Hilary Mantel

  • Mary Renault: A Biography by David Sweetman
    Chatto, 352 pp, £18.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 7011 3568 9

It was Renault, pronounced Renolt, not as in the car: this is one of the many things her admirers will not have known about the low-profile, best-selling author of some of the most remarkable historical fiction of the century. David Sweetman met Mary Renault in 1981, when he interviewed her for the BBC; he had been under the spell of her books since he read them as ‘an awkward, insecure teenager’. He brings to the art of biography a well-intentioned gentleness that is rare; but it is odd and unfortunate that by the end of his book one admires his subject less rather than more.

Born Mary Challans in 1905, she was the daughter of a London doctor. Her parents were unhappily married, it seems; one has to say ‘it seems’, because there is no independent testimony. This is what bedevils Sweetman’s book; his subject did not grow up among literary people who save every scrap of paper, and she did not live like someone who meant to have her biography written. Sweetman’s main source has been Julie Millard, who was Renault’s companion and lover for many years, so the narrative depends very much on what Renault told her; we must trust the perceptions of an awkward, studious little girl with big feet, prominent teeth, and a passion for playing cowboys and Indians. Perhaps Mary didn’t know what her parents felt at all. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. She got no encouragement to write or to read, or to exercise her imagination. When she was 15 an aunt took an interest in her, and she was sent to boarding school. It was too late for her to catch up on the Latin and Greek she had missed, but she began to read Plato in translation; then, it seems, life began to make some kind of sense.

When she went up to Oxford to read English, Auden was at Christ Church, and Waugh had just left Hertford. Renault’s Oxford might have been on another planet. Five years before her arrival, women had been granted full membership of the University; but St Hugh’s was governed by quarrelsome and eccentric schoolmarms, and the undergraduates were treated like unruly girls. Cocoa parties were the greatest thrill on offer, and it was expected that Mary and her fellow students would become teachers, who would educate more girls who would themselves become teachers – a woman’s duty being always to the next generation, not to her own talent and inclinations. She rebelled against this expectation, and the rebellion was a costly one.

Home life was on offer; she could huddle under the parental roof until marriage provided a different shelter, or cage. She already took the dimmest view of a woman’s role. She moved out, took a room, took menial jobs, lived on stock-cube soup which she made on a gas-ring. Sweetman describes her as trying to fit herself to her notion of what a writer should be – striking up friendships with unlikely people and studying their ‘characters’. Her work itself sounds unpromising. Most would-be novelists have an instinctive grasp of how to move a narrative on, how to condense life into fiction; Mary hadn’t. Everything her characters did or thought went down on the page. In the light of this, the eloquence and control of her later work seem the more remarkable.

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