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Mary Renault
Mary Renault (1905-1983) was an English author who resided in South Africa with her partner, Julie Mullard, in a community of gay expatriates. Between 1939 and 1981, Renault wrote 15 novels and one (now mostly obsolete) work of nonfiction, The Nature of Alexander. Though more than a third of her novels are contemporary, she is overwhelmingly remembered for her later works, which were set in Ancient Greece.

Though Renault had no training in the classics, she was widely acclaimed in her day for the historical accuracy of her books. That historical accuracy is often called into question now, as she relied heavily on the research of Robert Graves, who was perhaps more creative than becomes a historian. Renault has also been accused of portraying pederastic relationships as heroic, despite the fact that the relationships in her books are probably not pederasty as we would define it today.

Renault's life and works were the subject of an hour-long BBC documentary, Mary Renault: Love and War in Ancient Greece.

Her published works in full:

  • Purposes of Love (US title: Promise of Love)
  • Kind Are Her Answers
  • The Friendly Young Ladies (US title: The Middle Mist)
  • Return to Night
  • The North Face
  • The Charioteer
  • The Last of the Wine
  • The King Must Die
  • The Bull from the Sea
  • The Mask of Apollo
  • Fire from Heaven
  • The Persian Boy
  • Funeral Games


Her books contain examples of:

  • 100% Adoration Rating: Alexander.
  • Abusive Parents
  • Achilles in His Tent: When Alexander is sulking, Bagoas The Persian Boy references this as a trope.
  • Action Girl: Not many. Historically accurate, this. However, there are some in the Theseus books: Hippolyta certainly qualifies, as do the bull-leaping girls, especially Thalestris.
  • Actual Pacifist: The Quaker conscientious objectors who work at a military hospital in The Charioteer.
  • A God Am I: Inverted with Ariadne in The King Must Die; the people of Crete worship her as a goddess, but she does not see it as anything more than traditional honour to a princess.
  • All Gays Are Pedophiles: Carefully averted in The Charioteer.
  • All Gays Are Promiscuous: Sometimes. In The Charioteer, the Bad Gays are promiscuous, the Good Gays want a monogamous relationship, and the hero and his beloved share "a love without physical union". In Renault's later novel The Mask of Apollo, the main character, a decent, likeable gay guy, cheerfully sleeps around. Her very heterosexual Theseus is also very promiscuous.
  • All Gays Love Theater: She wrote plenty of gay actors, but also some straight ones.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Ralph Lanyon's landlady in The Charioteer, a "dim, draggle-tailed old thing" according to Ralph's despicable boyfriend Bunny, "adores" Ralph, seeing him as "a wicked romantic sailor". Ralph is a big hit with the ladies in general. Given that the great majority of the book's modern straight female fanbase worship Ralph, this was rather prescient of Renault.
  • Almost Kiss: Laurie and Ralph at one point in The Charioteer.
  • Ambiguously Gay: To the uninitiated, back when she was writing and the public was less aware of homosexuality. Usually done with a nod and a wink to those in the know.
  • Asexuality: Eurydike in Funeral Games is "indifferent" to sex. As is Hippolytos in The Bull From The Sea.
    • Bagoas in The Persian Boy is a variant: he comments that he enjoys sex but has no "need" for it.
  • As the Good Book Says: Crops up a fair bit in The Charioteer. Sixteen-year-old Laurie, homosexual but not really knowing it yet, dreams of "the tents of Troy, the columns of Athens, David waiting in an olive grove for the sound of Jonathan's bow". Seven years later Laurie, realising that Andrew Raynes, whom he's just fallen head over heels for, is ignorant of homosexuality, thinks, "If he's seen it in the Bible and guessed what it meant, that's about as much as he knows." A nurse refers to Laurie and Andrew as David and Jonathan; Laurie tells this to Andrew, who says "How nice." At one point Andrew offers to leave Laurie alone and Laurie replies "Don't be so daft". "But, he remembered, Andrew never talked like that, not about anything that mattered. Let your conversation be yea, yea, and nay, nay." The second sentence is Matthew 5:33. This is a reference to Andrew's Quaker principles of honesty and plain speaking. The quote comes right after the exhortation not to take oaths, which Quakers have always stuck to, even when it got them into trouble. In Purposes of Love Vivian, reunited with her boyfriend Mic after a quarrel, feeling that she has come home to everything that's right in her life, thinks, "Which was, and is, and is to come." This is what the lions say in praise of God in Revelations 4:8.
