Archive for the ‘Renault, Mary’ Category

north face mary renault 001North Face by Mary Renault ~ 1948. This edition: Longmans, 1949. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This is a little-discussed novel by the author who went on to become world renowned for her historical fiction centered on ancient Greece: The Bull From the Sea, The King Must Die, Fire From Heaven, et al. Before Mary Renault hit her stride with the ancients, she wrote a number of contemporary novels, all concerning the romantic relationships and struggles for self determination of the characters. Most featured hospital settings or nurses and doctors as characters, as the author drew on her own hospital and nursing experience for inspiration and to provide accurate detail.

North Face was Mary Renault’s fifth published novel, released in 1948 in North America (and a year later in England), just as Mary Renault was settling into a new life in South Africa, where she had moved with her partner Julie Mullard after winning a $150,000 prize from the American motion picture company MGM for her fourth novel, Return to Night. Renault was to write one more contemporary novel, the highly regarded The Charioteer (1953) before turning to ancient Greece for the inspiration of her future writing years.

The story opens in a boarding house in rural Devon, where two opinionated single women who are staying for their holidays are making each other’s acquaintance and finding each other rather unsympathetic. Miss Searle is an intellectual college don who travels with her weighty works of Chaucer, which she has been immersed in studying for the past decade. Miss Fisher is a nurse, with a hearty, rather “common” manner; she has a jolly appreciation of the realities of life, and finds Miss Searle’s fastidious air to be more than somewhat annoying.

World War II has just ended, and everyone we meet is still showing signs of the many years of emotional trauma they have experienced. Some have been wound up so tightly they are finding it difficult to return to some sort of new normal; society itself has taken a giant step sideways, leaving those slow to adapt floundering. Add to this the effects of personal tragedies, which are exacerbated by the effects of the war, and suddenly the tense atmosphere of every sort of social gathering is perfectly understandable.

The Misses Searle and Fisher unite in speculation regarding their fellow guests. They are most interested in the solitary Neil, who is abstracted and unapproachable, and spends his days trekking about the countryside with knapsack and detailed maps. A man with a secret, surely? Which is found to be true. Neil is a more than competent boys’ school teacher who has had a fairly uneventful war. Deemed an essential worker, most of it has been spent in his usual occupation, despite his attempts at joining active service. Finally he was accepted into a Service position, still in England, but far from home.

While Neil was otherwise occupied, his young wife discovered and was discovered by the young officers at the nearby American army camp; what started as innocent flirtation turned into a series of sexual liaisons. Neil had returned from his military posting to find that his wife was no longer interested in him in a sexual or emotional way. The dissolution of their marriage led to personal tragedy, as the couple’s young daughter, adored by Neil, is horribly injured in a fire while Neil is out and her mother is entertaining a soldier in her bedroom. The child dies, and on his return from her funeral, Neil is confronted by his wife’s demand for a divorce. She is pregnant by her latest lover, and wishes to start a new life with him post-haste.

Neil is therefore wandering about in Devon in a sort of trauma-induced trance, agonizing over what next to do, and if life is even worth living. In this state he bumps up against another troubled soul, the slender, virginal (literally) Ellen, who has just arrived at the guesthouse.

Ellen has also had an emotionally fraught time of things after the death of her fiancé, a fighter pilot, in the closing months of the war. He was a childhood first love; the two were brought up together as their mothers were step-sisters, and though Ellen was deeply attached to him, she was unable to bring herself to share his deeper passion. She feels that her rejection of his physical advances had hurt him so much that he had been careless while on his last mission; she holds herself responsible for his death, and has punished herself and sought to get over her frigidity by arranging a liaison with another man at the guest house. This falls through, as Ellen is unable to carry through with the physical aspect of the “fling”, and she too is wandering the countryside in something of a daze.

Neil and Ellen discover some shared interests, most notably rock climbing, and the theme of frail human pitted against cold stone and working out emotional issues through physical exertion runs through the novel. As Neil’s and Ellen’s romantic interests in each other grows, Miss Searle and Miss Fisher provide a sort of argumentative and gossiping Greek chorus to the progress of the affair, each putting her own interpretation on what is going on.

