‘The King Must Die’ and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ 
by Mary Renault.
Everyman, 632 pp., £16.99, October 2022, 978 1 84159 409 5
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Literaryfans, as Alan Bennett once remarked, can be off-putting for the rest of us. Certain writers’ books get ‘fenced off by enthusiasts, and the casual reader may feel the need of credentials to read them’. Between 1956 and 1981 Mary Renault published eight novels set in ancient Greece that made her enormously, wildly popular. These days, though she’s never been out of print – this is the second reissue of her two novels about Theseus since 2015 – she attracts a more specialised admirer: history obsessives, novelists (Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Madeline Miller), classicists (Robin Lane Fox, Bettany Hughes), historians (Tom Holland), who salute her muscular resurrections of the classical world, and gay men who see her as a pioneer in her writing about homosexual relationships. Along with hundreds of other gay men, many of them closeted, the writer and classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of the introduction to this edition and a long-time admirer, wrote to her as a teenager telling her how important her books were to him. And for two decades after the publication of The Charioteer, Renault’s 1953 novel about a Second World War soldier trying to come to terms with his homosexuality, carrying a copy became a kind of gay semaphore.

Renault’s Greek novels were virtually all Bildungsromane or Künstlerromane. Her own journey to artistic maturity had been long and difficult: her first Greek novel, The Last of the Wine (1956), didn’t come out until she was 51 and living in South Africa as the country was in the throes of apartheid. She was fascinated by the process of becoming, and all her novels feature characters attempting to overcome trauma and turn adversity to their gain. But she always fended off suggestions that there were connections between her life and her books. She said it was lazy to draw easy parallels between the distant past and the present. Nevertheless, she identified intensely with her heroes (they were all heroes).

Renault’s own Künstlerroman began in Forest Gate in the East London suburbs in 1905. She was born Eileen Mary Challans, to a dysfunctional middle-class couple. Her emotionally absent father, a doctor, treated her mother like a fool. Her deeply conventional mother tried to co-opt her sympathy, while repeatedly criticising her looks (about which Renault would always be sensitive), complaining that she was insufficiently ladylike and making clear her preference for Renault’s more pliant younger sister. Mary (she never went by Eileen) took refuge in books, especially Westerns and medieval romances. When her mother tried to discourage her – men didn’t like bookish girls, she said – she began a lifelong habit of withdrawal and secrecy. Being a girl seemed to involve only constraint, she decided. Boys had more fun. Many of Renault’s novels would feature destructively needy mothers and absent or destructively aggressive fathers, and all her life she would have a horror of opening doors, the residue of a childhood fear of stumbling in on a parental row. She came to despise her mother – and housewives in general. They made her think, she once said, of ‘a lot of animals that have moulted and got silly from being kept in a cage’.

At sixteen, after the intervention of a sympathetic aunt, she was sent to Clifton Girls’ School in Bristol, where she discovered Plato in translation in the school library. In 1925 she won a place to read English at St Hugh’s. But Oxford was not the liberation she had imagined. Following a scandal, most of the college staff had resigned, and the rump was unimpressive and mainly concerned with penning in the female students and keeping them from the freedoms male students enjoyed. All-girl cocoa evenings were the summit of social excitement. There were a few compensations: she discovered student theatre, which thrilled her (two of her novels, The Mask of Apollo and The Praise Singer, would focus on performers), and the lectures given by Gilbert Murray, the Regius Professor of Greek, which reignited her passion for the ancient world. As other Oxford students became caught up in the General Strike and embraced Moral Rearmament, Mary decided she was a fifth-century BCE Platonist. It was not the last eccentric choice she would make. From it she derived a set of conservative classical values that would feed into her Greek novels, among them a belief in the primacy of the conduct of the individual and the quest for self-knowledge over any group allegiance, a belief in elitism and a suspicion of democracy and equality. In The Mask of Apollo (1966), Axiothea, a girl who disguises herself as a boy to attend Plato’s academy, says: ‘Equality! I hope I need never sink so low. That poppy syrup!’ ‘Half the hatred and envy infesting the world today,’ Renault wrote to her editor in 1977, ‘comes from people being sold the idea that they have a right to be as good as everyone else, and if not someone else should pay for it.’

