The Glimpse of a Strong Greek Light
Novelist Linda Proud assesses the work of Mary Renault.
The moments recur and, flipped through like one of those little cartoon books we had as children, give the semblance of movement. But they are frozen moments, scenes from an unhappy, frustrated childhood.
The first scene is our last history lesson before the long vacation. We were neither bright children nor good,and we had the teacher we deserved: fierce, cruel and uncompromising. On that particular day, she moved furiously between the desks, issuing sheets of paper duplicated via a stencil on a Gestetner machine.
The ink was purple, the sheet smelt of methylated spirits, and the list was of titles for holiday reading, but where was Tudor England or The Repeal of the Corn Laws? From the titles you would not know that these were history books. The titles were strange; the titles were interesting.
My hand shot up, perhaps for the first time ever. ‘Please Miss!’ I was too vibrantly alert to be shy. ‘Are these novels?’ For once Mrs C. looked almost capable of loving. ‘Yes, girlie. It’s called historical fiction.’
I remember nothing more of Mrs C. The next scene is the school library. The school is new, the concrete fruit of post-war ideals of education. The furniture is new and has no smell. The bookshelves in the library are blockboard covered with pine veneer. One title has captured me from the list:
The King Must Die by Mary Renault. ‘Renault’ I am now told, is pronounced Renolt, but I have always pronounced it like the car, and cannot break the habit.
If after so many years I remember the book in such detail – the story of Theseus, of the Minoans, the lithe young men leaping the bulls, of the Minotaur – then such was the power of the storytelling, and such the sudden awakening of this miserable and sulky child.
The next scene is putting the book back on the library shelf while thinking, ‘One day let me do for someone else what she has done for me.’ For in the dark dismal fog of puberty, I had glimpsed a strong, Greek light.
Mary Renault was born in 1905, her real name Mary Challans. Her parents gave her a body, her soul must have come from elsewhere. Retreating from their pressure to be a good little girl who will grow up to have a husband and children of her own, Mary kept company with her books and dreams, and her first love, like mine, was cowboy stories. A donation of books to her school library brought her in touch with Plato’s Dialogues, and this thread drew her to the University of Oxford and the college of St Hugh’s, a dreary place except that one of its tutors was J.R.R. Tolkien. In Mary’s time the University was divided between modernists such as W.H. Auden, excited by socialist ideals and the Spanish Civil War, and romantics such as the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis etc), whose ideals lay in an eternal realm beyond this one. Mary, whose dream heroes had by now swapped their stetsons and lassoos for medieval armour, was naturally in the latter camp.
At the University, her early love of Plato was fired by the classicist Gilbert Murray, and she adopted the Dialogues as a rule for life. In her second year at St Hugh’s she lodged with a relative of Sir Arthur Evans, the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and the discoverer of the Minoan Palace of Knossos on Crete. In the Arthur Evans room in the Museum today are the artefacts and replicas of artifacts which Evans discovered and sent home. Amongst them is a fragment of a fresco showing three acrobats leaping a bull. Mary saw this image, contemplated it, let it imprint itself on her soul.
She wanted to be a writer, her parents wanted her to be a wife. After university, she tried to live independently on her allowance and ended up suffering malnutrition, rheumatic fever, and, worst of all, having to return to the parental home. She was forced to rest for over a year, and to read the books her mother chose for her at the library. At the end of this time, she took a walking holiday alone in the Cotswolds which ended with a return visit to Oxford. Entering the city by the Woodstock Road, sudden impulse caused her to turn into the Radcliffe Infirmary and ask the matron to be taken on as a nurse.
This spontaneous idea seems to have sprung from her recognition that a writer without experience of life cannot write. But that impulsive change of direction was to be more decisive in another area of her psyche, for it was during her years at the Infirmary that she was to meet her lover and life companion, Julie Mullard.
Mary’s first novels are a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance, but that is exactly what Mary was herself. They had titles such as Purposes of Love (her first publication, it appeared in 1939 when she was 34) and The Friendly Young Ladies. But her sexual orientation (present, if hidden in her first novels) as well as her Platonism gave her books an edge over romance. Her novels did well. One, Return to Night, even won the (short-lived) MGM prize. Although the unimaginable riches of £25,000 reduced quickly to £5,000 once the Inland Revenue had taken its share, it was sufficient to transplant her and Julie from post war – and freezing – Britain to South Africa.
