The Masks of Mary Renault: A Literary Biography by Caroline Zilboorg
Q. What initially sparked your interest in Mary Renault?
In the process of writing this book, I have often been asked how I came to choose my subject. Most people with whom I discuss it recognize Mary Renault as the author of historical novels about the classical world; many confess to remembering a title or two; and some vividly recall The Last of the Wine, her first “Greek” novel, published in 1956, or The King Must Die, the first of her two books about the mythical Theseus, or her sweeping trilogy about Alexander the Great. I was drawn to her by none of these. Indeed, I dimly recall looking at The King Must Die in my school library and deciding that it was about experience so distant from my own that I made another choice.
Then, after a summer of European travel in 1992, my family and I headed to Berlin for eight days in a pension on Knesebeck Strasse. We arrived early on a sunny August afternoon, but we found the doors locked and no one at home. As we strolled about in front of the building, waiting for the proprietor, I perused the display tables under the awning of a nearby bookshop, discovering among the secondhand volumes an alluring paperback copy of The Charioteer. The trove of books we had brought with us was nearly completely read, and I was very tempted by this one, even at six Deutschmarks. My children (two boys, then aged thirteen and twelve, and two girls, then nine and seven) needed to use the lavatory, so we wandered into the shop, were directed through and out into a nineteenth-century courtyard, to a small room on the left. I had seen the saleswoman raise her eyebrows at my request, but I was used to that: Any mother with four young children is used to such looks—there seem so many of us. When we returned to the shop, however, my husband beckoned me outside into the street. He was astonished; he had found a book he had long been seeking, Käte Kollwitz’s Tagebucher, but when he took it up to the counter to pay, he was told that he could not buy it: the shop was for “women only.” I should have guessed from its name: Lilith.
Leaving my boys to wait with my husband, I went back in to purchase The Charioteer, for I was now fascinated. The cover featured a pastel illustration of a gentle young man with auburn hair. Dressed in a khaki uniform, he looked down and off to the left, while behind him a crutch was propped. The back cover advertised the story as a “moving and sensitive portrayal of a modern homosexual relationship.” I had thought Renault only wrote about great men in the ancient world. What was this “modern” novel about the Second World War? And what was a book about a homosexual man doing in a lesbian bookshop? What, in fact, was Mary Renault doing there?
After hours of touring Berlin, I read The Charioteer late into the night over the next few days. It is a wonderful novel, and I realized by the end that it was, in complex ways I did not then understand, related to the Greek novels advertised inside as “Other titles by the same author.” I had no idea until several months later that this was the last book she would set in twentieth century England, but I already felt that, when I finished the project I was then working on, I wanted to write something on Mary Renault.
Q. What do you think would have happened in 1939 if Mary decided to publish her first book under her real name, instead of a pseudonym?
Mary Renault is, of course, not her real name. Mary Renault was born Eileen Mary Challans in London in September 1905. She died in 1983 in Cape Town, South Africa, where she had lived with her partner, Julie Mullard, since leaving England in 1948.
Nobody ever called Renault ‘Eileen’, and until she went up to Oxford University, Renault was known to her family and schoolmates as ‘Molly’. The nickname suggested someone diminutive and pretty and Irish, the cute little girl her mother always wanted, but Renault was none of these things, and claimed the more adult name of ‘Mary’ as she began her studies at St Hughes’ College in 1925. It’s not surprising, having finally named herself and claimed an identity of her own, that she would retain ‘Mary’ when she chose a pseudonym at the time of the publication of her first book, The Purposes of Love, in 1939. But why change her surname, her family name, the name she had inherited, as it were, from her doctor father?
When she began her medical studies in 1933 Renault could not have known the extraordinary demands nursing would make on her, but she must have known that she was choosing a profession that would place her on a daily basis in close contact with the reality of physical bodies, an experience quite different from her rather abstract study of literature at St Hughes’. She must also have known about the uniform she would be compelled to wear, complicated layers which concealed individuality and styled, as evident in the required headdress, on the traditional clothing worn by medieval nuns. Even the names by which she would be known in the world of English nursing would emphasize her status as a professional at the same time that they masked her individuality and minimized her identity as a woman. Within the hospital, she would be known by her surname alone or as ‘Nurse Challans’; on the wards, doctors, nurses, and patients would call her merely ‘Sister’. By becoming a nurse, Renault was dedicating her life to serving others and would follow a rigid regime of long hours on duty in extremely hierarchical institutions. She was expected to live in a cell-like room within the hospital or school, to be available on the wards or in the surgical theatre during any emergency, and to maintain the decorum and celibacy her vocation implied.
