Ancient Greece, Gay, gay historical fiction, gay literature, gay novel, homophobia, homosexuality in the ancient world, literary tradition, Mary Renault, The Charioteer, The Last of the Wine, The Persian Boy
Mary Renault, born not far from where I live now, started talking about gay issues and gay life when she moved to South Africa, as in the UK at the time, homosexuality was illegal.
At a time when gay men in the UK had to hide from the authorities, and gay women were simply invisible, a woman, Mary Renault, after having met some gay men, decided to start sporting gay rights. She is, even if few people seem to know, a huge gay icon.
Going back to her formative years, she studied classics at university, which explains why most of her literary work is set in Ancient Greece. In fact, her portrayal of life, even daily life, in Ancient Greece is astonishingly accurate as well as captivating and beautifully written.
Of course she knew quite well what ‘the unmentionable sin of the ancient’, as E.M. Forster puts it, was: most people would say homosexuality, I’d rather think of it as sexual freedom (for men only, unfortunately), and freedom of sexuality (for men only). So, a young man, by the age of nine, in Ancient Greece was encouraged to have a ‘suitor’ as Renault calls them, that would be a male partner, and a partner for life. Unfortunately, love between a man and a woman was mainly seen as necessary to procreation, yet love between two men was idealised, just because, look at the irony of history, two men are more similar, understand each other better (allegedly) and…do not procreate, thus, love between two men was seen as pure, with no further purpose.
Recent development in culture, and they are much more recent than lots of people think, homophobia is a modern disease…, seem to have put love in attendance to procreation, while ‘once upon a time’ love was a value in itself, an end in itself, while in modern society it often happens that what we mistakenly take for or pass as values are often smoke screens for other, much more practical ends…
Renault was such a great empathiser with the gay community that rumours circulated speculating that’s she was in reality a gay man with a female pen name: this says a lot about the perception that empathising with a gay man is, allegedly (please read the sarcasm), impossible, and which continues nowadays: it is fine to talk about gay men, fine to say, ‘One if my best friends is gay…’ but take the dry same people and turn them into readers and I wonder how many (especially among straight men), have ever even considered reading a novel with a gay protagonist… Why? In the end, I read novels with straight characters, and I don’t find it impossible to empathise, so why should so many straight men find this un surmountable barrier, well, it remains a mystery to me…
Renault, so, was so gay friendly that she had to be gay. You know what? She certainly is an honorary gay man.
Her novels manage to present a gay utopia (though the term utopia is wrong here, as such society did exist, but what we would regard today as a utopia, let us say for argument’s sake) in a credible and accurate context. In this way, her novels showed the world that what appeared to be an ingrained moral value (homophobia) was nothing more than a recent social construct. Her novels were revolutionary.
i am saddened when I ask many of my fellow gay men if they have ever read any novel by Renault to find out that the most common reply is, ‘Renault who?’ I don’t blame them; I blame a culture that is not proud of it’s literary tradition. In fact, I believe many of our great and ground-breaking writers are unknown entities to the youth of today. I have posted about one of the many holes in the National Curriculum already, but there are many, many more…
So, this post is mainly to celebrate the woman that made it all possible, she who made it all real, with nothing more than her great talent, her words, and her great heart: Mary Renault, the Queen of Gay Literature.