Mary Renault (1905 -1983)
Eileen Mary Challans was born in Forest Gate, London, the daughter of Dr Frank Challans, and grew up in a comfortably middle-class if unhappy household. In 1920 she was sent to board at Clifton High School for Girls, Bristol; her discovery of Plato’s Symposium in the school library was a key influence on her future writing. She studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford (1925-8), then returned to Bristol where her parents had moved in 1926. After a ‘grey period’ in Bristol during which she took uninspiring desk jobs, she moved with her parents in 1932 to Stoke-on-Trent.
In August 1933 Mary returned to Oxford to train as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary. Here Challans met another trainee nurse, Julie Mullard, who became her lifelong partner. In 1939 she published her first novel, Purposes of Love, under the pseudonym Mary Renault (she always pronounced it ‘Ren-olt’). It was a time when she was struggling both with her vocation – nursing or writing – and with her sexuality. In March 1940, she and Julie moved to a flat in Bristol and were soon assigned to Bristol Royal Infirmary and then to Winford Emergency Hospital near Bristol. She returned to the Radcliffe Infirmary until 1945.
Mary Renault published five successful contemporary novels before leaving the grey and repressive atmosphere of post-war England with Julie Mullard in 1948 for South Africa. She never returned. There she made the shift to the historical classical fiction of Greek life for which she is best known. These novels explored themes of war, peace, career, women’s roles, sexuality and fluid gender identities, and achieved a wide gay and lesbian readership during the middle decades of the 20th century. Her mature works are: The Charioteer (1953) (regarded as the transitional piece from her earlier work); The Last of the Wine (1956); The King Must Die (1958); The Bull from the Sea (1962); The Mask of Apollo (1966); Fire from Heaven (1969); The Persian Boy (1972); The Praise Singer (1978); and Funeral Games (1981).
Source: C. Zilboorg, The Masks of Mary Renault (2001)
Last edited: 12/4/2021
Renault’s novel The Charioteer is set in fictional ‘Bridstow’ but many locations are unmistakably Bristol: College Green, Hotwells, Clifton and Durdham Downs. Jonathan Rowe’s article Mary Renault’s Bristol gives a vivid description of her time in the city and the locations portrayed in The Charioteer.