  • Badass Pacifist: Arguably, all the Quakers whom we meet or hear about in The Charioteer: Dave, Andrew, Derek, John in the kitchen, Bertie Raynes.
  • Battle Couple: Lysis and Alexias, Theseus and Hippolyta, Alexander and Hephaistion. In The Charioteer Laurie imagines himself and Ralph as a Battle Couple. Bagoas in The Persian Boy wishes he could be one with Alex.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Sometimes. The ancient Greeks tended to believe this, so it comes up a lot, and most of Renault's male heroes and good guys in general are good-looking, often very much so. In The Praise Singer, however, she tried something new, making Simonides both very ugly (history records that he was) and very heterosexual. The Charioteer's Bunny is very good-looking and thoroughly detestable.
  • Better as Friends: Alec and Ralph in The Charioteer.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: In The Charioteer, Laurie and Andrew, tending to a dying friend of Laurie's, have a fight over Andrew's religious principles. Laurie reveals to Andrew that he is being transferred from the hospital where Andrew is an orderly, so they won't be able to see each other as often. Andrew's grief at this shakes him into an almost-realisation of his feelings for Laurie and how Laurie is concealing something from him — that thing being the whole homosexuality deal. Laurie spontaneously leans over and kisses Andrew. Andrew is stunned. A nurse walks in on them. It's a major moment. In The Last of the Wine, Lysis and Alexias, sitting on a hill by a river at sunset, make vows to one another and kiss.
  • Bilingual Bonus: There's a fair bit of untranslated French in The Charioteer.
    • In-universe, in The King Must Die, Theseus overhears a pair of Cretan craftsmen talking about contemporary (ancient) Egypt in their native language. The Egyptian economic policy is one he later adapts and uses in Athens.
    • Bagoas does this later in The Persian Boy. As he's the King's body-man and sometimes an entertainer in the royal court, he gets to be in the Throne Room a lot. Because Persia at this time basically owns Greece, they have a lot of meetings and political business with Greek interpreters. All he has to do is listen. He is able to warn Darius about something later because he and Darius both speak it and the people around them do not.
  • Bi the Way
  • Bittersweet Ending: Pretty much all of 'em.
  • Bondage Is Bad: In secondary school, Ralph of The Charioteer had a relationship with a younger boy, Hazell, who besides being definitively gay had some serious psychological problems. Hazell got to taking advantage of his position as Ralph's secret boyfriend; Ralph told him that the next time Hazell was sent to Ralph for a beating — Ralph was Head of the School and the corporal punishment was his job — Hazell would get one. Hazell turned up, and Ralph had to cane him. Then he realised that Hazell enjoyed it. Relating the story seven years later, he says, "Of course one sees at once that if he was made that way he couldn't help himself, poor swine. It wasn't the sort of thing I'd ever expected to find myself mixed up in, that's all. I'd have liked to see him dead, so long as I hadn't got to touch him."
  • Bury Your Gays (often averted; for example, in The Mask of Apollo the main character lives mostly-happily ever after with a steady male lover)
    • Narrowly averted in The Charioteer: Ralph is about to commit suicide but Laurie arrives in time.
  • Butch Lesbian
  • But Not Too Gay: Renault describes heterosexual sex in very delicate, indirect terms, but that goes double for her descriptions of homosexual sex. If that hadn't been the case her books would have been censored. She gets more explicit about both kinds of sex in The Persian Boy and The Praise Singer, but her explicit is not very. "Inch-by-inch physical descriptions are the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or the diner without a palate", according to her.
