The Forest Gate roots of controversial lesbian author, Mary Renault

Saturday, 1 July 2017

This article is published to co-incide with the first Forest Gayte,  the local LGBT Festival, on 1 July 2017.

Mary Renault (1905 - 1983) was a controversial lesbian author who was born in Forest Gate. When she died, she was one of the most popular historical novelists in the English language, with her works translated into every major tongue.


A youthful Mary Renault

According to her major biographer, David Sweetman (see footnote, for details):
She told a good story, with enough adventure to satisfy the common reader, and her fastidious attention to historical detail made classical scholars some of her greatest fans, but it was also true that several of her leading characters were unashamedly homosexual at a time when many of those same readers would, under other circumstances, have considered the subject repellent.
This is her story.

She was born, Mary Challans, in Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road (see photo of the house, today). She was the eldest (of two) daughter of Frank Challans and Mary Clementine Newsome Challans, nee Baxter. Her mother was daughter of a Yorkshire dentist who met the twenty-four year old doctor Frank Challans in 1899, two years her senior. Challans came from Lincolnshire Huguenot stock and trained in medicine at the London hospital, Whitechapel.


Dacre Lodge - 49 Plashet Road, today

Frank's father died when he was a child and his mother, with relatively modest means, was unable to afford to buy him into an expensive, West End, medical partnership. So, after he graduated, he bought a small practice in Forest Gate, in a moderately large Edwardian house. in Plashet Road.


Frank Challans - Mary's father - outside
 the London hospital, where he qualified, a little
 before moving to Dacre Lodge
Back to the biography:
The house, blessed with the rather grand title of Dacre Lodge, was double fronted and, although it did not look large when viewed from the street, it stretched back some distance and had four bedrooms, a reception room and dining room. It also had a consulting room and small dispensary, though in the absence of a proper waiting room patients sat in the dining room until called.
Forest Gate was an area of respectable, modest folk, many of them retired, living in neat, terraced houses, bordering tree-lined roads, though behind this facade was another reality of meaner streets which housed poor Jewish immigrants who eked out a living in the East End rag trade.
Although described at the time as a modest household for a doctor, it was well supplied with staff, which included a "cook general", a housemaid, a" tweeny" (between the stairs maid) for fetching and carrying and a young boy, who worked in the dispensary cleaning bottles and delivering prescriptions. As Mary's birth approached, the family hired a night nurse, who would share Mary's bedroom and look after her during the night.


Mary's mother, Mary Clementine, in old age
In a further description of Mary's home, David Sweetman says:
To the side of the house was a wooden stable, but as they could not afford a horse and carriage, it was always empty and quickly became dilapidated.
Mary was born on 4 September 1905 and christened Eileen Mary - to be affectionately known as Molly. She told her biographer:
If the weather was fine, (I) was allowed to play in Upton Park (ed: she probably meant the very close-by West Ham Park) with its splendid rhododendrons; if not, (I) spent hours at the nursery window watching horse drawn trams rattle down Plashet Road towards the City or trundle back to the Stratford Depot.
Sometimes there was the pungent smell of the manure cart heading towards Aldgate, its driver dozing over the reins, his horse sure of the route. More pleasant was the scent of the elder tree in the back garden, so that ever afterwards the smell of elder blossom brought back memories of (my) childhood.
Mary's parents' marriage was not a happy one, although they maintained a semblance of middle class respectability by being regular attendees at St Peter's CofE church (demolished 1968), on Upton Lane, facing West Ham Park. Molly felt unloved and detached from both of them, which she reflected on greatly in her later life.


The veneer of middle class respectability
 secured by regular attendance at
 St Peter's Upton Cross
She was an imaginative and precocious child and sent to a dame school run, according to the biography, by the Misses Levick in their mother's house about a mile from Dacre Lodge (no further details given, unfortunately). Mrs Levick senior took morning prayers and hymn singing, while her daughters, Edith and Maude supervised classes, with some help from a French woman, always known as "Madaam", who gave elementary French lessons.

Reading, apparently was all that Molly cared for and she escaped to a loft, above the deserted old stable to get away from the rest of the family and consume vast quantities of books.

She had few other outside interests and, when at play, was happiest in the company of young boys. As a result, her family regarded her as being "something of a tomboy".

At the age of eight she announced to her family that she conceived her ambition of becoming a writer. Her first literary effort, a Western that she composed in the family's grocery order book, was abandoned after one chapter. It was at about this age that she began her life-long love of the theatre, through visits to the Stratford Empire.

When German air-raids began to hit East London, in 1917, Molly and her younger sister were sent to Buckinghamshire until the war ended. On her return from there, Molly was promptly despatched to a boarding school in Bristol, for the remainder of her schooling (she was never told why).

She gained a scholarship to study English St Hugh's College, Oxford - then an all women's college -against the wishes of her parents, who stumped up less than a quarter of the costs of educating here there. The rest being contributed by an aunt.

And that was pretty much Mary Challans' last recorded experiences of Forest Gate. 

In 1988, three years after her death, David Sweetman, her biographer, contacted Mary's long time partner Julie Mullard and invited her to accompany him on a visit to places of note from her childhood.  He writes this of Dacre Lodge:
Dacre Lodge, Mary's birthplace in East London had been bought by the local council's immigrant welfare division to use as a refuge for battered Asian wives. The dilapidated stable in whose loft Mary had first begun to write still stood, though not for long, by the look of it.
So - what of the 55 years between Mary Renault's departure from Forest Gate and her death in 1983? For this we are deeply grateful to her Wikipedia entry, here.

She graduated in 1928 and in 1933 she began training as a nurse at the Ratcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. During her training she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a lifelong romantic relationship.
She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees in Bristol and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945.


Mary, as a nurse at the Ratcliffe hospital, Oxford
She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939: it has a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, and the novelist Linda Proud has described it as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance" Her novel The Friendly Young Ladies (1943), which is about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems to have been inspired by her own relationship with Mullard.

In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won an MGM prize worth $150,000, Renault and Mullard emigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There, according to Proud, they found a community of gay expatriates who had "escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban.... Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home.


Mary and Julie on voyage as
 they emigrate to South Africa
However, both Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, and participated in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.


Mary, wearing the Black Sash
 on an anti-apartheid
 demonstration in 1950's
South Africa
In South Africa Renault was able to write forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time. Her sympathetic treatment of love between men won her a wide gay readership, but it also led to rumours that Renault was really a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Renault found these rumours amusing but also sought to distance herself from being labelled a "gay writer".

Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great.  The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, was a warm-up for Renault's historical novels.

By turning away from the twentieth century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership.

The Charioteer could not be published in the US until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.


Book cover of the
Last of the Wine
Although not a classist by training, Renault was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the ancient Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction and in her non-fiction work, The Nature of Alexander has been called into question, however. 


Book cover of a novel about
 Alexander the Great
Her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized. Renault defended her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books.

Though Renault appreciated her gay following, she was uncomfortable with the "gay pride" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall Riots. Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself primarily by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life she expressed hostility to the gay rights movement, troubling some of her fans.

David Sweetman remarks in his biography that her novels generally portray mothers in a poor light and that, particularly in her later novels, this is extended to women in general. Her generally negative depiction of women has also been noted by the critic Carolyn Heibrun.


Mary in 1982, a year before her death
Among the honours that Mary Renault received were the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1959, the Silver pen award in 1971 and in the year before her death, Honorary Fellowship of St Hugh's College, Oxford.

Footnote. Thanks to the Wikipedia entry (cited above) and David Sweetman's Mary Renault - a biography, published by Chatto and Windus, 1993 for the information upon which this article is based.

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