Mary’s life became one of parties, socialising with ex-pats and other refugees from the austere life at home, but her politics were radical for the time and place, and Mary and Julie were among the few whites to join the anti-apartheid movement. Among their many friends were many actors, who had escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban. These friendships were to give Mary a familiarity with a world on which she was to draw so creatively in her Greek novels: that of drama. And like the actors, Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home.
The money, injudiciously invested, soon ran out, and Mary returned to writing. The result was The Charioteer, the first British novel to deal with the theme of homo-sexual love. The central character is not female. As with her later novels, Mary’s hero is a man, and here as later, it is with the male homosexual that she has such an affinity and profound sympathy. But Mary had a message she wanted to give in this new book to those who, rejected by society, were reacting with camp and perverted behaviour. The power of The Charioteer is that it states the ideal of Platonic love, and Platonic love is chaste. The hero of the book falls in love with a conscientious objector who is not gay, and he learns to love for love’s sake.
Though Platonic love is chaste, it is not sexless, but is just as vibrant and erotic as the usual kind of love. In The Charioteer Mary succeeds in the feat, to be repeated later in her Alexander stories, of making all readers, including heterosexuals, feel the love of one man for another, and to know those feelings as his or her own. Naturally her publishers, Longmans, were horrified, and their loyalty was tested to the limit. It is very surprising, and heartening, therefore, to find that they went ahead and published. The book made Mary a hero among the gay community, and engendered tolerance and understanding in its heterosexual readers at a time when men such as John Gielgud were being tried in the courts.
Mary’s talent in writing was of the kind, perhaps the best kind, which develops and grows. Her early novels had many faults, but The Charioteer marks her step into full literary maturity.
Her reason for turning to historical fiction was the same as my own: it gives the possibility of reflecting critically on your own age, and in fifth century Athens Mary could see parallels with South Africa. She had immersed herself in Plato to write The Charioteer and wanted to stay a while longer with her beloved philosopher. While reading Xenophon’s Life of Socrates she suddenly became alive with questions about what these characters of Plato’s Dialogues – Phaedo, Gorgias, Alcibiades and Critias – were really like: the classic question behind so many historical novels. The result was to be The Last of the Wine, which details the dramatic events leading up to the death of Socrates.
It was published in 1956. She was 48 and living in Durban, and after all this time, finally at one with her creative spirit. The book was written from research in contemporary sources, such as the histories of Thucydides, the facts acquired thereby becoming transformed in the crucible of her imagination; no ordinary imagination, not the kind which pleasantly daydreams, and orchestrates conversations between the famously dead, but the kind which time-travels and can experience, as if through the senses, what it is like to be someone else, in another place, another culture, another time. Mary takes us there, and we become her characters, and in so doing we visit Athens, the source of democracy, in a way which is impossible by any other means. No amount of reconstructions of the Agora or Parthenon, even in amazing computer graphics, will do it. These things, like archaeology itself, deal in the crumbly stuff of stone and bone. But fiction – that is the way of drama, and leads straight into the human psyche, to that which is true, eternal and really worth knowing about. Anyone wishing to explore Plato and Platonism is advised to start here, and then go on to the Dialogues which, ultimately, are Mary’s source for everything.
To complete the book, Mary took a trip to Greece. It was her first visit to the land of her rich imagination. Though she was checking details used in The Last of the Wine – and discovering she had almost all of them right – she took the opportunity to visit the site of Knossos on Crete. There, in the Palace of Minos excavated by Arthur Evans, she saw the original image of that bull-leaper which had imprinted itself on her mind in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Suddenly the figure began to breath, began to leap. Everything in her was vibrating with that super-sensory energy which Socrates would have called ‘daemon’ – the genius at work, the guiding spirit. The result was to be The King Must Die. This was her Minoan book, sending her leaping back in time from 5th century Athens, to that age half-myth, half-reality, the bronze age, the age of Theseus and the bull dancers. Eventually it would be followed by the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.
This is where her life touches mine. These were the books I was reading as I entered my teens. I had loved stories of mythology from the first time I came across them, but for some reason felt ashamed about it, and wrapped up my copy of Homer in brown paper, imitating the way adults were hiding the mild pornography of Harold Robbins. Now here was an author who dreamt the same dreams, burned with the same flame, and whose language and imagery was so very, very, rich. I confess, I did not understand all of her books, and found chapters particularly difficult, but I persisted, because l knew it would be worth while. And it was. By her pen, Theseus came to life and was made flesh.
