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Mary Renault: A Biography

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The author of The Charioteer and The King Must Die, Renault studied at Oxford but eventually abandoned the academic world and England for South Africa, where she and her companion, Julie Mullard, remained. "A superb biography of an exceptional novelist" (New Yorker). Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Index; photographs. The author of The Charioteer and The King Must Die, Renault studied at Oxford but eventually abandoned the academic world and England for South Africa, where she and her companion, Julie Mullard, remained. "A superb biography of an exceptional novelist" (New Yorker). Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Index; photographs.


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The author of The Charioteer and The King Must Die, Renault studied at Oxford but eventually abandoned the academic world and England for South Africa, where she and her companion, Julie Mullard, remained. "A superb biography of an exceptional novelist" (New Yorker). Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Index; photographs. The author of The Charioteer and The King Must Die, Renault studied at Oxford but eventually abandoned the academic world and England for South Africa, where she and her companion, Julie Mullard, remained. "A superb biography of an exceptional novelist" (New Yorker). Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Index; photographs.

30 review for Mary Renault: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Edmund Marlowe

    Mary Renault is my favourite author thanks to her eight novels set in ancient Greece. I have read The Last of the Wine and the two about Alexander more times than any other books and their sheer beauty still brings tears to my eyes as easily as when I was a boy. Partly it is the subject matter: apparently like her, and for all its faults, I find ancient Greece more inspiring than any other society, certainly including today’s. Partly it is because no kind of creativity fascinates me as much as t Mary Renault is my favourite author thanks to her eight novels set in ancient Greece. I have read The Last of the Wine and the two about Alexander more times than any other books and their sheer beauty still brings tears to my eyes as easily as when I was a boy. Partly it is the subject matter: apparently like her, and for all its faults, I find ancient Greece more inspiring than any other society, certainly including today’s. Partly it is because no kind of creativity fascinates me as much as the authentic recreation of past societies presented on their own terms without shabby compromises to modern sensibilities. The admiration she has elicited from leading classicists is testimony to how successfully she accomplished this. Partly it is the emotional power, charm and clarity of her prose. And it is many other things besides. Sweetman writes about his subject with an appealing sympathy that does justice to his name. The other side of the coin to this is that his book has the faults of an authorised biography, which it more or less is, since much the most important sources appear to have been Renault herself and Julie Mullard, her lover for nearly half a century. It is informative rather than critical or analytical, but given that this was the first biography of her, it is information that matters much the most. This is presented amply, but without tedium. I find the first half about her life in England a more compelling story, even though my main interest is in the background to her novels written later. There are no footnotes or references to sources, which would be ruinous if the subject were controversial or dead long before writing, but does not matter here where the sources are personal or self-evident. Far more worrying are a number of inaccuracies and confusingly sloppy statements, which would surely have annoyed such a stickler for accuracy as Renault. For example, having been born in 1905, “she decided to write her first novel just before the end of the war, at the age of eight.” Renault’s life changed suddenly in 1947, when she won as a prize for one of her novels “a sum quite beyond belief” that enabled her to emigrate to South Africa with Mullard. She told Julie it was “£ 150,000, over £ 37,000 at the time.”(?) Before emigrating, however, she went on a spending binge probably more than she belatedly discovered she would have left over after paying 97½ % wartime tax. So, are you clear as to how easily she was able to finance her new life? I had vaguely intended to read this biography for years, but in the end it was one of those books I was driven to read by the opposite of a recommendation: criticisms which convinced me I would like it, encountered in a review by another distinguished historical novelist, Hilary Mantel. “It is odd and unfortunate”, she says, “that by the end of [Sweetman’s] book one admires his subject less rather than more.” Not so; her reasoning made me suspect the opposite, and thus it turned out; it was Mantel whom I admired less in the end. Elaborating on this disagreement seems a good way of conveying why I think Renault was admirable and her life usefully spent and well worth reading about. The gist of Mantel’s disapproval seems to be that Renault was politically incorrect, which conveys nothing to me about her personal quality other than to reassure me she had the independence of mind and courage to express it that are keys to my respect. The title of Mantel’s review was “Homophobic.” As neither she nor Sweetman himself say anything about him that could be so construed, I presume this refers to Renault, bizarre as it is to refer thus to one whose writings brought self-accepting relief to thousands of homosexuals in an age when it was still rare and courageous to express understanding of their feelings. Renault has apparently disappointed some homosexual activists by her dislike of their politics, which she dismissed as “sexual tribalism” and personally self-limiting, and though Mantel admits “there is something very wise and humane in her recognition that sexual identity is fluid and mutable,” she seems annoyed that Renault would not identify herself as a lesbian. It looks though that what really draws Mantel’s ire was Renault’s unfashionable expressions of admiration for men and her wish that she had been one. Mantel is deeply disappointed that her motives in writing as she did were not political: she should have written sympathetically about homosexuality because that is correct rather than because she admired it, and she should have been miserable rather than at ease depicting with sympathetic understanding such an overtly masculine society. In effect, Mantel feels cheated by Renault having chosen to write about a civilization she was in tune with, though her doing so is the key to how she was able to write as utterly convincingly as she did. Here we approach the essence of the gulf in mentality between those driven by political considerations and those driven by higher ideals. Asked by Sweetman what she would like to be remembered for, Renault replied “As someone who got it right.” That is just how I remember her. Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander’s Choice, the story of a boy inspired by Renault’s novels, www.amazon.com/dp/1481222112

