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Mary Renault: A Biography.

David Sweetman was a BBC television producer who interviewed the novelist, Mary Renault, in 1982. Six years later he told her Iife-long friend and fellow nurse, Julie Mullard, that he wanted to write a biography. Fortunately, Miss Mullard agreed to help and her presence is felt through much of this delightful and thoroughly readable biography. The author also had access to Mary Renault's papers and to her letters to various friends and associates. With all this material and with the guidance and help of Miss Mullard, it is not surprising that the author has produced such a good book. One might say that he could not have done otherwise but one would have been wrong.

Two sizeable pitfalls await the biographer of someone like Mary Renault. The first stems from her decision to leave the Britain of Clement Attlee with its queues, rationing, punative taxation and socialist nostrums to settle in South Africa. Many biographers would, in today's intellectual climate, perform kneejerk reactions whenever this |racist' topic turned up and castigate their subject for not thinking as they think. David Sweetman has avoided this pitfall. Perhaps it is because he lived in Africa for eight years and realises at first hand that the moralising simplicities of English drawing-rooms and BBC news-readers have little to do with the difficulties facing South Africa. Perhaps it is because he has talked to too many people who do understand. Whatever the reason, his refusal to play to a gallery filled with the chattering-classes is to be commended. He shows us how this English liberal lady was affected by South Africa and how she tried to stem the tide of the Boers' racial policies or at least direct it in a more humanitarian direction. That she failed is nothing new: it is the plight of most civilised liberals caught between two sets of fanatics.

The second pitfall he avoids is the tendency, seen in so many modern biographers, to inject sex into every topic he can. Given Mary Renault's sexual preferences this was a very large pitfall indeed. The fact that he avoided it will mean he is bound to displease some reviewers. It also means that he has produced a biography that tells its readers a great deal about its subject and very little about the interests of the biographer. He assumes his readers have a mature understanding of life and of human sexuality; he leaves bedroom doors closed. What he does show is that the writer's tastes - her preferences for theatrical men and her dislike of women in the mass - made it possible for her to write about ancient Greece in the way in which she did.

Mr. Sweetman traces Mary Renault's (born Mary Challans) life from her birth in Edwardian London through Oxford, nursing school, the war and her first novels to her departure for South Africa after losing most of an MGM prize to the taxman. She had had some fame as a |lady novelist' of stories set in hospitals and with a hint of sexual ambiguity and as the author of The Charioteer, set in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Her real fame came when she began writing her historical novels set in Greece and, while she did not read Greek, she researched her topics thoroughly. When her future biographer asked her what she would like to be remembered for she replied, |As someone who got it right'. The same may be said for this biography: David Sweetman has got it right.
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Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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