Born Eileen Mary Challans in London in 1905, the author Mary Renault was educated at Clifton High School for Girls in Bristol from 1919, then in 1925 went to St Hugh’s College, Oxford to study English. From 1926-1932 her family lived at 2 Hughenden Road, Clifton. On leaving Oxford in 1928 Mary joined her parents and sister in Bristol and rented a basement flat in Charlotte Street and spent four years here working in several mundane jobs. In 1931 she contracted rheumatic fever and because of this lived at Hughenden Road for a year.
In 1933 Mary returned to Oxford to train as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary. Here she met another trainee nurse, Julie Mullard, who was to become her lifelong partner. In 1939 she published her first novel Purposes of Love under the pseudonym Mary Renault. Mary and Julie spent the war years living in Clifton and working as nurses in the Bristol Royal Infirmary and the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) hospital at Winford. From 1948 they lived in South Africa.
Mary went on to write numerous novels, some with veiled gay and lesbian characters. One, The Charioteer is set in a fictionalised Bristol (‘Bridstow’). The following is an extract from an excellent article Mary Renault’s Bristol by local historian Jonathan Rowe.
The story revolves around Laurie Odell, a young soldier who is being treated at an EMS hospital outside ‘Bridstow’ for serious leg injuries after being rescued from the sea after Dunkirk. Here he meets and falls in love with Andrew Raynes, a nineteen year old Quaker and conscientious objector working as a hospital orderly. Here Mary Renault drew on her wartime experiences of the conscientious objectors working at Winford, some of whom were Quakers and the problems that arose with ‘war heroes’ being cared for by ‘conchies’. Like pacifists in wartime, homosexuals were outcasts in ‘straight’ society, struggling to adjust to a sexuality seen as ‘deviant’ – a struggle symbolised by the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus: one horse heaven bent, the other plunging to earth, from where Renault took her title. This theme is underlined by Laurie’s feelings for the naïve and innocent Andrew, and Ralph Lanyon who Laurie once hero worshipped and is now a confident and sophisticated naval officer who he meets again after they were at public school together when Ralph was expelled for ‘sexual misconduct’ with another boy. Torn between his feelings for both Andrew and Ralph, by the end of the book Laurie has made his choice.
Renault describes a war torn Bristol – ‘the burgher solidarity of the city was interrupted by large irrelevant open spaces, in some of which bulldozers were flattening the rubble‘. There are ‘the Home Guard trenches‘ and the ‘Cathedral green air raid shelter‘ which is the public underground air raid shelter on College Green where my own parents, before they were married, spent a night after being stopped by an air raid warden after a date at The Whiteladies Cinema. A pub near College Green is described as ‘nastily modernised at large expense, chromium stools, the plastic leather, the sham parquet floor and florescent lighting’. This may well be The Mauretania in Park Street. Originally built in 1871 it was extended in 1936-1938 by Bristol architect W H Watkins. The Mauretania was fitted out with mahogany panelling and other items from the interior of Cunard liner RMS Mauretania, which was decommissioned in 1934.
Laurie notices ‘shops which looked as if they hadn’t changed hands in centuries’ and ‘the steep streets of flaking Adam houses that leaned over the Wells’ (presumably Hotwells). In one chapter he goes to an all male party in a Clifton flat – ‘a massive late Palladian terrace of Bath stone’. Other Bristol sites described include Durdham Downs and the Avon Gorge – ‘Ralph … took a half turn round the Downs and pulled off the road at the spot where cars stop to admire the Gorge … the steep side of the gorge with it’s sheer faces … wooded slopes and a scoop of quarry. The ebb tide flowed sluggishly at the bottom, a muddy thread between two long slopes of slime’. The Suspension Bridge is also featured as Renault writes ‘The bridge gave gently on it’s chains in the wind that swept along the gorge, there was only the darkling sense of loneliness and height’.
Mary Renault’s ground breaking novel paved the way for today’s more tolerant society and attitudes. Few could have known it was the work of a former Clifton High School girl who spent her formative years in Bristol and whose wartime nursing experiences in the city led her to write such a passionate, haunting and moving book which still resonates with readers today.
Jonathan Rowe, 2015
This is an extract from an article Mary Renault’s Bristol with further details of her life in Bristol and writing.