Looking through Mary’s bibliography, I can track my life. I must have been 13 when I discovered historical fiction as the cure for teenage ennui. When I read The Mask of Apollo, the story about Greek drama, I would have been at college. The Alexander books – Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, illuminated and inspired my 20s, and after reading them I embarked on a trilogy set in the Florentine Renaissance.
My own Platonism is due to Mary Renault, but I have only just realised it. It crept into me unsought and unbidden in the school library. When I came to read the Dialogues myself, they already seemed familiar, and Plato’s theory of a reality behind this one was already my philosophy. While my contemporaries trod the mundane path of Aristotle into the sciences, I went widdershins into ecology and mysticism. I found others of like mind in Tolkien clubs, became a hippy, went high on drugs, and saw that white Greek light in funny colours. But the pull of the way is a strong one, and before long I gave up drugs to take a course in philosophy.
Mary Renault. The name has never meant for me anything less than a superlunary being. This, of course, would have embarrassed her no end. She was an ordinary person, a nurse, a writer, both passionate and reclusive. She had faults. She made mistakes. She was gay. But none of this touches my relationship with her. Soul to soul, torches are passed on. Thus I write this in homage to a writer who guided me to Plato as Virgil guided Dante to heaven, who beguiled me with story and language and history, who showed me that some things do not change with time, that there is an eternal aspect to man which unifies us with our ancestors. Most of all, it is a homage to the one who gave me a goal in writing which seems unreachable. The pages of her books have grown yellow on my shelves, but their words still ring with their wild passion, and passages such as the following one from Fire from Heaven torment me with their utter perfection. Here she is, describing Alexander as a boy fighting his first battle, and painting with the two-hair brush of the miniaturist the very mystery of her hero:
The boy set his face into a warrior’s, that he might be believed in and challenge death. In a perfect singleness, free from hatred, anger, or doubt, pure in dedication, exultant in victory over fear, he swooped towards the red-haired man. With this face of inhuman radiance; with this being, whatever it was, eerie, numinous, uttering its high hawklike cries, the man wanted no more to do. He swerved his horse; a burly Skopian was nearing, perhaps to single him out; someone else should deal with the matter. His eye had strayed too long. With a shrill ‘Ahii-i!’ the shining manchild was on him. He thrust with his spear; the creature swung past it; he saw deep sky-filled eyes, a mouth of ecstasy. A blow struck his breast, which at once was more than a blow, was ruin and darkness. As sight faded from his eyes, it seemed to him that the smiling lips had parted to drink his life.
This, then, is for Mary Renault, whose mind was as large, as muscular, as George Eliot’s, concerned with the great questions, the deepest emotions. I loved her as a child, I shall always love her; in my pantheon of literary heroes, she adorns the pediment. And this is also for my history teacher, Mrs C., whose terrible exterior no doubt hid a sensitive soul that loved history, and once, perhaps, even loved children.
Linda Proud lives in Oxford, within a few steps of where Mary Renault once worked in the Radcliffe Infirmary. Her first novel, A Tabernacle for the Sun, was published in 1997 by Allison and Busby. It tells the story of a young scribe in fifteenth century Florence whose ambition to become a member of the Neoplatonic Academy is continually thwarted by politics in the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The novel has won her a bursary award from Southern Arts, and a month in a castle courtesy of the Hawthornden Fellowship. She is the author of several non-fiction titles, including the forthcoming 2000 Years – Christianity in England, and Icons – a Sacred Art, but it is her novels which occupy her most. She is now completing the sequel. Called The Song of Orpheus, it is the story of Florence under attack by those forces which would rip culture out of the world.
The Last of the Wine, 1956 – life in the Athens of Socrates and Pericles
The King Must Die, 1958 – Theseus and the Minotaur
The Bull from the Sea, 1962 – further adventures of Theseus
The Mask of Apollo, 1966 – Dion and Plato in Syracuse, as narrated by a Greek actor.
Fire from Heaven, 1969 – Boyhood of Alexander the Great
The Persian Boy, 1972 – Alexander through the eyes of his eunuch lover.
The Praise Singer, 1978 – Simonides and lyric poetry.
Funeral Games, 1981 – the fate of Alexander’s friends after his death.
Biography: Mary Renault a biography by David Sweetman, 1993
First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 5, Spring 1999.
Posted by Sarah Johnson