Nurse Challans, however, was engaging in two activities her superiors did not imagine: She was finally writing a novel, based autobiographically on her hospital experiences, and she was falling passionately in love for the first time--with another female student. When Renault finished her novel in the late thirties, it seemed practical, even essential for her future as a nurse, to hide her identity under another surname. It was likely a romantic impulse rather than any carefully-thought-out or complex symbolism that lead her to choose the name of a character in a Renaissance play, although in retrospect it’s tempting to conclude that she also wanted to claim for herself an identity so different from what her time and nation expected of her that she might even appear to be French. Later Renault would go further and refuse to stabilize even the pronunciation of her pen name: was it ‘Renault’ in the continental manner (like, for instance, the car) or ‘Ren-alt’, as most English people would naturally say it? She left the pronunciation entirely up to her readers, as if to declare that what she had written, both in her books and on their title pages, would need to stand on its own, would need to represent her, would need to stand for her, in all its ambiguity.
Q. What should feminists and members of the LGBTQ community take away from Mary’s story?
It may be tempting today to criticize Renault for not being sufficiently radical. Such criticism seems to me grossly unfair for several reasons. Most obviously, it stems from a failure to understand the historical context which shaped Renault as a young woman coming to maturity in pre-war England and which influenced her reading public at least into the 1970s. Such criticism also ignores Renault's rejection of any collective identity—for example, as a lesbian, but also as a woman, as a white South African, and as a progressive or a conservative within the culture of the Britain of her youth or the South Africa of her maturity—a rejection that can be understood not so much as naive and conventional but as sophisticated and even radical from a queer perspective that argues that ‘identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression.’
Obversely, one might be tempted to pardon Renault for her bisexual position, treating her as either naïve or ignorant, caught inextricably in her own time and place, deprived of the knowledge and insights available to us as a result of recent lesbian and feminist research and theory. Such patronizing would be, I feel, as unfair as it is unsubstantiated by the evidence not only of Renault’s writing but of her own life. In her afterward, written at the end of her life, to the Virago edition of The Friendly Young Ladies, Renault was in fact pushed to defend her position. I think we must take her at her word when she wrote, ‘I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be.’ Addressing the same question more specifically in a letter to me in 1996, Julie (Renault’s partner) would declare that the matter of sexual orientation and identity was both more complicated and simpler than any explicit or popular label. Despite what their union may have looked like to others, despite what it ‘approximated’ in living arrangements, commitment and depth of feeling, there was nothing formal about their bond to each other. Julie even went so far as to declare, ‘we hadn’t planned to remain friends or whatever we call ourselves.’ Both Renault and Julie would have scoffed at the idea that their partnership was in any traditional sense a ‘marriage’, although what it was remained unnamed, even unnameable. Years later, however, they agreed that they never would have left each other. In Julie’s words, it ‘just seemed we liked each other best.’
Q. What do you think artists today would think of Mary’s belief that “art should be not without political implications, but above and beyond politics” (193).
Feminists now recognize that the personal is political. All of Renault’s work is political in this deeper and larger sense. She was in no way writing tracts for or against any particular political candidate or party platform or specific law, but she would have contended that her work always engaged with ethical issues. Insomuch as ethical issues are or ought to be at the core of how people govern themselves and of what people expect from themselves and their society, Renault’s work is always engaged, always political… whether or not she was comfortable using the term.
Q. Are you currently working on any new books or projects?
I recently published my own historical novel, Transgressions, about two writers, the English poet Richard Aldington and the bisexual American poet Hilda Doolittle, whose passion was challenged by the forces of war and their own bohemian views of art and marriage. With their circle of friends who included Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence, Richard and Hilda rebelled against convention both in their art and in their personal lives.
I am now working on another biography: a life of my father, the Russian-American psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg, from his birth as a Jew in Czarist Russia in 1890 through his death in New York City in 1959. He served as secretary to the Minister of Labor in Kerensky’s revolutionary government and as a doctor at the front during World War I before escaping to America in 1919. After analysis in Berlin in the late 1920s, he became a prominent psychoanalyst and his patients included wealthy and artistic figures, among them Marshall Field III, George Gershwin, Kay Swift, Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman and Thomas Merton as well as members of the Warburg and de Menil Families. He joined the Quakers in 1922, but turned increasingly towards more traditional Christianity and finally converted to Catholicism in 1954. He wrote extensively and his works include a history of psychiatry, for which he is still known, while arguing in his later work that there was no incompatibility between psychoanalysis and religion.