‘On the Trail of Mary Renault’ by Gordon Wise

IMG_5521“Ten years ago I became Mary Renault’s literary agent and, by a quirk of her will, one of her literary executors.  Mary had died in 1983, but somehow I felt I had to try to get to know her.  It was a journey that began in Oxford and ended in South Africa – a bit like Mary’s own life.  She was both strong willed and a private person, and when she died instructed that all her papers be burned.  But she had passed over some documents to her biographers David Sweetman and Caroline Zilboorg, and these notes, together with taped interviews, are now housed in the archives of her old college, St Hugh’s in Oxford – together with some wonderful correspondence with one or two of her contemporaries over the course of five decades (St Hugh’s now own Mary’s copyrights.)  From a publishing perspective, Penguin’s archives at the University of Reading provided fascinating reading: it seems there was rarely a jacket design that there wasn’t a bit of a tussle over, not to mention cover copy. And looking at the annual correspondence written on aerogrammes and sent from London to Cape Town and vice versa, it becomes clear that at one time she was crossed over editorial matters: the hurt and fallout that followed from this meant that such a thing could never happen again.

I wrote about the work Curtis Brown and her new publishers, Virago and Open Road, have undertaken to enable the rediscovery of Mary’s work in a blog piece that was published for the tenth anniversary of her death http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/remembering-mary-renault, and reading that will join some more of the dots for you.  And it tells of how I ended my journey on a trip to Cape Town, where Mary moved to escape the restrictions of postwar Britain.  I felt that a very special voyage of rediscovery had come full circle after I drove past where her house had been, in a commanding position on a cliff overlooking the majestic sweep of Camp’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, to meet her former lawyer, who had been the son of her doctor.  He mixed me a very strong gin and tonic, and sat me down on a very particular chair under a striking picture.  That painting, he said, belonged to Mary.  And that was her chair.  I hope you enjoy discovering her work as much as I enjoyed that moment, and discovering her.”

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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