Much self-analysis and heart-rending ensues, before Neil and Ellen find comfort in each other’s arms.

A slightly unusual novel, and definitely of strong interest to the Mary Renault completest. I had no trouble at all reading this one through, though it was rather deeply seeped in gloomy psychological trauma and all sorts of Freudian situations, including a gypsy’s warning to Neil and Ellen to “stay away from high places”, which immediately led me to expect some sort of tragic ending, what with all the clambering about on cliffs. (Which didn’t materialize, much to my relief.)

Each of the two main protagonists finds at least some of the solution to their inner turmoil through the concentrated effort of working across a sheer rock face, though I was rather annoyed at the author for allowing Neil to get himself out of a desperate climbing situation while leaving Ellen stranded and requiring Neil’s aid, a metaphor which I felt was likely to represent their future life together.

Oh, and because it is Mary Renault, I am sure you are wondering about the gay/lesbian themes. Not much going on here, unless our intellectual and buttoned-up Miss Searle is a latent lesbian, but as she is quite obviously attracted to the masculinity of Neil, that one doesn’t really fly. Neil has had a close friend and climbing companion, Sammy, killed in the war, but how close a friend is never detailed and the relationship seems to be platonic from the hints dropped by Neil. Ellen thinks that she may be lesbian due to her frigidity towards her fiancé’s advances, but she allows herself to be wooed by a female friend and it doesn’t “take” so she crosses that possibility off the list. I think that’s about it, or at least all I can think of without re-reading with this sort of analysis in mind. 😉

Not in the same league as the best of this writer’s works, but most interesting in view of her future accomplishments. Next on my Mary Renault want-to-read list is The Charioteer, which is deemed to be the best of her contemporary fictions, along with the satirical The Friendly Young Ladies.


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the friendly young ladies mary renault 001The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault ~ 1944. Published in America as The Middle Mist. This edition: Vintage, 2003. Afterword by Lillian Faderman. Softcover. ISBN: 0-375-71421-9. 280 pages (novel), extended to 293 pages with Afterword.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ve long considered myself a dedicated Mary Renault fan, ever since reading The Bull From the Sea at an impressionable age and being blindsided by the author’s creative interpretation of Greek myth mixed with plausible historical fiction. I’d never read anything quite like this before, and I liked it a lot. What followed was an active quest for more of the same; I eventually read all of the author’s “Ancient Greece” novels, and the collection I painstakingly acquired by scanning the dusty stacks of numerous second hand book stores, in the days before used book buying was made so gloriously accessible through the internet, is one I value greatly.

Mary Renault’s contemporary works were a much later discovery; for a long time – pre-internet, I remind you – I had no idea that such even existed. When I discovered the first of these, Kind Are Her Answers, I could not at first quite take in that this was the same author. Reading that novel bemused me some; though the storytelling skill was certainly there, the subject matter was far removed from the classical world, unless of course one were to step back and muse that human nature remains the same no matter what the era. Love and lust and jealousy and ambition and rage and sorrow being key elements in all of these stories; the figures in the plays remained similar, though the costumes and sets varied.

Mary Renault excels at characterization. Her contemporary novels in particular concentrate on the life of the mind, and the relationships between characters, much more than on the actions of the physical world. The Friendly Young Ladies takes place in a variety of intriguing locations – a houseboat on the Thames, Cornwall, London – but the action is overwhelmingly in the characters’ heads.

Here’s our story.

From the 1945 American edition, published under the title "The Middle Mist".

From the 1945 American edition, published under the title “The Middle Mist”.

Seventeen-year-old Elsie in Cornwall is deeply unhappy in her family life. Her parents bicker endlessly, and Elsie is the pawn of many of their arguments. An older sister, Leonora, has already broken free; nine years ago she left with a rucksack of belongings, never to return; her name is never mentioned, and Elsie has always assumed that her sister has gone to a dreadful fate, and is “living in sin”, if not something worse.

Elsie falls ill, and is treated by a young, newly qualified doctor filling in for the local G.P. Peter fancies himself something of an amateur psychologist; he decides to give Elsie a new interest in life by flirting with her and “pepping her up”. Elsie predictably develops a passionate crush on Peter; when he leaves to go back to London, Elsie reacts by running away herself, to throw herself on the hospitality of the elusive Leonora, whose address she finds in a locked drawer in her mother’s desk.

