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Born Eileen Mary Challans in London in 1905, Mary Renault wrote six successful contemporary novels before turning to the historical fiction about ancient Greece for which she is best known. While Renault's novels are still highly regarded, her life and work have never been completely examined. Caroline Zilboorg seeks to remedy this in The Masks of Mary Renault by exploring Renault's identity as a gifted writer and a sexual woman in a society in which neither of these identities was clear or easy.
Although Renault's life was anything but ordinary, this fact has often been obscured by her writing. The daughter of a doctor, she grew up comfortably and attended a boarding school in Bristol. She received a degree in English from St. Hugh's College in Oxford in 1928, but she chose not to pursue an academic career. Instead, she decided to attend the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, where she trained to be a nurse. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she was assigned to the Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol and briefly worked with Dunkirk evacuees. She went on to work in the Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward and was there until 1945.
It was during her nurse's training that Renault met Julie Mullard, who became her lifelong companion. This important lesbian relationship both resolved and posed many problems for Renault, not the least of which was how she was to write about issues at once intensely personal and socially challenging. In 1939, Renault published her first novel under a pseudonym in order to mask her identity. It was a time when she was struggling not only with her vocation (nursing and writing), but also with her sexual identity in the social and moral context of English life during the war.
In 1948, Renault left England with Mullard for South Africa and never returned. It was in South Africa that she made the shift from her early contemporary novels of manners to the mature historical novels of Hellenic life. The classical settings allowed Renault to mask material too explosive to deal with directly while simultaneously giving her an "academic" freedom to write about subjects vital to her—among them war, peace, career, women's roles, female and male homosexuality, and bisexuality.
Renault's reception complicates an understanding of her achievement, for she has a special status within the academic community, where she is both widely read and little written about. Her interest in sexuality and specifically in homosexuality and bisexuality, in fluid gender roles and identities, warrants a rereading and reevaluation of her work. Eloquently written and extensively researched, The Masks of Mary Renault will be of special value to anyone interested in women's studies or English literature.
Formative Years 1905–1928
Among Mary Renault's papers, there is only one letter to a child. Although she never wanted children any more than she wanted marriage, Renault vividly remembered what girlhood was like, and the letter to young Oriane Messina is both charming and revealing:
Your school uniform is very pretty. When my mother was at Kensington High School uniforms had not started. When she was in one of the middle forms, she wanted to be smart so she made up a bustle, though her mother said she was too young to wear it. A bustle was like a cushion you tied on over your bottom, to make your skirt stick out at the back, which was very fashionable at the time, for grownup people. My mother's was home-made and she put it on just before she went out, when no-one was looking. Only she didn't tie it on tight enough, so it fell off, and the next thing she knew, a little boy was running after her waving it and saying, "Clemmie, you've dropped your bustle!" She never tried one after that till she was grown up, and then they were out of fashion, so she never wore a bustle in the end.
This amusing anecdote suggests the author's sensitivity to the interests and language of a young child, but Renault's humor and simple syntax obscure the tale's significant implications. This story, confided to Renault by her mother and then passed on gratuitously by Renault to Oriane, seems a cautionary woman's tale about conformity and difference, femaleness and sexuality, about what is hidden that is suddenly revealed as irregular—to the male, who draws attention to it; to the female, who is shamed. As a result, she never has the chance to claim this feminine distinction, this concealed difference, this pronounced self-assertion, this independently fashioned identity.
Born Eileen Mary Challans in London in 1905, Mary Renault, called "Molly" at home, seldom aligned herself with her traditional mother; throughout her childhood in London's East End, where her father was a physician in general practice, she always thought of herself as a writer. Her parents' marriage was an unhappy one, and after the birth of her sister Joyce in 1911, Frank and Clementine Challans led increasingly separate lives. Renault saw her childhood as defined in many ways by this awkward union. She wrote to the English author Colin Spencer that she was particularly interested in corresponding with him because of shared affinities she sensed from having read his autobiographical novels. She, too, had had a stormy childhood in large measure as a result of her parents' unhappy lives. Despite a flirtation with "a rather charming waster without a brain in his head," her mother had been "carefully segregated" until meeting her father. Renault commented with characteristic insight and acerbity,
That they were engaged for four years without finding out that they were totally incompatible mentally (naturally they did not have the chance to discover the sexual aspect) is one of those things you would not believe if you read it in a book. My father was a militant realist, my mother liked everything nice. He thought (though often mistakenly) that he was a logical person; my mother thought logic was some sort of materialistic philosophy which should be stubbornly resisted. He had a bitter tongue, and could always win an argument; she of course revenged herself by making it personal, and he could beat her at that too. I can never remember, though I was born within a year of their marriage, a time when they seemed to me even to like each other.
