Review: Promises of Love, Mary Renault

Obligatory pre-gushing blurb: Vivian, a nurse in between-the-wars England, meets Mic, a pathologist and the latest in a string of close friends of her flighty, unreliable brother. Though Mic initially seems interested in Vivian because of her resemblance to her brother, they soon become good friends and then lovers.

I am experimenting with keeping a reading journal. I have not decided exactly what sort of thing you write down in a reading journal, but one thing it is definitely good for is saving anecdotes and quotations that I like. Then when I am done reading, I can go back and see if I want to copy any of them out for y’all, or copy them into my commonplace book to keep forever. When I was reading Promises of Love, I wrote down about fifty trillion quotations from it, and I’d have written down more had I not been perpetually weighing the relative merits of using the time to write things down (thereby expressing in pen and ink my not inconsiderable delight with Mary Renault) or to read more pages. Mary Renault’s modern novels are flawed, but I love the way she writes her characters’ interactions:

“Look.” He twirled the [paint] into an ascending spiral. “There’s a lyric of Catullus exactly that shape. No, it’s gone.” The viscous mass had settled, leaving only a few concentric rings. “Landor,” he said. “One of those terse quatrains. See, Mic?”

“You and your patterns.” Mic got up. “Get yourself a microscope. You’ve a vicious taste for illusive syntheses.”

“Of course they’re elusive. So’s everything worth bothering with.”

They talked–in this alone like her expectations–of indifferent things: town-planning, Swedish architecture, the sick staff-nurse, whose blood-cultures as it happened had been in Mic’s charge. Yet Vivian did not feel that they were taking shelter or concealing themselves in these things: they were a background, an accompaniment to what was really being said, for which words were instruments too harsh and shrill.

Renault’s modern novels deal in an incredibly interesting way with communication, how both successes and failures in communication can mean profound things about and have profound impacts on the relationships of the characters. I love the feeling I get, when I’m reading her books, that every word is considered. A character may say something by accident, but Renault never will.

The flip side of that is I never know what she’s thinking. Mary Renault is one of the most self-concealing authors you ever saw. I suppose this would thrill Roland Barthes, but it bewilders me. Her characters do and say and think such peculiar things. I just do not know what to make of them. I want to go back in time and shake Mary Renault and demand she explain to me what she exactly thinks about gender and creativity and sexuality. But of course trying to figure out what statements her books are making is part of the reason they interest me.

In spite (or because) of this bewilderment, I spent the whole of Promises of Love in a state of euphoria. It smelled old and delicious, and I kept lowering my nose into it and inhaling. More than that, I was overwhelmed with love for this book just because of its utter MaryRenaultiness. I wouldn’t recommend it for a Mary Renault novice, as I don’t think she’s at her radiant Fire from Heaven best in it, but I am so happy I got to read it. Lovely university library.

Some other bits I liked:

The flat…was beginning to take on the mannerisms of educated poverty–the streaky stained floor, whose string rugs were already present to her mind’s eye; the amateurish paintwork, in cheeky but successful colour-combinations; the aura of half-dry distemper from the walls; a little oil-stove in a corner giving out more smell than warmth.

It was like seeing someone off by train; the clock crawling through the last minutes, the futility of one’s remarks increasing with the last-minute effort to be significant.

She was quite well aware that she was talking, not to him, but to a suit of well-cut conversational clothes tailored, like his material ones, by a craftsman to whom fit and finish had become second nature. His pretences at self-revelation–the lightly deprecated indiscretion, the note of emotion suppressed a second too late–were merely the touches that distinguished Savile Row from the Strand.

32 thoughts on “Review: Promises of Love, Mary Renault

    • She has, but they tend not to be as good as her historical fiction. I adored The Charioteer, but my mother (who loves Mary Renault) found it very boring; and this one isn’t so much good on its own merits, as it’s good to me because it reminds me of other stuff she wrote that I loved.

  1. My parents love Renault, and I’ve never read her; now I’ll have to reconsider that.
    You really keep a commonplace book? I’ve always wanted to, but mine continually evolve into something else besides the collection of quotations with which I begin.

    • I’d highly recommend starting with either Fire from Heaven or The King Must Die, as those are both very very good. She does lots of interesting things with the Theseus myth in The King Must Die.

      I really keep one. I started it when I was a sophomore or junior in high school and I’ve kept one ever since. I like going back and looking at the things I thought were worth writing down–sometimes I wonder what younger me saw in a particular quotation, but more often I remember why those quotes were important or funny or moving to me.

  2. The Persian Boy is definitely the summit of Mt. Renault. It seems like a shame that that is the first novel of Renault’s I ever read; I love her Ancient Greece novels, but they always fall a bit short of The Persian Boy. I like the quotes you’ve chosen, but have a feeling I would not like this novel.

    Do you find her that opaque? I imagine her rather sharp and edgy, but with an idealist’s passionate love for the goodness and integrity you sometimes find in human nature. I think she would be hard to know, but worth the effort. (Now I need to find a picture of her…I’ve got her clearly limned in my mind)

    • I thought you read The King Must Die first. Because of Watership Down.

      I don’t find her opaque at all in her historical fiction, but yes, I have to say that with her modern novels I am dying to know what she’s thinking of these proceedings. Particularly with Kind Are Her Answers and this other book she wrote, The Friendly Young Ladies.