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dannica Zulestin

    Have to admit I didn't read every single page of this, but close. Gave me a good background on Mary Renault's life story for my project. Still intend to get other perspectives, but it's a good start. Have to admit I didn't read every single page of this, but close. Gave me a good background on Mary Renault's life story for my project. Still intend to get other perspectives, but it's a good start.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Charlie David

    Fantastic biography on one of my favorite authors. David Sweetman's research revealed so many nuances and layers to this private author. A treasure! Fantastic biography on one of my favorite authors. David Sweetman's research revealed so many nuances and layers to this private author. A treasure!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Christin

    I was ready to write about how interesting it is to see what inspires an author and how closely one can link the events in Mary Renault's life to the book she wound up writing as a response and also how her young love of Edward, Prince of Wales obviously made her sympathetic to the other possibly misunderstood, roguish, golden boys of history (her Alexander and her Theseus and her Alkibiades). I was going to write about all that and then I got to the Acknowledgements page, which I read on a whim I was ready to write about how interesting it is to see what inspires an author and how closely one can link the events in Mary Renault's life to the book she wound up writing as a response and also how her young love of Edward, Prince of Wales obviously made her sympathetic to the other possibly misunderstood, roguish, golden boys of history (her Alexander and her Theseus and her Alkibiades). I was going to write about all that and then I got to the Acknowledgements page, which I read on a whim. I am grateful to Dr Howard B. Gotlieb, Director Special Collections, Mugar Memorial Libaray... WAT? ...Boston University... AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! I hold the Classics department personally responsible for not telling everyone about this. I think a pilgrimage is in store.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Anne Jenkinson

    1972 I read The Persian Boy. I was hooked - and devoured all of her novels.

  6. 4 out of 5

    John Anthony

    Loaned to me by a friend. Thanks Maxine. Immensely readable. Among other things we see why she wrote what she did and how.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paul Packer

    I found this book a little disappointing. Though it recites the main points of Renault's life factually enough, I'd have liked much more analysis of her books--the writing style, the influences on that style, what decided her to write mainly in the first person etc...etc. At one point the author remarks that her publisher "seems not to have been much aware" of the literary quality of her work, yet he himself seems to suffer from the same artistic blindness. The greatness of Mary Renault lies in I found this book a little disappointing. Though it recites the main points of Renault's life factually enough, I'd have liked much more analysis of her books--the writing style, the influences on that style, what decided her to write mainly in the first person etc...etc. At one point the author remarks that her publisher "seems not to have been much aware" of the literary quality of her work, yet he himself seems to suffer from the same artistic blindness. The greatness of Mary Renault lies in a combination of her erudition, psychological insight, powers of description, particularly of thought and feeling, and amazing lucidity, resulting in a writing style I've not seem approached by any other author. Lines like, "One never saw Xenophon paying court to a youth, nor Plato to a woman, and such extremes of nature tend naturally to discord," are worth quoting and examining. Perhaps Sweetman considered himself inadequate to the task, in which case perhaps he was not the man for the job.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Diana Sandberg

    I read several of Renault's books in my late teens (over 50 years ago). I have a vague memory of some young man of my acquaintance suggesting one to me, and I greatly fear I was so utterly clueless that I didn't draw what presumably was meant to be an obvious conclusion. I was, still am, a great fan of well-written historical novels, and really loved her work on that ground. I won't say I was entirely oblivious of the homosexual content, just that it didn't mean much to me. Dear me. I certainly I read several of Renault's books in my late teens (over 50 years ago). I have a vague memory of some young man of my acquaintance suggesting one to me, and I greatly fear I was so utterly clueless that I didn't draw what presumably was meant to be an obvious conclusion. I was, still am, a great fan of well-written historical novels, and really loved her work on that ground. I won't say I was entirely oblivious of the homosexual content, just that it didn't mean much to me. Dear me. I certainly had no notion of her iconic status until much later. I found this biography of Renault an enjoyable read. I usually find biographies are most interesting when discussing the person's childhood and tend to flatten out after that, but this one kept me interested throughout. The author was clearly an admirer, but did not omit some events/attributes that were perhaps less than admirable. Personally, I was absolutely charmed to read of Renault's early and wholehearted enthusiasm for Patrick O'Brian's work and the epistolary friendship they enjoyed.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kat

