2 min

Classical Women

The prism of classical history and male love

Circa 1763, both Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz in Germany and Isaac Newton in England discovered calculus, a perfect illustration of the theory that some ideas are “in the air.” In the last century two women, born in different countries and writing in different languages, snatched the same idea out the air and made it current, to immense critical acclaim and, even more gratifying, lasting commercial success.

The first woman to have been admitted to the famed Académie française since its foundation in 1635, Marguerite Yourcenar was born Marguerite de Crayencour in 1903 in Belgium. Independently wealthy and an indefatigable traveler, she settled in Maine in 1950 where she died, 37 years later, covered in — and somewhat corrupted by — every possible French literary honour.

Mary Renault was born Mary Challans to an English middle-class family in 1905. Despite initial studies at Oxford, she became a nurse and wrote four critically well-received novels before moving to South Africa, where she remained until her death in 1983, one of the best-selling authors of her generation.

Their personal and professional circumstances were not dissimilar: both Yourcenar and Renault had longterm relationships with women (42 and 40 years respectively), both chose to live in countries remote from the centre of their respective literary cultures, and both wrote primarily about male homosexual love, in an historical setting more often than not.

While Renault wrote a cycle of novels based on the myths and history of ancient Greece, notably The Last Of The Wine and The Persian Boy, all scrupulously researched, Yourcenar set only one of her historical novels in antiquity, the Memoirs Of Hadrian, her uncontested masterpiece and one of the most influential novels of the last century.

Both authors had an enormous impact on their readership, which included intellectuals and the general public alike, for which these novels constituted a first point of contact with homosexuality. Bestselling author James Michener, in an 1982 article on the historical novel, states: “Mary Renault’s recreations of ancient Greece are superb…. And when you recall that Marguerite Yourcenar is the master of us all, you begin to wonder if the historical novel has become the predilected art form of the gifted woman writer.”

The contemporary queer reader may be tempted to express puzzlement or even disapproval of their authors’ decision to write almost exclusively about men. One reason, suggests critic Ruth Hoberman, is that the choice of ancient Greece or Rome as an historical setting dictated the choice of male characters if the novel were to be plausible, quoting Yourcenar herself: “[It is] virtually impossible… to take a feminine character as a central figure, to make Plotina, for example, rather than Hadrian, the axis of my narrative. Women’s lives are much too limited, or else too secret…. It is already hard enough to give some element of truth to the utterances of a man.”

The pursuit of truth — historical truth, moral truth, philosophical truth — is finally what distinguishes both women as authors. And it’s a wonderful, unlikely coincidence that they sought it through the prism of classical history and male love, at the same time and from opposite ends of the earth.

Finally, in their own way, they articulated ideas that point the way to gay liberation, as this extract from Renault’s 1953 novel, The Charioteer, makes clear: “I’m not prepared to accept a standard which puts the whole of my emotional life on the plane of immorality. I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlers and prostitutes…. I’m ready to go to some degree of trouble, if necessary, to make that point.”