A life in the closet, expressed on the page

July 08, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

Mary Renault was a puzzle who wrapped herself in enigma and scarcely peeped out of the closet.

Yet from behind those self-imposed barriers she wrote some of the most vital fictionalized descriptions of homosexual love. Her novel "The Charioteer," published in 1953, was one of the very first to deal with one man's love for another, frankly and without the crime-does-not-pay apology previously appended to such books to appease the censor. So faithfully did Renault describe the emotional tightrope male homosexuals had to walk in those days before the sexual revolution that the book became a cultic item for gays, many of whom assumed Renault had to be a male writer's pseudonym.

Indeed, Mary Renault was a nom de plume for Ellen Mary Challans, daughter of an all-too-respectable English family that wouldn't have been happy to have a novelist among its offspring, even if she had chosen less forbidden fruit for her subject matter. Yes, Renault did know the joys and sorrows of homosexual love from personal experience, sharing five decades of her life with her companion, Julie Mullard.

Yet she was anything but a sexual-rights crusader. She and Mullard refused the title homosexual, preferring -- or needing -- to think their relationship was independent of such categories. "If people talked about 'lesbians,' " Mullard said, "we used to draw our skirts away."

When the women's rights movement, for which her books had been an inspiration, was born in the 1960s, Renault often found herself on the other side of the ideological fence.

"Immediately it became a cause, people felt justified in saying quite idiotic and untrue things, like how women had never produced a Shakespeare or a Beethoven or a Michelangelo because they had been kept at the kitchen sink," Renault told a friend. "Whereas the truth obviously is that Shakespeare and Beethoven & Co. do seem to have, as men, some extra reserve of neural strength, some capacity for sustained intensity and inner drive which women do not possess."

In mid-life and mid-career, Renault abandoned her homeland, both as residence and setting for her fiction. Moving to South Africa, she turned to historical novels set in ancient Greece. The change of address was economically determined: In 1947, a Hollywood studio took an option on one of her novels (which was never made into a film), paying her the immense sum of 25,000 pounds (more than $100,000). Leaving England kept the money from the tax man.

David Sweetman, Renault's first biographer, notes that the change in subject matter represented a return to a first intellectual love. She had attended Oxford University when the great classicist Gilbert Murray was rejecting the approach of scholars who put the Greeks on a pedestal, portraying them as super rational. Murray stressed their emotional side, a theme Renault picked up on for her best-selling novels about Alexander the Great and fifth-century Athens.

Mr. Sweetman observes that Renault's historical novels were also her way of dealing with the situation of her adopted homeland. Like ancient Athens, South Africa under apartheid was a civilization at the end of its rope, a conviction Renault strongly felt but was uncomfortable expressing directly.

Renault, who died in 1982, is fortunate in her biographer, who has crafted the story of her life with the same riveting attention to detail that a legion of fans found in her novels.


Title: "Mary Renault"

Author: David Sweetman

Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Co.

Length, price: 313 pages, $24.95

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