  • Camp Gay
  • Cast Full of Gay
  • Celibate Hero: Renault's Alexander is not celibate, but he's not all that keen on sex.
  • Chastity Couple, since many of her characters attempt to follow Plato's precepts. Notably, Andrew and Laurie in The Charioteer and Alexias and Lysis in The Last of the Wine are this trope at least for a while.
  • Closet Key: Laurie is this for Andrew in The Charioteer.
  • Club Kid: Lots in The Charioteer. The work's sympathetic gay characters are presented in strong contrast.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: In The Persian Boy, Bagoas has fits of jealous rage whenever it appears that he is not Alexander's first priority. Hephaestion triggers most of these, but Bagoas also responds badly to Alexander's wife Roxane and to a random young soldier with whom Alexander may have had a brief fling.
  • Culture Clash: The Persian Boy and The King Must Die
  • Daddy's Girl: Ellen in North Face and Axiothea in The Mask of Apollo.
  • Dance Battler - The Persian Boy. Bagoas is also an accomplished dancer (a matter of historic record) and at various times dances to please Darius, to show off for Alexander, and later to celebrate their love.
  • Dark and Troubled Past
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance
  • Demythtification - The King Must Die
  • Despair Event Horizon
  • Did The Research - Massively. Although some of her sources are now considered suspect and/or have been superseded by new findings, she worked hard to reconstruct and present the truth as she knew it, especially in her Alexander the Great books.
  • Disappeared Dad
  • Driven to Suicide
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Ralph in The Charioteer is becoming an alcoholic due to disillusionment and loneliness.
  • Due to the Dead: Ancient Greece was big on this.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: North Face.
  • Eyes Never Lie
  • Erotic Dream: In The Charioteer, Laurie has one about Ralph, whom he's falling for while also deeply in love with Andrew. Later, awaiting his mother's wedding, in all kinds of emotional pain, he recalls the dream before he falls asleep. In The Persian Boy, Bagoas, who is becoming talented at pleasing people in bed, says, "At home, I had sometimes had sensual dreams; if left alone [i.e. not castrated at the age of ten], no doubt I should have been precocious. All this had been altered in me, but not killed."
  • Everyone Is Bi: Pretty nearly in some of her ancient Greek books. This is historically accurate.
  • Expecting Someone Taller - Theseus
    • In the Alexander trilogy, the Queen Mother of Persia, Sisygambis, mistakes the taller Hephaistion for Alexander. This too is taken from the historical record.
  • Fag Hag: An example from before this was a common trope. In The Charioteer, Laurie goes for physiotherapy to "a brisk gentlewoman", one Miss Haliburton. They share an interest in dogs, and get "quite gossipy together". Renault comments, "He usually got on with strong-minded old maids, and it was one of his wry private jokes that they so unawarely waived their misanthropy on his behalf." Alec, a medical student who's also gay, is, according to Ralph, "rather a pet of the old girl who does your [Laurie's] massage".
  • First Love - The descriptions of Hephaistion's gradually awakening love and sexual yearnings are beautiful, as is Bagoas' account of how he fell in love with Alexander. (You never forget that Bagoas is of noble birth, almost a prince himself, as he describes exactly what Alexander said and did that made him worthy of Bagoas' love.)
  • The Florence Nightingale Effect: Julian and Hilary in Return to Night.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Lysis and Alexias in The Last of the Wine see each other around some, spend two days together and then proceed to pledge eternal fidelity to one another.
  • Freud Was Right: She's big on Freud, though not slavishly so.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Hippolytos in The Bull from the Sea.
  • Gayngst: In Purposes of Love and The Charioteer. Notably averted elsewhere, though.
  • Gay Aesop: Very important works for this.
  • Gaydar: The Charioteer's Laurie develops this after attending a gay man's birthday party; he suddenly figures out that the guy he's in love with is indeed gay, but doesn't know it yet. "All yesterday evening Laurie had been, consciously and subconsciously, using his eyes, and noticing little things; and now when he looked at Andrew it seemed written all over him." Later we hear that "If you knew as much as Laurie had learned by now, you might perhaps have got as as far as a speculation about Ralph; but even then you wouldn't be sure."