She also discovered the Ashmolean’s collection of copies of Greek antiquities, recently acquired by its keeper, Sir Arthur Evans, excavator of the palace of Knossos. Several objects, including a fragment of a mural showing a wasp-waisted Minoan jumping over the horns of a bull, she revisited again and again. ‘He seemed not to leap, but to hang above the bull, like a dragonfly over the reeds,’ she wrote in The King Must Die (1958). She was inspired to write that book after seeing the original on a visit to Evans’s fanciful but thrillingly evocative reconstruction of the House of the Axe at Knossos in 1954.

She left Oxford in 1928. Her parents expected her to return home and find a suitable husband; she was determined to be a writer and never to marry. The next twenty years were a further education in the constraints placed on women’s ambitions, and an apprenticeship in persistence. For three years she took a series of unskilled, poorly paid jobs, lived on stock cubes and hot water, while getting bogged down in a medieval novel, eventually abandoned, frustrated that she had neither the time nor skills to research it properly. By 1931 she was in such poor health that she caught rheumatic fever, and had nowhere to convalesce but her parents’. On her recovery she decided to become a nurse – more low-paid women’s work that required a gruelling three years of training – because it would give her some ‘real life experience … to write about’. She was 28. Somewhat surprisingly, it paid off: nursing provided the setting for several of her early novels; she deployed her thorough knowledge of the body, its beauties and its weaknesses, to great effect in her later work; and it was while training at the Radcliffe Infirmary that she fell in love with Julie Mullard, her partner of almost fifty years.

The relationship, Mullard later told Renault’s biographer David Sweetman, was confusing, exciting, intensely romantic and nerve-racking. Neither had much sexual experience, but Mullard thought Renault knew a little more, and from the first they hid their relationship – from the hospital, and later from the sidelong glances of landladies and neighbours. (After they qualified, they got jobs at different ends of the country, which meant that for fifteen years they never managed to live together properly.) Between 1939 and 1948 Renault published five novels, racy contemporary love stories featuring surprisingly non-heteronormative relationships and references to homosexuality, awkwardly placed classical references, and what to a modern reader seem like oddly coy moments when something sexual has probably happened but it’s not entirely clear what (a kiss, full sex, a bit of flirting?). She used the pseudonym Renault – from a character in Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, and pronounced with full ‘l’ and ‘t’, though she didn’t mind people saying ‘Reno’ – because she thought the novels would get her into trouble with her medical superiors and didn’t want her parents to know. A couple of her books, including the first, Purposes of Love (1939) – a doctor-and-nurse love story where both self-destructive protagonists have previously had same-sex relationships – caused a stir and sold some copies, but the rest sank during the chaos of the war. The link with the later books is Renault’s sympathetic description of a range of queer relationships.

In 1947, out of the blue, she won an enormous American book prize for Return to Night, another unusual romance between a much older female doctor (she’s 34!) and a younger gay man, with incestuous overtones and gestures towards the myth of Demeter. On the proceeds, Renault and Mullard decided to leave cold, grim postwar England and emigrate to South Africa, a place they knew almost nothing about. ‘This to me was the country of Rider Haggard and Kipling and all the writers who wrote the boys’ adventure stories of my childhood,’ Renault told an interviewer. The week they arrived the National Party won the general election and began laying the foundations for apartheid.

Rash decisions and what Renault called ‘credulous innocence’ were not uncharacteristic. She had already spent part of her winnings on a former gunboat which she had planned to live in on the Thames. It turned out to be much too wide, so she had to abandon it in Brixham harbour. On the boat to South Africa, she and Mullard met a gay couple with whom they agreed to go into business, building and selling houses using Renault’s money. The men ripped them off and mismanaged everything, but also introduced them to Durban’s substantial gay community – at the time South Africa was more sexually liberal than many Western countries, though repressive new laws would change this in 1968. Most of her closest friends came from this community and she would draw on their experiences for The Charioteer.

