The novels of Mary Renault
Life began on earth four billion years ago, perhaps even earlier than the earth: depends on how you define life. Since the first human was created there have been 6000 generations of mankind, about whom we know almost nothing. But our achievements today are based on those of our ancestors, as Carl Sagan expressed it in Cosmos: a Personal Odyssey, his inspirational and profound survey of humanity and the sciences, made in 1980. Can any of these lost and unknown lives ever be recreated?
In fiction it’s a genre known as historical fiction but you have to be careful in defining the term, as it is one where fantasy collides with romance, and it includes just plain adventure stories too. You can be talking about so called Sword and Sorcery, or heroic fantasy, or equally about Mills and Boon love stories. I use the term, ‘fiction set in the past’ to exclude these sub genres. Here is a look at writers who have written fiction set in the past, and attempted to recreate past lives. Mary Renault’s books can be considered just as novels, but there was something else about them that gathered her a lot of attention: homosexuality.
A writer of fiction set in the past, one who was almost an exact contemporary of Joan Grant (1907-1989), Mary Renault (1905-1983) was another Englishwoman. In the 1940s Grant had reassured her readers about the continuance of life after death, in a world devastated by war and threatened with the atomic bomb. Renault spoke to a later generation in the 1950s, oppressed with the bigotry and paranoia of the Cold War, and showed her readers a world without bitter prejudices and discrimination, with more acceptance for example of homosexuality.
Mary Renault was concerned with homosexuality because she was a lesbian. What’s notable is that she never attempted an historical novel on female homosexuality, a novel about Sappho for example. I know nothing about homosexuality. I have never had a homosexual experience, and so am reluctant to judge those who have. What I do notice is that, as the world enters on a new Cold War between so called democratic powers and emerging Islamic nations, there is a steep rise in media reports of discriminatory behaviour and prejudice. This is often directed at homosexuals, especially gay activists, but sometimes at people with a different skin colour to white, and towards women, both groups traditional targets of discrimination in the past. Perhaps this will lead to a revival of interest in Renault’s books, to redress the balance, hopefully before we start putting Jews in concentration camps again.
Bizarrely, those responding to dangerous times with intolerance quote the Bible, a basic text of Judaism written 500 BC to 200 AD; though they do not seem to be Jews. The Bible, and some early Christian writings, unequivocally condemns homosexuality. It also upholds slavery. The Bible maintains women are beings subject to male authority. These were beliefs widespread in the primitive cultures which authored the Bible. So was the practices of continuous animal sacrifice in the Temple, ritual cleanliness, and inability to do work of any kind on the Sabbath (Saturday). Stoning to death by neighbours was the penalty for not observing the Law. The Bible expresses the view that Jewish people are god’s people, destined to rule the earth. Using the Bible as a yardstick to evaluate contemporary societies would seem unreliable, perhaps leading to a distorted view of situations. Following the Bible’s ruling would in some cases make you a criminal in your country.
Intolerance in this case means applying Bible precepts to others. But the precepts in the Bible and early Christianity were not for believers to use against others. They were to be applied to themselves, a guide for the faithful to live the good life and attain salvation. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The proof of any religion is in the way the believers live.
I understand that intolerance, hatred, riots, violence and failure to think or have compassion arise because people want a better world than the one they see around them. They just go the wrong way to get it.
Mary Renault (her real name was Eileen Challans) began writing, using contemporary settings, in 1939, when she published Purposes of Love. This was an exploration in part of a homosexual theme, which evoked much outrage from critics (homosexuality was then a crime in the UK). Undaunted, Renault published five other novels exploring homosexuality and sexual identity: Kind Are Her Answers, 1940; The Friendly Young Ladies in 1943; Return to Night 1947; The North Face 1948; and The Charioteer in 1953. Renault had been in a homosexual relationship since 1934, one that was to last all her life. What made the topic acceptable in her fiction was her focus on the nature of the emotional bonds between her characters. Renault always felt that to love was more important than the gender of one’s lover. It was to avoid controversies over what she regarded as an irrelevant aspect of her books that Renault began to write fiction set in the past. As with any novel, the relationships between her characters was what these books were about.