In constructing here a brief autobiography, Renault places herself within a literary context: she infers Spencer's unhappy past from his novels; she recreates for him in a letter a vivid, almost novelistic account of the atmosphere surrounding her own childhood, which "you would not believe if you read it in a book." Renault also sees herself as developing within the context of her parents' relationship, a triangle that she will repeatedly explore in her fiction through the creation of stormy childhoods made believable through Freudian psychology, an analysis of gender and political power, and the use of factual evidence. She is reading her own life for Spencer, aware that it is a reality shaped by experiences unbelievable in literature while simultaneously giving it literary expression and credibility in a letter. Writing, in other words, communicates through a transformation of reality that is a strategic distortion without which one could not communicate the truth of experience.
The idea of the hidden and the revealed becomes central for Renault both as a motif that suggests how her own writing works (in what it hides, in what it reveals) and as a motif within her work. She continues perceptively in this important letter to Spencer: "Do you know that I still, quite often, find myself going out of my way through several open doors in the house, rather than open a closed one? ... I realise now that I do it for no practical reason whatever. It is because of those closed doors at home behind which a frightful row was going on." What is hidden, even forbidden, to the self by the self, is not the unknown but in fact the known, the "frightful row" behind the closed doors, the parental discord, which is wrong and which excludes the child, which begot the child but provides no place for her except the shut-out spaces of exterior corridors and empty rooms.
Renault came to see herself as a pawn in her parents' unhappiness as her mother "confided" in her and as each parent elicited her loyalty. Never one to indulge in self-pity, she concluded with characteristic generosity:
Of course there were faults on both sides but neither wanted me to admit this. I think either of them could have been reasonably contented with someone else. It is odd to think that if my mother, who had no intellectual interests at all, had married her old sweetheart, who apparently had none either, she would probably have kept him off the bottle and had several nice extroverted non-intellectual children, and I would have been one of those unrealised genetic potentialities which exists in their countless millions of millions wherever there are people. Human identity is a great mystery.
Renault confesses here her own not-so-nice, introverted, and intellectual personality, attributable to genetic chance as well as to her early home environment. She is, as it were, as much Elsie in The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) as she is her older sister Leo. In this, Renault's third novel, the focus is finally on the bisexual "friendly young ladies"—it is Helen, the former nurse turned illustrator, and the work's protagonist, the conflicted writer Leo, who are the title figures—but the novel begins as Elsie's story, the story of an infantilized young woman who is the victim of her parents' bad marriage. Like Renault, Elsie is trying to escape from home and all that it represents, and the metaphor is domestic geography. The novel begins: "Very quietly and carefully, hardly moving her thin young neck and round shoulders, Elsie looked round the room, first at the french windows into the garden, then at the door, measuring distances. Her calculations were instinctive, like those of a mouse; she had been making them since she could crawl. There was hardly any need to look this time; the way to the door lay flat across her father's line of vision." Elsie tries to negotiate an exit while her parents argue, but she lacks her older sister's bravura, is noticed and drawn by her parents into the altercation, feels "Guilt and shame," sees herself as "inferior and inadequate," and escapes into the damp Cornish chill only when her father tells her she can go.
Renault was never the mouse that Elsie is; she was never the naive and unreflective child whom she depicts in this book—but Elsie's desire to escape from the physical confines of home and from the parental arguments that the house represents is certainly Renault's own struggle from earliest childhood (perhaps "since she could crawl") to separate herself from her parents, to assert her unique intellectual and private self on her own terms, to escape unseen, unacknowledged, unrevealed, without opening a closed door. Reflecting more generally on having grown up in London, a metaphor here for her life within the confines of her family and, by extension, within the confines of both gender and conventional heterosexuality, she wrote eloquently to the American author Jay Williams: "I was born there and spent most of my childhood in it, and I can't remember a time when I didn't want out—as soon, whenever it was, as I discovered that out existed."
In 1911, the same year her sister was born, "Molly" began her formal education at Romford House School, a small, private, coeducational institution in Forest Gate, not far from her home, and soon after discovered the world of literature. Her father encouraged her reading, sharing with her the books in his library, among them the standard Victorian and Edwardian fare, including all of Dickens and Kipling. Molly spent most of the Great War with her mother and sister in London, but from its start in August, 1914, Frank Challans was eager to enlist. It seems likely that he was stirred by the wave of patriotism that swept the country, but it is possible that he was also eager to escape a cloying marriage. Rejected initially because of poor eyesight, by 1915, with the decimation of "Kitchener's Army," the military was eager for recruits. Dr. Challans joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to India, where he remained until demobilized in early 1919.
In 1916, at the age of eleven, Molly was a star pupil, coming in first in class examinations and receiving a copy of Kingsley's Heroes as a prize. To escape the danger of bombing raids, in June of 1917 Molly and Joyce were sent to Whiteleaf, a Buckinghamshire village, where they stayed for nearly a year and attended the local village school. When they returned to London, Joyce went happily back to her former classmates. Molly, however, would remain in a kind of limbo; she returned to Romford House School but seems to have devoted herself to independent reading while the choice of a secondary school was deferred until after the war. When she and Joyce became ill with flu in 1918, her father did not inform them of the severity of the epidemic, but Renault recalled his stories of attending patients in houses "where the door stood open with a note pinned on it saying doctor come upstairs, because there was nobody fit to open the door." Finally, in 1920, at her Aunt Bertha's urging, Molly was sent away from home to Clifton School for Girls in Bristol.
