. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  51. ^ Hughes, Bettany (12 March 2015). "Mary Renault Books". bettanyhughes. Retrieved 28 March 2022.
  52. ^ "Summer reads to get lost in, chosen by Hilary Mantel, Maggie O'Farrell, Raven Leilani and more". The Guardian. 4 July 2021. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  53. ^ "Book Review: The King Must Die by Mary Renault". Kate Forsyth. 18 June 2019. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  54. ^ "Suzanne Collins Talks About 'The Hunger Games,' the Books and the Movies". The New York Times. 18 October 2018. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  55. ^ eleanorh (30 January 2020). "Mary Renault in the archives". Institute of English Studies Blog. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  56. ^ "BBC Programme Index". 18 April 2006. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  57. ^ "Mary Renault – Love and War in Ancient Greece". Archived from the original on 7 January 2010.
  58. ^ "Mary Renault (Classical Reception) Essay Competition". St Hugh's College. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  59. ^ "The King Must Die". The Radio Times. No. 3112. 30 June 1983. p. 57. ISSN 0033-8060. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  60. ^ "The Charioteer" (Abridged by Eileen Horne; read by Anton Lesser; not currently available),

General and cited sources