  3. I read The Charioteer from Renault quite a few years ago, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I didn’t love it as much as others seemed to, and I think it is because the writing was just so subtle. I may have to try this book to see if I get the same impression. Great review! I like the idea of a reading journal, and may have to try that!

    • Others who? Did others love it? I seriously started this book blog because I was dying to find someone else who loved The Charioteer as much as I did, and so far I never have. I will say for it that it’s a very rewarding reread–I discover new things each time I reread it.

      Have you read anything else by Renault? Her historical novels are really better than her modern ones…

  4. The paper in the 1933 edition of Vera Brittains Testament of Youth I picked up at the library last night smelled so good I was actually torn between starting it then and there and keeping on with my Diana Wynne Jones.

    Renault does sound self-concealing. I have never read one of her modern novels. I guess self-concealment is sort of naturally concealed, when one is writing about ancient history.

    • That is one reason I love libraries. Their books stay there and stay there for years, and eventually they begin to smell like heaven. I guess it depends on the kind of paper they use though.

      Well, with ancient history, it’s clearer to me what kind of relationships she imagines people to have, if that makes sense. Like when Theseus hooks up with Ariadne and then dumps her in The King Must Die, it’s clear to me why he’s doing it. Her ideas about ancient Greek morals and ancient Greek people, I get. But I never feel so certain about the characters in her modern novels, which I think is mainly what I mean about her being self-concealing.

  5. I’m so thrilled to find someone reading the early Mary Renaults. I have them all (I think) and have always been a big fan. I think ‘The Charioteer’ may have been her best novel (and covers, much better, what Sarah Waters’ ‘The Night Watch’ attempted) – and loved the comedy of ‘The Friendly Young Ladies’ despite the rather clumsy ending. I always wondered quite why she moved so definitively to historical novels – loved them too, of course, but perhaps she found ancient Greece a safer place to write about?

    • Yay! You love The Charioteer too! Isn’t it wonderful? I think she does such a gorgeous job of conveying subtleties and nuance of what everybody is saying underneath the words they’re really saying. It seems to be fairly different territory to The Night Watch (which I also loved) though–that was more London-based than The Charioteer and dealing with a slightly different set of questions about ways of being queer in the 40s.

      Do you like all her modern novels? I found Kind Are Her Answers absolutely maddening, I have to say, and almost didn’t finish it because I liked it so little. But Promises of Love and Return to Night were better, though none approached The Charioteer for me.

      I’m going to read a biography of Renault sooner or later, and I’m hoping it will elucidate her reasons for switching to historical fiction. It seems to me the historical fiction is more reliably good, but maybe it’s because she fills in the gaps in historical record in such cool ways.

  6. You’ve already convinced me to try Renault after I finished Stealing Fire, but I’ve got a question: does it matter if I start with Fires From Heaven or The Persian Boy? Because the latter is available on BookMooch, but I’ve also heard it described as a sequel to the former, so I don’t know…

    • You can start with The Persian Boy. It’s a sequel to Fire from Heaven, but they’re about Alexander the Great’s life, so it’s not like you’ll need to worry about spoilers. Be aware that The Persian Boy is probably the best of Renault’s books and it’ll all be downhill from there, though. I’m excited to see what you think of it! πŸ™‚

  7. I kept a Commonplace book in high school, and in college I kept a kind of half-Commonplace book/half-journal, but I’ve really fallen out of the habit. When I first started blogging, I always included my favourite passages from a book at the end of the post…another thing I’ve stopped doing because I’m too lazy! Must work on that. πŸ™‚ Maybe I’ll just start a private blog, since I type more quickly than I write, and I won’t have to worry about my posts being way too long to publish. lol

    • Of course, you would have the entire blogosphere trying to find “The Secret Excessively Long but Eccentrically Enthralling Blog Posts of Quotes from Incredible Books Read by the Awesome Eva”.

    • I think the reason I’ve maintained the commonplace book for so long is that I am pretty choosy about what I’ll write down in it. I rarely write things down that I appreciate only for their clever phrasing; I want them to be saying something interesting (or, less frequently, something funny) as well. I think it’s because in the back of my mind I’m imagining my commonplace book as a source for the epigraphs of the books I’m going to write. πŸ˜€

  8. I haven’t read Mary Renault yet but I have wanted to read The Persian Boy for a while now and you have convinced me I must experience her writing. Some of the other comments have me thinking that I may not want to start with The Persian Boy, I don’t want to spoil the rest of her books. Maybe I’ll start with Fire from Heaven and work my way to Promises of Love. You have me intrigued.

    • Fire from Heaven was the first Renault book I ever read, so it has a special place in my heart. I have a leetle crush on Alexander the Great because of her. I hope you like him (and the books) as well.

  9. For me, the thing about keeping a reading journal is that it interrupts the flow of my reading, so I tend to mark interesting passages with post-it flags. Mostly, I am just too lazy to bother, which is why my posts don’t tend to have many quotes. πŸ™‚

    • Well, I’m often too lazy to bother with my reading journal too. But sometimes I like to make a note about what I’m reading, so that I’ll remember it later; and sometimes I like an anecdote and I want to remember it; and sometimes I disagree with what the author seems to be saying, and I want to write down that I disagree and why (helps me organize my thoughts). So those are all things the reading journal is good for, in my case.

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