  • Gender Reveal: In The Mask of Apollo, main character Nikeratos, an actor in his later twenties, meets a good-looking fifteen-year-old boy and asks him out. The boy reveals that he is nineteen-year-old Axiothea, who prefers to wear men's clothes and cropped hair because they "fit her soul".
  • Girlfriend in Canada: Laurie in The Charioteer has to make up stories about his girlfriend when talking to his straight friend Reg.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Vivian, Leo (short for Leonora), Hilary, Julian.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Andrew's realisation of his love for Laurie takes this form.
  • Green-Eyed Monster
  • Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex: Nikeratos and Axiothea have this after escaping death in a siege. A bit of a departure for them both, since they're both gay. Also Theseus and Ariadne after the earthquake hits the Labyrinth.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Olympias in the Alexander books.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!
  • Gray Eyes: Almost in themselves a marker of goodness in Renault, and usually paired with fair hair, or else with dark red hair. Examples: Helen in The Friendly Young Ladies, Ellen in North Face, Andrew in The Charioteer, Myron, Xenophon and Lysis in The Last of the Wine, Hippolyta and Hippolytos in The Bull from the Sea, a boy Nikeratos fancies in The Mask of Apollo, and of course Theseus' mother, Theseus, Alexander and Hephaistion. The rather nasty Olympias also has them, though.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Characters Renault likes a lot often have fair or fairish hair: Kit in Kind Are Her Answers, Helen in The Friendly Young Ladies, Ralph and Andrew in The Charioteer, Lysis in The Last of the Wine, Hippolyta and Hippolytos in The Bull from the Sea, Nikeratos in The Mask of Apollo, and of course Theseus, Alexander and Hephaistion. Laurie in The Charioteer has a definite 'type': slim, tanned people with straight or straightish, fair or fairish hair, blue or grey eyes, high ideals and kind personalities.
  • Having a Gay Old Time: Crops up now and again. The Charioteer, the work of Renault's which concentrates most on homosexuality, is set in 1940, when the colloquialism for 'homosexual' was 'queer', so that's the word the characters use. Ralph's party voice is "hard and gay"; Ralph and Laurie have supper together and "the meal was quite gay"; Ralph smiles "a hard, gay smile"; Andrew says something "gaily". In a 1981 afterword to The Friendly Young Ladies, Renault lamented the loss of the original meaning of 'gay', and opines that "whether the subject is politics, sociology or sex, nothing is so damaging as euphemism; like air-freshener, it proclaims a bad smell below".
  • Held Gaze: Ralph and Laurie "held one another's eyes for a moment, not having meant to."
  • Hello, Sailor!: Ralph in The Charioteer explains why he tried to turn straight: "I'd had rather a sickener of the other side. Once people know about you at sea, they want you to be too obliging, and you never get away from it. It's not so good in peacetime starting below decks with the wrong accent and so on. I didn't want to give them anything on me."
  • Hide Your Lesbians: Lots of gay subtext in the contemporary novels. Given that Renault discussed homosexuality openly in her first novel, she seems to have put the subtext in the later ones largely to amuse herself.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Vivian references this trope in Purposes of Love when Mic confesses that he lost his heterosexual virginity to a prostitute. "Was she kind to you? People say they are."
  • Hospital Hottie
  • I Am X, Son of Y: People's names in Ancient Greece. Women were 'daughter of' or 'wife of'.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: The Charioteer's Ralph has piercing light blue eyes,
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Ralph, who is very "used to authority", tries this trope on Laurie: "I like you the way you are, Spud; why would I want to make you any less yourself? I'm not attracted to people I can push around." This isn't true: according to Renault, Ralph "feels the perpetual need to justify himself and his life by being needed and depended on." Laurie isn't taken in by the 'I can't push you around' line: he says, "But you're trying to do it now."