    I read this as part of a book club; I have not read any books authored by Mary Renault. She was interesting. The author of this biography went a little overboard in analyzing Mary Renault's work in context of her work and not in context of her life. If you like Mary Renault's work, you will probably like this book. If you don't, skip the enormous sections of this book that are basically Mr. Sweetman describing something in one of Mary Renault's books, then including the actual passage, then desc I read this as part of a book club; I have not read any books authored by Mary Renault. She was interesting. The author of this biography went a little overboard in analyzing Mary Renault's work in context of her work and not in context of her life. If you like Mary Renault's work, you will probably like this book. If you don't, skip the enormous sections of this book that are basically Mr. Sweetman describing something in one of Mary Renault's books, then including the actual passage, then describing it again.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mary Cassidy

    Fascinating and loving exploration of the life of a writer that I read with delight in my early years. I had no idea about her life, her life long learning about and exploration of ancient Greece, nor her association with South Africa. She was a very private person and was extremely blessed in her biographer. Appreciated his extensive use of quotations from her works and her letters. Also the information about the images that inspired her.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tanneke Zeeuw

    Uneven, though to me fascinating when discussing the actual derivations of her books

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alexander

    Mary is exactly the bundle of contradictions you'd expect Mary is exactly the bundle of contradictions you'd expect

  13. 5 out of 5

    Marc Dejullstromme

    I'm grateful Sweetman gave us this book. I thoroughly enjoyed peering into the life of Mary Renault. One aspect that I disagree was his account of Alexias and Lysis. First, Alexias did not struggle with bisexuality. He faced many challenges that are well detailed, but a struggle with sexuality was not a problem in that period of antiquity. Renault believed in seeing the story through the eyes of those times, not modern times, such as Sweetman seems to be doing during his own era, Thatcher's UK. R I'm grateful Sweetman gave us this book. I thoroughly enjoyed peering into the life of Mary Renault. One aspect that I disagree was his account of Alexias and Lysis. First, Alexias did not struggle with bisexuality. He faced many challenges that are well detailed, but a struggle with sexuality was not a problem in that period of antiquity. Renault believed in seeing the story through the eyes of those times, not modern times, such as Sweetman seems to be doing during his own era, Thatcher's UK. Renault believed in writing the truth, and so a struggle with bisexuality would not have been a true viewpoint in Athens. Also, I disagree when Sweetman wrote that Alexias and Lysis never made love. If one pays attention to Renault's style of writing across her books while ignoring modern stigmas, one can conclude three points where these two characters did make love. . . . I said to my heart, "What mighty power hast thou been defying?" Truly love may be likened to the Sphinx of the Egyptians with the face of a smiling god and a lion's claws. When he had wounded me all my longing was to leap into his darkness, and be consumed. .. And so on. Her subtlety and symbolism might make the argument gray for some, but she knew young gay men in Cape Town and understood the ways of their nature. And so you might say this aspect of her characters was another piece of her insisting the stories portrayed the landscape of the historical times.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    I've loved the novels of Mary Renault since I first encountered them years and years ago. This biography is fascinating and inspiring;it seems Sweetman had fairly extensive access to Renault's papers and also to her life's companion. Now, it may be that that access made this a particularly positive sort of view of Mary's life...but then, I don't think I would have wanted a negative one (and believe me, there is gossip aplenty in this biography for those who relish that). I've loved the novels of Mary Renault since I first encountered them years and years ago. This biography is fascinating and inspiring;it seems Sweetman had fairly extensive access to Renault's papers and also to her life's companion. Now, it may be that that access made this a particularly positive sort of view of Mary's life...but then, I don't think I would have wanted a negative one (and believe me, there is gossip aplenty in this biography for those who relish that).

  15. 5 out of 5

    Emma Glaisher

    Very interesting, though the writing style a little clunky. Inspired me to re-read her novels including the early non-Greek ones.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kev

    Sweetman is a great biographer. So entertaining and accurate when he takes on a subject. He is well known for his Expressionists & Impressionists' biographies. Sweetman is a great biographer. So entertaining and accurate when he takes on a subject. He is well known for his Expressionists & Impressionists' biographies.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mary Frances

    Factually informative but lacking insight into the author's psyche and motivations. Factually informative but lacking insight into the author's psyche and motivations.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

  19. 4 out of 5

    Nina

  20. 5 out of 5

    Steven P. Little

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jan Schmudde

  22. 5 out of 5

    Teal

  23. 5 out of 5

    Vickie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jossalyn

  26. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

  27. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

  28. 4 out of 5

    Karen

  29. 5 out of 5

    Terri Beckett

  30. 4 out of 5

    B.B.

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