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Friday, June 25, 2010

The Two Marys



I tend to read books and watch films which make me feel that there is stuff, that there are places in the world, which are good. Yup, I know. We have pollies and captains of industry and born-again self-righteous pricks. And the Taliban (recently in the news for hanging an eight year old). Charming. And prissy bureaucrats who say 'them's the rules, fucker.' Selfishness and cruelty and ignorance and greed.

So as an antidote I read and watch escapist entertainment. Real enough to allow me to suspend disbelief but unreal enough to involve 'happy endings'.

Mary Renault and Mary Stewart are two authors who thrill me as well as make me feel some things might be all right with the world. No gay man of my generation won't know about Mary Renault. The Charioteer was one of the first mainstream novels to treat gays sympathetically. In fact, together with Victim it is credited with helping bring about the repeal of the anti-gay laws in Britain. I didn't know any other gay blokes. I had no idea how to be a gay. There were no gay bookshops where I lived. All I knew was that I was deeply in love with a man. The Charioteer helped me survive, helped me chart a course through the wild country of gay, helped me set up the guidelines and parameters which still direct me today: that gay is not immoral, that bi is 'gay plus, not minus', that the sex isn't all, that there can be a kind of 'exalted paganism' which is an alternative to the narrow, vicious and hurtful dictates of Christian fundamentalism.

The Last of the Wine, her next book, was the first set in ancient Greece, and again, it showed a world where same-sex love was ordinary, not a repulsive sin and a 'crime against nature' (which on the other hand of course much of modern industry and life is, though the aforesaid captains of industry wouldn't agree with you.) Her stories celebrate us. And are also enthralling, magical, convincing.

The other Mary, Mary Stewart, wrote romantic thrillers as well as a series about Merlin and Arthurian Britain. Her romantic novels are het, and I'm never quite sure whether to identify with her heroines or heroes. Her heroines are spunky, courageous, and altogether attractive, unlike so many heroines from this kind of novel. The villains are always blonds with blue eyes (how we laughed) and the heroes always dark-haired and dark-eyed. But the romance is special, and, even on the tenth rereading, the stories still gripping.

Both Marys are old-fashioned now. They wrote for the educated middle classes, people who could speak some French, who knew at least some Greek and Latin, people who didn't have to struggle against penury. The inimitable Jane says, apropos of poverty,

I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross.

That's from Emma, and that minx is talking to Harriet whom she hopes to raise up in the world.

The middle classes the two Marys wrote for could afford holidays on the Continent, at a time when working class families were lucky to have two weeks at Eastbourne. Both Marys loved Greece, and obviously visited often, setting many novels there and in the Levant generally. Greece after all, when it was pagan and also under the Christian Byzantine Empire, covered the whole of the eastern end of the Mediterranean. (Maybe next post, I'll talk about Cavafy, a modern Greek poet from Alexandria who managed to fill his poetry with the losses of the glories of Ancient Greece and combine it with his own melancholy attempt to find love as a gay man)

I grew up poor. That kind of middle class expansiveness was unknown to me. So these stories were also escapist in another way. I could pretend I was a well-off, confident member of the middle class, that I knew what was what, that I belonged on the broad airy uplands of prosperity, that I too had visited Vienna or Thebes or pre-civil-war Beirut.

Even though both authors have dated, they're still very good at their craft. And both of them celebrate love: Mary Renault gay and Mary Stewart het, but honestly, there's not that much difference. We all need love. And escapist romance never hurt anybody.

2 comments:

Charlie Cochrane said...

Thanks for linking to this. Mary R is such a hero of mine.

Nikolaos said...

My pleasure, Charlie. They're beautifully competent authors and I wish I wrote as well!