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: In The Charioteer, this was Ralph's attitude to Laurie when they were at school, is Laurie's attitude to Andrew, and is revealed to have been Dave's attitude to Bertie, Andrew's father.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: The older Bagoas in The Persian Boy concedes he may have lost his youthful beauty when a former acquaintance fails to recognize him.
  • Incompatible Orientation: In The Charioteer, Ralph's feelings for a sub-lieutenant of his, and Dave's feelings for Bertie Raynes. Also, Nurse Adrian's unrequited love for Laurie. She is his 'type', and he would very likely be attracted to her if she were male; indeed, he wonders what her brother is like, tells her sincerely that he's in love with someone else but "If things could possibly be different, it would be you", and finds to his surprise that he enjoys kissing her.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Return to Night and The Charioteer. Also, The Bull From The Sea.
  • If Its You Its OK: Probably a good description of the thitherto homosexual Mic's love for Vivian in Purposes of Love.
  • Jumping the Gender Barrier
  • Just in Time
  • Kaleidoscope Eyes In The Charioteer, Laurie's father and Nurse Adrian have eyes that either are blue or are grey but look blue in some lights; the grey-eyes-looking-blue thing is also used with Andrew, Theseus and Alexander.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Valentine in Purposes of Love (though she's really Bi the Way or If Its You Its OK), Helen in The Friendly Young Ladies, Lasthenia in The Mask of Apollo. The Friendly Young Ladies subverts the trope common in lesbian pulps of the time that the butch is the real lesbian while the femme has to run into the arms of a 'real man' by the end. Feminine Helen is certain of her preference for women — they're easier to live with than men, she says — whereas masculine Leo falls in love with her male best friend and goes off with him.
  • Long Distance Relationship: In The Charioteer, Laurie and Andrew are separated when, thanks to Ralph's high-handedness, Laurie is transferred from the hospital where Andrew is working. Laurie and Andrew write to one another, telephone, and plan to meet on Andrew's days off. Laurie will be going back to Oxford after Christmas to do his final year there, his studies having been interrupted by the war, and he tells Andrew that "after he was discharged he could often come over, he could stay at some farm in the vac. ..."
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Several of them.
  • Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Most of the gay guys in The Charioteer.
  • Lover and Beloved, given that she wrote about ancient Greece.
  • Love at First Sight: Lots. Again, this is the Plato talking. In The Charioteer, Laurie falls in love with Andrew on their first meeting. In The Last of the Wine, Lysis falls in love with Alexias at first sight, and Alexias later falls in love with Aster at first sight. In The Bull from the Sea, Theseus falls in love with Hippolyta at first sight.
  • Love Epiphany: Andrew has one about his feelings for Laurie in The Charioteer.
  • Love Hurts
  • Love Triangle
  • Manly Gay: Even King Philip in the Alexander books. Historically, his most meaningful relationships were with guys, and it cost him.
  • May-December Romance: All over the place in her books.
  • Missing Mom
  • The Mistress: Kind Are Her Answers.
  • Mistaken Age
  • Moment Killer: In The Charioteer, Laurie kisses Andrew and "just at this moment, when Andrew was looking up with a kind of strangeness that was only the threshold of some feeling not yet formed", Nurse Sims walks in on them.
  • Momma's Boy: Julian, Laurie, Alexias, Alexander.
  • My Beloved Smother: Hoo boy, does she ever like this trope.
  • No Woman's Land: Historically accurate.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer
  • Oedipus Complex
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Ralph.
  • Older than They Look: At nineteen, Niko in The Mask of Apollo is "young-looking for [his] age".
  • Old Soldier
  • One Gender School
  • Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality: Ellen in North Face.
  • Parental Substitute
  • Precocious Crush - The King Must Die
  • Queer Romance - basically all of them
  • Raised by Grandparents: In The Charioteer, Andrew's mother died when he was twelve, and on her side of the family there were "no relations who could do with him", so his paternal grandmother took him in. A couple of years later she died, and he was passed on to his paternal aunt and uncle.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Laurie and Ralph in The Charioteer.