South Africa was where she finished her journey of becoming. Most writers’ journeys are from the periphery to the centre; Renault’s was the opposite. She remained there until she died in 1983, keeping the world at bay. She never returned to England, never saw her mother again – she was disinherited – and made only two trips outside Africa, to Greece and Italy, in 1954 and 1962. For the rest of her life, most of her significant relationships were conducted through correspondence with people she never met or hadn’t seen for years. (Among them was Patrick O’Brian, another writer in flight from England, who dedicated his fourth Aubrey-Maturin novel, The Mauritius Command, to her.) Otherwise, she had little interest in the literary world. When she encountered a group of writers in Athens in 1962, the poet James Merrill and the British novelists Robert Liddell, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, she fled town as soon as she could, muttering that she wasn’t made for this kind of thing. She seems to have cut a formidable figure. ‘Mary Renault arrived all in gold lamé. Miss Pym (a failure) in her simple black,’ Barbara Pym wrote Pymishly in her diary.

The Charioteer, the first novel she wrote in South Africa, shrugged off the coyness of Renault’s previous work. It was the most explicit and polemical book about homosexuality that had been published in the UK since the war, and included a robust refutation of homosexuality as a crime:

I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening … I don’t admit I’m a social menace … I’m not prepared to accept a standard which puts the whole of my emotional life on the plane of immorality. I’ve never involved a normal person or a minor or anyone who wasn’t in a position to exercise a free choice … I’m not a criminal.

The title came from Plato’s Phaedrus. The charioteer is the rational part of the soul, wrestling to impose balance on his two horses: a white one, which represents the moral, spiritual impulse, and a black, which signifies base, impulsive appetites. In England it became a cause célèbre and a huge success. In McCarthyite America, where sexual perverts and communists were monster pariahs, it wasn’t published for six years, but quietly gathered fans. Renault felt far enough from London and New York to enjoy its success and to avoid personal scrutiny. Today it feels a little baggy and declamatory, as well as creakily judgmental: Renault had strong convictions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ homosexuality. Good homosexuality was Plato and Shakespeare, and ‘respectable and domesticated’ homosexuals who sought loving one-to-one relationships. Campness and effeminacy – for which she expressed considerable disgust in The Charioteer, though her knowledge of gay subculture came from some of her closest friends – was somewhere in the middle. At the bottom – ‘at the bottom … believe me, there isn’t any bottom,’ one character says – came loveless sexual encounters, ‘casual or mercenary contacts’ and a few ‘advanced psychopaths’.

The Last of the Wine, her next book, was intended as a companion to The Charioteer, and concerned a homosexual relationship in a society where it was accepted and even encouraged. The leap to ancient Greece was transformational, like stepping from monochrome into widescreen Technicolor. The first lines, addressing the reader directly and written in the first person (as almost all her subsequent books would be), describe a deeply unfamiliar world: ‘When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me. You will say there is nothing out of the way in this.’

What is impressive is how fresh and undated this, and all her classical novels, still feel, largely I think because she was consciously creating a world that wasn’t at all like her own. She didn’t want contemporary reference points. ‘People in the past were not just like us,’ she wrote. ‘To pretend so is an evasion and a betrayal, turning our back on them so as to be easy among familiar things.’ Her portrait of the ritualised mentoring relationship between the young Alexias and the older Lysis (she said all men should try it, and then get married) was decades ahead of its time and is strikingly similar to the view of ancient Greek sexuality described most persuasively in James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love (2008), a comprehensive refutation of the grim orthodoxy previously posited by those unlikely bedfellows, Kenneth Dover and Michel Foucault. This is the theory that Athenian men were obsessed with sodomy as an act of domination and humiliation inflicted on the weak and underage (among other things, Davidson points out that the Greeks had no word for homosexuality). Renault’s views came out of her own close reading of the sources. The research, to which she devoted years, gave her a sense of mastery and confidence and catalysed her imagination. Around the gay love story, she wove the history of the end of the Peloponnesian War and the collapse of Athenian democracy and built her world. Like some pre-digital version of Assassin’s Creed, she reconstructed a view, or a house, or the way a man wore his chiton or held a spear, from a blizzard of tiny details gleaned from books, vases, frescoes, walks around the hinterland of Athens, dry archaeological reports. For the curious and initiated she added, direct from the pages of Xenophon, Thucydides and Plato’s Phaedo, portraits of Socrates and Plato and a seamless rendering of their ideas on the individual’s moral obligations, and how to live under an unjust government.