In 1956 Renault published The Last of the Wine. The novel was set during the disastrous Peloponnesian War in late fifth century Athens. It’s a kind of autobiography of Alexias, a noble youth, and tells the story of his relationship with Lysis, and gives a depiction of the philosophers Socrates, and Plato, one of Renault’s heroes. What is astonishing is not the accuracy of historical detail, a mere matter of research, of which Renault was a master. It is the recreation of the tone of the civilisation recognisable from Plato’s Dialogues. Of course this is a literary creation of Plato’s not an historical one, yet is the closest we can easily get to the times depicted, and to anyone who has read Plato’s works will seem very familiar. In this (probably quite artificial) world, homosexuality was as natural a part as exercise in the public gymnasium or attendance at the Dionysia drama festivals. Renault had achieved her aim of considering relationships without emphasis on gender, and created one of the most vivid pictures of the ancient world ever written.
Influenced by a visit to Crete and the reading of The Greek Myths and The White Goddess of Robert Graves, Renault next retold the story of Theseus in two books, The King Must Die of 1958 and The Bull From the Sea in 1962. Not everyone agreed with Graves’ theories, or Renault’s account, and they seem a mishmash of disparate myths when I reread them. The story is told as history, not myth. There are no gods. What was weak in the books in my view was the depiction of the relationship between Theseus and Ariadne and with Phaedra, given a very sentimental treatment I thought.
The Mask of Apollo of 1966 was about Athenian drama of the fourth century and an (imaginary) actor, Nikeratos, and successfully recreated both the contemporary attitude to drama and the steps involved in mounting a production of an ancient play. It’s probably sent more people to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides than any professor.
In 1969 Renault began her study of Alexander the Great, who became an obsession with her. Fire From Heaven 1969 covered Alexander’s boyhood. The Persian Boy 1972 was about the conquest of Persia, and Funeral Games, 1981, was about the death of Alexander and the partition of his empire. The Nature of Alexander 1972 was a biography. I though Renault’s depiction of Alexander’s relationships was too sentimental, and that this was a weakness in all her fiction.
The Praise Singer of 1978 attempted something different, the recreation of the life of one of the most famous and influential of all Greek poets, Simonides of Keos.
Simonides lived in the sixth century BC, during the time when the tyrant Pisistratos and his sons ruled Athens, and later when Themistokles foiled the attempted invasion of Attica by the Persian king Xerxes at Salamis. Later scholars classified Simonides as one of the nine great lyric poets, meaning he (and they) composed for the lyre or kithara. Simonides composed poetry and music, and performed it on the kithara or professional lyre (other instruments such as the flute were also used). He was a musical performer, and had something of the status of a priest in that he performed mainly at religious festivals, as well as being recognised as a great poet. He was also a choreographer, training his chorus in the dance steps accompanying the songs. His work was a precursor to the drama. He would have known Aeschylos, Sophokles, Pindar, Themistokles, Perikles, and Herodotus. Simonides moved from court to court in Samos, Athens, Thessaly, back to Athens and finally Syracuse, and was known as among the first professional poets, paid for his work in writing, reciting or singing and staging choral works at public festivals. He had a reputation as a wise and intelligent man and as an innovator in poetry. Though he was famous in his day, none of his poetry has survived except in brief quotations from much later writers. Renault attempts to recreate his autobiography, supposing he ever wrote one.