  • Restored My Faith In Humanity: "He had got to see Andrew. He felt a need more imperative than any he had experienced in the keenest crisis of personal love. He wanted to recover his belief in the human status."
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Alexander, his father Philip, his half-brother Ptolemy. Theseus, too.
  • Schoolgirl Lesbians: In Kind Are Her Answers, Janet, the main character's stupid, self-indulgent wife, had a crush on a slightly older girl at school. The girl reappears in her life as a representative of the Oxford Group, which Renault disliked.
  • Second Love
  • Secret Diary: Ralph's in The Charioteer.
  • Sexless Marriage: Kind Are Her Answers.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare
  • Significant Monogram: Kind of. The Last of the Wine was written immediately after The Charioteer and is in some ways a recasting of some elements The Charioteer into a culture which promoted a noble homosexual ethos, instead of forcing homosexuals underground. Laurie and Andrew are the lovers in The Charioteer, Lysis and Alexias are the lovers in The Last of the Wine. It's hard to think this is accidental, since there are other similarities between the two pairs, and no other Renault couples share the same initials.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Ralph.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids!: Ralph has become like this, but his relationship with Laurie restores his faith in love. "The idealist and romantic in Ralph, reviving late and left for dead, felt its own wants with the greater urgency; and it had lived too hard, too close to the ground, to be deceived."
  • Sissy Villain: The Charioteer's Bunny. So very, very much.
  • Situational Sexuality: Renault's modern novels date from the time when most of the middle and upper classes spent their adolescence in single-sex boarding schools. "It's a phase a lot of people go through at school", says Vivian in Purposes of Love. "Everyone's sentimental at school. It isn't anything to laugh at", says Janet in Kind Are Her Answers. Julian in Return to Night says that you early on learn to cope with homosexual advances at school. Ralph in The Charioteer comments, "Obviously, most of the people who get caught up in it at school are either going through a phase or merely in the position of cattle who if you don't give them salt will lick it off the ground."
  • Spurned Into Suicide
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Laurie and Andrew.
  • Straight Gay: Many of her homosexual and bisexual men are decidedly masculine.
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Axiothea in The Mask of Apollo dresses in male clothing. Men take her for a handsome youth and fancy her.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Her lesbian couples — Colonna and Valentine in Purposes of Love, Leo and Helen in The Friendly Young Ladies, Axiothea and Lasthenia in The Mask of Apollo.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: In The Last of the Wine, Aster dies of tuberculosis. In The Bull from the Sea, Hippolytos dies. In The Charioteer, Bertie Raynes died young, and Renault said of Andrew that she thought he would eventually die a martyr in some fever-stricken swamp or murdered by the Viet Cong.
  • Translator Buddy: Laurie for Charlot in The Charioteer.
  • Transparent Closet: The Charioteer's hero Laurie realises his beloved Andrew is gay. Andrew, nineteen, Christian and rigidly principled, doesn't.
  • Transsexual: Several of Renault's characters feel, as Renault did, that they have both male and female natures; particularly, her major lesbians are close to being trans men.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: In The Charioteer, Laurie is in love with Andrew, who is in love with him back, but doesn't realise it. Lots of UST. There is plenty between Ralph and Laurie as well.
  • Virgin Power: Hippolytos in The Bull from the Sea. Renault's Alexander also feels that "virtue has gone out of him" when he has sex. Alexias and Lysis in The Last of the Wine have sex with women on the side, but they feel that their relationship is purer and more spiritual and virtuous if they refrain from having sex with one another.
  • Weakness Turns Her On: Return to Night.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Especially King Philip in the Alexander stories. Alex varies from thinking he wants him to be this (as when he tames Oxhead), or (especially later) being ashamed of Philip and wanting to surpass him.
  • The Western: Renault loved Western pulps as a child. Colonna in Purposes of Love enjoys them, and Leo in The Friendly Young Ladies makes her living writing them. Some literary analysts say that Fire From Heaven is a "Wild West" sort of book.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser
  • Will They or Won't They??
  • World War II - many of her earlier books
  • Your Cheating Heart

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