In her next novel, The King Must Die, she approached the mythical Theseus as if she were reconfiguring a historical figure, following contemporary theories that there might have been a real Bronze Age king behind the myth, and using clever extrapolations and intuitive leaps to interpret the magical elements. Sir Arthur Evans had suggested that rather than feeding a minotaur, boys and girls might have come from Crete’s vassal states to feed the Cretans’ appetite for an arena sport in which they had to jump over a bull’s horns, a kind of Bronze Age hunger games. In her retelling, the minotaur is the thick-necked illegitimate son of King Minos’s wife and his stepfather’s would-be usurper, and Theseus goes to Crete as tribute and becomes a bull dancer. To be good at it he would have had to be slight and lithe, and this gives Renault her Theseus, a short, cocky chancer, determined to turn his deficiencies to his gain: ‘brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick … touchily proud but with a feeling for the underdog resembling Alexander [about whom she would write three further novels] in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny’. It’s not hard to see why Renault would have identified with her protagonist, and she observed that one of the chief pleasures of writing historical novels was the tension between ‘what is individual to the person, the society, the time – and what is universal’.

This​ certainly applied to politics. Privately, she told Sweetman that The Last of the Wine was prompted in part by the similarities she saw between South Africa’s introduction of apartheid and the decline into authoritarianism of fifth-century Athens. In the Theseus novels, the oppression of the Indigenous darker-skinned peoples (‘the Shore people’ and the Cretans) by the newcomers (the tall, fair Hellenes) is a running theme. Publicly, however, Renault bridled at the idea that there was anything allegorical in her work. When, as not infrequently happened, it was suggested that she should be writing about contemporary South Africa’s problems, she replied that a ‘committed’ writer was little more than a propagandist. Her desire to be left alone and her elitist individualist instincts constantly chafed against a sense of moral obligation. With Mullard – who eventually lost her nursing job for refusing to obey apartheid rules in her hospital – she marched against the Sharpeville massacre and campaigned for the Progressive Party and Black Sash. Eventually, however, she left both, irritated by their ineffectuality, their bickering and their refusal to oppose the South African government’s criminalisation of homosexuality. She wrote publicly to protest against a tightening of the already punitive laws against homosexuality, but concluded: ‘Since I have no personal information to offer the committee, I do not suppose that any useful purpose could be served by my appearing before it.’ She reluctantly agreed to chair the Cape Town chapter of PEN, but taking on the role cost her: she lost friends for refusing to boycott a whites-only theatre because she felt culture was too important to be censored, and for refusing to lower the PEN membership criteria of two published books, at a time when Black writers struggled to get their work into print at all. She genuinely found it hard to understand why any good Black writer would countenance a drop in standards.

Her position on sexuality was equally complicated. She dismissed the campaign for gay rights as ‘sexual tribalism’ and loathed the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’. She would have entirely disapproved of contemporary identity politics. The idea that being gay or trans was one’s main identity would have been anathema. She and Mullard flatly refused to call themselves lesbians though they were together for 48 years, and from 1948 entirely monogamous. They were bisexual, Mullard insisted to Sweetman, and attracted to men: ‘If people talked about lesbians we used to draw our skirts away.’ While she admired certain female writers – H.D., Sylvia Plath and Marguerite Yourcenar, the author of Memoirs of Hadrian, among them – and was alive to the social restrictions imposed on women, she had no time for the ‘bellyaching’, self-pity and ‘defensive stridency’ of the feminist movement.

