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Before she went Greek: novelist Mary Renault threw her own gay sexuality into her gripping novels of ancient Greece--but before that she wrote about the gay life she lived.

Mary Renault is an enduring literary superstar, and not just because of her addictive way with a story. Twenty years after her death, her eight best-selling novels of ancient Greece--especially her trilogy on the pansexual ancient hero Alexander the Great, now being adapted for HBO--are still introducing young gay readers to a world where same-sex love can be heroic.

Fewer readers know that as a young writer, starting before World War II, Renault shocked society with six contemporary novels that featured honest and complex gay and lesbian protagonists. This summer Vintage releases two of these titles: The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) and The Charioteer (1953).

In his 1993 biography of Renault, David Sweetman writes, "To many, The Charioteer is the best British novel to come out of World War II." The Friendly Young Ladies, a veiled tale of lesbian rivalry, may be the closest Renault ever came to writing her own story.

So perceptive was she about love between men that Renault's public often assumed she must be a man writing under an assumed name. They were half right. Eileen Mary Challans took the pen name Renault to avoid persecution over the gay overtones of her writing--and to guard her life with Julie Mullard, the woman she loved.

Born in London in 1905 to a distant father and a hyperfeminine mother who despised her daughter's bookish ways, Challans entered nursing school in her late 20s, seeking life experience and escape from her parents' home. There she met Mullard, wooed her by writing her a fabulous part in the nursing academy's Christmas play, and bedded her in the dormitory soon after.

Sweetman writes that the couple "did not think of themselves as lesbians because they thought what they were doing was unique, that they had invented it. If asked, they would have said they were bisexual. They often found men attractive, even if they did prefer each other."

The duality caused pain, as Renault suggests in The Friendly Young Ladies. The novel is set on the houseboat of the genteelly butch Leo and her "friend," Helen. A guest, Peter, flirts with Leo, who deals with her confusion by going to bed with a different man altogether.

Renault and Mullard faced similar tests during their early years. At one point Mullard met a young widower who begged her to be his wife. Instead of insisting she give him up, Renault dispatched her girlfriend off on vacation with the man.

"It might have ended in marriage, so I said she must go off for a bit with him and see," Renault later wrote a friend. "I'd never have forgiven myself if I'd done a Sister George on her."

The strategy worked; Mullard stayed. In 1947 fate handed the couple financial independence: Renault's novel Return to Night won a then-staggering $150,000 prize in a contest held by MGM.

Renault and Mullard moved to South Africa in 1948. The Charioteer was the first book Renault wrote in her new home. Most of their friends were gay men, and their presence added an authentic ache to her tale of Laurie, a wounded World War II veteran grappling with Iris sexuality. While Laurie is sunk in shame, the book surrounds him with gay men who argue passionately for their own worth. One says, "I didn't choose to be what I am.... But I don't admit I'm a social menace.... I'm not prepared to accept a standard which puts the whole of my emotional life on the plane of immorality."

The Charioteer wasn't published in the United States until six years after its British debut because her American publisher feared legal action. After that Renault turned to historical fiction.

Why the switch? in her 2001 biography, The Masks of Mary Renault, Caroline Zilboorg suggests that "the classical settings allowed Renault to mask material too explosive to deal with directly" yet left her free to write about the subjects vital to her." war, peace, career, women's roles, female and male homosexuality, and bisexuality."

In her long lifetime, Renault witnessed almost unbelievable advances for gays and lesbians. But despite her defense of gay love in print, she considered the use of the word gay as a synonym for homosexual to be "deplorable." Until she died in 1983, Renault dismissed "congregated homosexuals waving banners." Ironic, since she helped to inspire a generation of homosexuals to hold their banners high.

Dehnart has written for
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Title Annotation:books
Author:Dehnart, Andy
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 22, 2003
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