Crossing England, Elsie fetches up on the banks of the Thames just out of London, where Leo resides on a houseboat with her close friend, Helen, a nurse and medical artist. Leo has made a tenuous career for herself as a writer, turning out pulp Westerns under the pseudonym “Tex O’Hara”. The two have built a quiet and satisfying life for themselves, into which Elsie drops as an oblivious intruder. Thrilled deeply at the “bohemian” lifestyle she is now part of – just how unconventional her sister’s living arrangement is completely escapes her – Elsie writes to Peter, inviting him to visit, with the hopes that he will be suitably impressed by her initiative in escaping her dreary home life.

Peter shows up, and is thrilled to discover a rich new playground for his Freudian explorations. Two beautiful lesbians, apparently receptive to male advances, plus the awkwardly blossoming virgin Elsie – he can do them all so much good, and if he benefits by a bit of the action himself, all the better!

Now this is the bit that many modern reviewers have concentrated on, spinning the novel as an “erotically charged romantic comedy”, or some such nonsense. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it does this novel an immense injustice, though there is certainly a lot of sly humour in the characterizations and situations involving Peter. At one point Leo seduces Peter’s girlfriend; Peter sort of gets it, and is understandably miffed when the penny drops, but he comes back more persistently than ever, being stunningly bulletproof in his self-confidence, and absolutely unputdownable. Leo and Helen run rings around him, having figured him out at the first encounter, though naïve Elsie is devastated when she realizes that she was never in the running where Peter is concerned.

All of this is mere superficial action though, and the real core of the novel is the three-way relationship between Leo, Helen, and fellow river-dweller Joe, an accomplished author of “serious” novels, who masquerades as a common labourer between bouts of writing. Their platonic circle is serene and secure, untroubled by complications of romantic jealousy, until hapless Elsie and bumptious Peter stir things up and irretrievably alter the delicate balance among the friends.

There is so much good stuff in this novel, so many worthwhile and thought-provoking passages, regarding the creative strivings of writers and artists, and also involving the convoluted realm of human sexuality. Simply viewing Leo and Helen as “confused lesbians” utterly misses the point the author is making, which is that sexuality can be a fluid and ever-evolving state of being, and, most importantly, that one should not be defined by stereotypical views having to do with one’s sexuality, be it hetero, homo, or some combination thereof. It is, at most, a sideline characteristic, and those who concentrate upon sexual identity at the expense of other character traits do themselves and society at large a disservice.

This novel is competently written, frequently amusing, poignant in places, and articulately and viciously critical of middle-class mores. I appreciate the nuances more each time I read it, though I cannot bring myself into a place of true sympathy for the oblivious and ultimately smug Elsie; she returns to the parental fold basically unchanged by her impulsive adventure, leaving unguessed-at havoc in her wake. She suffers in her own way, and she has her few moments of hellish self-examination, but she moves on; we do not agonize over her future happiness as we do for physically and emotionally fragile Leo, and for lovable and loving Helen, and for compassionate and deeply decent Joe.

I wish I myself could be more articulate as to this book’s appeal; luckily the author’s own Afterword, written in 1983 and looking at her novel down the long vista of years, sums it up well and gives a glimpse of the motivation that spurred on its writing – a kneejerk reaction to the sombre The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, which the author and her partner read with snickering dismissal while on a French holiday in 1938. (The book was banned in England for its homosexual themes.) Renault’s lesbians don’t agonize too much about their “condition” – if it could be called such a thing – they get on with things in general, taking sex in stride as it happens (or doesn’t) and assuming the same of those around them. A refreshing change from the norm, today as much as seventy-some years ago.

Leo’s end-of-the-book encounter with heterosexual sex aside, this is a book about desires of the mind rather than the body, and it is an interesting read on multiple levels.

Thank you to Jenny, for nudging us all to give Mary Renault a try, and a reminder to re-read for those of us who are already fans. And please do follow the conversation over at Reading the End.  You will find more musings on Renault and her varied oeuvre there.

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