At fifteen, Molly was the oldest girl in her year. She took the standard variety of subjects, excelling particularly in French and doing well in English (both literature and writing), geography, science, and Latin. In history her performance was adequate; in math only "fair." Here, as at home, Molly appears to have gone her own way, finding, like many adolescents, that what was really important seemed to be experienced outside the classroom, and for the first time she developed friendships with other girls.
Before leaving home, she had thought of herself as a tomboy and had joined in boys' rather than in girls' games, recalling years later that "I used to climb trees and all that sort of nonsense." In fact, she wanted to be "a cowboy": "I trained for that very rigourously: I practiced with my lasso, which I made out of a clothes line—and then I confided this ambition to my mother, who told me that if I went out West, I would have to darn cowboys' socks and cook, so I forgot about that. And then I wanted to be a boy scout, and my mother said, 'Well, you can't be a boy scout, but you can be a girl guide.'" Yet when Molly visited a session, the girl guides seemed petty, competitive, and juvenile, so she was put off and never joined. The fantasy of being not a literal boy but "a cowboy," a dashing young male hero of the sort she had read about in Kipling and in other "boys' adventure stories," captured her imagination while it contrasted starkly with the reality offered to her by her mother. Revealing her early resistance to conventional gender roles, Renault admitted, "I always identified with the boys and I always thought the girls are always somehow tagging on...."
At Clifton, however, Molly became one of a group of six or seven girls and found a female friend, a best friend, in Beryl Lewis, a day student with whose family Renault lived after her first year. Julie Mullard, Renault's partner, reflecting on the information and feelings Mary had shared with her, has emphasized Beryl's importance in Mary's life during their school days: It was Mary's first experience of a close friendship, and Beryl's integrity and affection must have seemed marvelous to her. Holiday visits to her schoolmate's loving family offered a sharp contrast to the unhappiness of Mary's own home, while her friendship with Beryl was helpfully undemanding. Julie has also pointed out that, although conventional herself, Beryl accepted unconventionality in others. Yet young Molly was not especially unconventional; her greatest distinction was probably her energy and intellectual promise combined with a marked lack of mental rigor. She tended to be a leader, but also a girl who enjoyed the solitude and independence necessary for extensive reading. Sexually she was naive, ignorant of all but the biological facts, and certainly as physically inexperienced as most young women of her class and age would then have been. If she was already certain that she did not want to marry, she had formed her conviction on the basis of her parents' union, the only marriage she knew, and not on the basis of any possible alternative partnership or transgressive desires. In contrast, Beryl, who would go on to train as a secretary, "knew exactly where she was going: to marriage and a family."
Encouraged by her teachers, Renault entered Oxford after completing the qualifying exams at Clifton. It was a dramatic step for a woman of her time to go off to a university, but nowhere near so unusual an event as it had been for the previous college generation, which included Vera Brittain, Dorothy Sayers, and Winifred Holtby, women whose experiences were defined by the Great War and the struggle not only for the vote but for the right to receive university degrees, a battle waged and won at Oxford by the time Renault arrived at St. Hugh's College in October 1925. At twenty, she was again chronologically older than most women in her year, but she was in many ways intellectually and emotionally younger; she was still Molly Challans and not yet "Mary Renault." Looking back at this period, she characterized herself to a university classmate, Kathleen Abbott, as "an exceptionally late developer" and "completely adolescent." To fellow writer Jay Williams, she reiterated, "... looking back I realise that all the time I was at Oxford I was a sixth-former in mental age, and had to start all over again later, educating myself when I was at a stage to take it in."
Her education, despite the demands of a challenging program at Clifton High School, had been haphazard and undisciplined, preparing her neither for a specific career nor for the kind of learning she was expected to do at a university. Joan Hussey, a St. Hugh's classmate who went on to become a historian at the University of London, commented on the impression Renault made: "Molly Challans stands out in my memory as an uncommonly vivacious, lively individual with a bush of black hair, standing on edge simply sparkling and indeed positively sizzling with energy, with boundless and frequently changing enthusiasms, determined, but not then possessed of the capacity for sustained application, somewhat undisciplined, experimental, very right wing and pro-colonial and imperial, attracted to the less usual...." Hussey added perceptively: "I myself was turning into a dedicated medievalist and had been taught from early years how to work and I came from a satisfying home circle with brothers overlapping with me at Oxford. I don't think Molly Challans had any of these advantages and she never fitted into what I would call normal academic life and this, combined with her passionate desire to express herself in writing, led her to run before she could walk."
Excerpted from The Masks of Mary Renault by Caroline Zilboorg. Copyright © 2001 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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