‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

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