Most of ancient Greek literature has been lost. Ancient scholars in second and first century BC Alexandria passed down names and fragments, and some whole works, but even for them the fifth and sixth centuries were a mystery, and what they passed down little more than gossip. Much literature wasn’t written down, and passed away with the generations who heard it. There were no ancillary forms of literature. Criticism, biography, reviews, none of this had yet been invented. Much of what we have of early Greek literature has been found on and pierced together from scraps of papyrus used as wrapping paper and discarded on rubbish dumps. Yet what remains shows it to have been one of the finest of human civilisations. There is always the tantalising possibility that archaeologists will uncover an ancient library full of works by authors now just names to us. In the meantime, we have reconstructions such as this one by Mary Renault. She captures the tone perfectly. Slightly stilted, because writing has only recently come into fashion, and Simonides was an oral poet, capable of reciting the Iliad from memory. Renault recreates life on the small Greek island Keos perfectly during Simonides childhood, and only falters slightly depicting Greek politics, explaining the word ‘tyrant’ (a reformer who seized power from oppressive factions who misruled: many tyrants were admired throughout the Greek world) and how Polykratos of Samos, Simonides’ first patron, had come to power (initially a pirate, then tyrant of Samos) in unlikely detail. Better than footnotes I suppose.
Simonides is depicted as writing his memoirs in his mid to late seventies (he lived to his 80s), which was about Renault’s age when she wrote the book. The tone is nostalgic, slightly garrulous as old men tend to be, full of detail of the early years as the elderly always are. For Simonides, the great days are in the past. He provides a eulogistic portrait of Pisistratos, and he, Pisistratos, recalls an even greater figure of his youth, Solon. Both men were tyrants. These were the men Simonides’ poetry was addressed to, leaders whom he praised at the great national festivals, men whom he judged perfectly, to his advantage, but all men he genuinely admired. Now, when he writes, in retirement in Syracuse, it is a different world. The book ends with the assassination of Hipparchos, one of Pisistratos’ sons, by Harmodios, whom the tyrant had slighted. It was to prove an act that bought Simonides’ world to an end. A bustling new democracy was to take the tyrants’ place, commerce based, which, under the leadership of Perikles, was to become involved in the destructive and unnecessary Peloponnesian War, which eventually destroyed ancient Greek culture, as a nuclear war would ours today.
Renault makes no attempt to reproduce Simonides’ poetry, though she does quote a (surviving) phrase every now and then. As poetry was the main business of Simonides’ life this seems odd, but of course Renault can’t reproduce long choral odes in praise of athletes without losing our interest, as even Pindar does. Simonides does have his opinions of other poets, Anakreon, Bacchylides, Hipponax and others. Here again Renault is constrained because most poetry of that time has not survived. What she does do, and superbly, is weave what we know of everyday life, attendance at festivals, religious observance and political events into a detailed, ‘man in the street’ account that seems somehow quite real. She’s not so successful with relationships, even the homosexual ones, which seem to me told from the slightly sentimental viewpoint of a middle aged Englishwoman.
Any attempt at painting a picture of a past life will only work if it also paints one of contemporary life, one that readers will recognise. Renault turns out to be talking about one of her main concerns, homosexuality, rather than just recreating the past. In the world she describes so lovingly homosexuality, like race, is just a fact, to be noted and not commented on. Perhaps that makes her a more significant novelist than a mere story teller’s books would. People of the past rarely if ever encountered what we think of as ‘historical’ figures. They led their lives, sought food, shelter and someone to love, and died. But they felt the same emotions we do today. Conveying that makes for a great historical novel, especially if it links past and present.
Reading Mary Renault’s novels is a quite unique experience. Not quite conventional novels, yet more than ‘recreations’ of ancient history, they seem to show a past that she, and we, could live quite comfortably in. There is slavery, animal sacrifice, war and famine, illnesses not well understood, and women are segregated in the household. But events were seen from the perspective of epic. Homer is never far away. And a myriad of poets, singers, actors, dramatists, musical composers, and practitioners of other arts such as prophecy, and the ever present gods, all drift tantalisingly into sight before vanishing again. Perhaps it once was like this.
More information on Mary Renault is at http://www.maryrenaultsociety.org/who-is-mary-renault.html. More on Simonides is in The Lyric Age of Greece by A R Burn (St Martins Press NY 1960) which I much enjoyed reading.
A worthy successor to Mary Renault is the children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff. She wrote few novels on ancient Greece and only one for adults, The Flowers of Adonis (1969). This was about Alkibiades, and I thought it one of the most powerfully emotive books I had ever read. Looks like I’ll have to reread it.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.