For women generally, she felt a deep ambivalence, sometimes tailing into distaste. ‘So you really think most women are beautiful?’ she asked one of her correspondents. ‘That must be nice. I wish I did.’ The physical constraints of being a woman irked her as much as the social ones. In Funeral Games (1981), Queen Eurydike is betrayed by her body at a crucial moment – she’s about to be voted regent of Macedon, when suddenly she feels the gushing onset of her period. Renault said there could never be a female Shakespeare because men had ‘some extra reserve of neural strength, some capacity for sustained intensity and inner drive, which women do not possess’. Though most of her early novels pass the Bechdel test, none of her classical novels do. In them women are mostly – though not exclusively – foolish, malign or shadowy presences. The last may well reflect historical reality: apart from the hetairai (prostitutes), women had no public life and were kept illiterate and in purdah. ‘It was the men that were doing things,’ as Renault told the BBC.

Her feelings about gender politics play out most curiously in the choice she made to set the Theseus novels just as a prehistoric mother goddess cult, bolstering a matriarchal society, is being displaced by a new masculine cult of sky gods led by Zeus. This was a theory popularised in the 1950s by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, and now pretty much discredited. Renault was later criticised for historical inaccuracy, but the setting is a brilliant friction point. Theseus is one of Renault’s few completely heterosexual characters – in her words ‘highly sexed and rather promiscuous’. In The King Must Die, his moira, his destiny, is to destroy malign female power, and to bring order and benign rule as a philosopher-king. At Eleusis he kills the sacrificial year-king and marries the priestess queen, but outmanoeuvres her, ending the tradition of male fertility sacrifice and setting up ‘the rule of men’. In Athens he dispatches the witch Medea, who has taken up with his father and then tries to poison him. (In a typically clever move, Renault has Medea speak with the sibilant hiss – ‘Theseuss’– that Euripides gives her.) He destroys the Cretan snake goddess cult by taking its high priestess, Ariadne, with him when he escapes; then abandons her on Naxos after he is revolted by her involvement in a maenadic ritual: she tears a man apart. In the sequel, The Bull from the Sea (1962), he kills his wife, Phaedra, Ariadne’s resentful younger sister, whom his Athenian subjects suspect of plotting to bring back the goddess cult, and who causes his son Hippolytus’ death by claiming he raped her.

The novels manifest an unfashionably unabashed admiration for male heroism and an intense pleasure in male beauty and physicality. There’s no evidence that Renault ever had a sexual relationship with a man, though that may just be because she was extremely private about her love life. What is true is that she often said she wished she’d been born a boy and didn’t mind that male readers and reviewers constantly misgendered her; the New York Times Book Review once described her as a male impersonator, which says more about 1970s sexism than anything else. ‘I’ve never been a feminist,’ she wrote to a female friend in the 1960s, ‘simply because all those years my inner persona occupied two sexes too indiscriminately to take part in a sex war.’ She spoke to an interviewer of ‘intermediately sexed’ people – which I think is the way she would have described herself – and wrote a number of ambiguously gendered characters. In The Friendly Young Ladies (1944), the most autobiographical of her early novels though she always denied it, Leo (Leonora), who writes pulp cowboy novels under the name Tex O’Hara and is in a lesbian relationship while snogging a lot of men, is repeatedly described as a ‘slim shabby boy’, ‘a mocking Oberon’ with ‘a boy’s smile, open and straight’. In The Persian Boy (1972), the narrator, Bagoas – castrated at ten, pimped at twelve, and eventually Alexander the Great’s lover – is both masculine, feminine and sometimes neither. And in The Bull from the Sea there’s Hippolyta, leader of the Amazons and Theseus’ great love, whom Renault casts as priestess warrior of a cult of Artemis. In one of the rare moments when Renault writes sensually (and sexily) about the female body, she has Theseus first glimpse Hippolyta as she runs through the water naked, shooting arrows at his shipmates: ‘She stood to aim, all gold and silver touched with rose.’ The truth, however, is that Hippolyta isn’t really a woman: she is a king, a warrior with a woman lover, a ‘boy’ or a ‘bird’, an exotic creature, a sly assault on Theseus’ heterosexuality. These were the characters with whom Renault identified most.



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