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Mary Renault's Theseus novels and internalised misogyny

Feminist Theory

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Jan 24, 2011, 5:32am Top

Hello, everyone, greetings. I hope I am in the right place to open this topic. If not, tell me to shuffle off somewhere else...
Following glowing recommendations from an women on Amazon, I read ((Mary Renault))'s novels (The King Must Die)(The Bull from the Sea).
Oh, dear! Steam began gradually to burst from my ears.
The prose was terse, the scenes were evocative, Theseus came to life - and I was more and more dismayed, because I felt that the contempt and brutality that he increasingly displays towards women in fact reflected the authors own, not treated with ironical detachment.
Don't get me wrong; I am not so ahistoricl as to suppose a patriarchal king of ancient Greece wouldn't have a dismissive attitude towards women, to regard them as 'war prizes' etc.
Nor would I expect a women who had challanged the female rolse in pre-feminist days not to have ambiguous feelings about what it means to be female.
No, but I increasingly came to feel that this author actively de
spised women, and when I did some research ((David Sweetman)) ((Carolyn Heilbrun)) this has been confirmed. She actively despised women, but because she did oppose apartheid and became such an icon with gay men (in fact, she opposed the Gay Rights movement) this ugly fact has been largely obscured and she is assumed to have advanced views.
In the novels, only boyish women are depicted as admirable. the Amazon Queen Hippoylata,oddly in a women raised without men, doesn't like or get on with other women. Sexual women who enjoy being women - Persephone, Ariadne and Phaedra are depicted as sly, unreliable, capable of outbursts of savagery.
In the first novel, Theseus threatens to kill his father's namless 'war prize' for having a wandering eye and threatens to beat his matriarchal wife and thinks of raping her on his truimphant way to overthrowing matriarchal culture, but that is as nothing to his cold treatment of the unfortunate Phaedra in (The Bull from the Sea), when he slowly throttles her to death.
I was dismayed as much by the glowing women reviewers from women on the web about these novels as Renault's attitude ; only a handful seem offended by what one reviewer (I think, either here or on GoodReads) calls 'internalised misogony'.
Everywhere, people glowingly recommend these novels to teenagers.
I in fact raised the issue with 'enotes' with whom I have a subscription, asking them to modify their notes indicating that the books, though written by a women, depict women in a negative light. I receiced the reply that they were 'unable' to do this. I will not be renewing my subscription with enotes, but that will in itself achieve very little.
Neither will the fact that I have written a couple of reviews pointing out the misogyny.
Sorry about long rant, I am really dismayed that women could happily read something that made me feel demeaned and sad.


Jan 29, 2011, 5:04am Top

Oh, dear, no response!
I hope that might mean that most women with feminist understanding avoid the stuff like the plague - and I don't blame them - but what worries me is that most women don't have feminist understanding - except instinctive resentment at times, you might say - and they are happily reading and recommending these novels on websites like Amazon.

Somebody please post?



Jan 30, 2011, 9:34pm Top

Umm, wasn't Mary Renault a lesbian and using her Greek novels to write in code about lesbian and gay culture? So, the question becomes whether she is misogynist, or attracted to butches and not femmes, or talking about drag queens ...

I simply don't know enough about her writing to even start to unpack this, and suspect many others are in the same boat.

Jan 31, 2011, 2:34am Top

I simply don't know enough about her writing to even start to unpack this, and suspect many others are in the same boat.

That describes me, also. I've not read or even heard of Renault, so have nothing constructive to say on the topic.

As for being dismayed that women (or men) read things that are sexist and make one feel dismayed or sad -- well yes, but then things like the Twilight novels are in the same boat and they sell like hotcakes. I suspect this is more a symptom, than a cause, of sexism in society generally. Much progress has been made; much still remains to be done.

Jan 31, 2011, 4:38am Top

Aulsmith and Essa, good points. Yes, we have a long way to go but I hadn't realised how far.

Also, I did expect SOME women reviewer on Amazon to have seen the contempt behind the depictions - none did. One briefly said she didn't like the 'casual treatment of women' and that was it.

The first novel is called 'The King Must Die' but while it seems that is of consequence, the fact that Theseus causes the deaths of his three 'consorts' doesn't seem to bother anyone too much...

I must admit that I haven't forced myself to read the Twilght novels but I gather the girl's life soon revolves around the vampire man's in a dismal enough way,and yes, modern women love that too.

I suppose it is hidden under a gloss of romance, though.

In the Renault novels about Theseus, the destruction of the boyish Amazon woman's indpendence is hidden under a romantic guise, but this makes Theseus' scorn for Phaedra and final brutal killing of her the more unpleasant.

What horrified me about Renault, though, was the sort of disgust and scorn hidden behind her lines, the internalised misogony in the view that sexual, 'feminine' looking women are in some way unclean in a way that men, or boyish women apparently, are not that I haven't come across since reading a horrible book - I think 'The American Dream' by Norman Mailer in which the protagonist throttles his wife to death at the beginning...

There is an unintentionally grotesquely comic scene (meant to be horrific )where Theseus pukes violently on finding that the sleeping Ariadne is clutching the torn-off phallus from the poor dismembered King for a Year on the island of Naxos. Talk about castration fears!


the brutality that the author seemed to condone and amongst other things, instance, Theseus never expresses any sorrow over slowly throttling Phaedra for the rest of the novel, though he is depicted

Jan 31, 2011, 10:59am Top


I haven't read Renault and know nothing about her except that she was a lesbian (I have one of her "lesbian" novels, The friendly young ladies), so all I can do is speculate--and I shall. :)

You may very well be right. Anyone can be misogynist, including lesbians--I know some, especially among "butches". Furthermore, Renault's generation was burdened by even worse cultural sexism than our own, and sometimes these older writers suffer from proportionately worse attitudes themselves. Also, whatever gay men idolise, especially the older generation, I find suspect (Hollywood glamour stars excepted!) Contrary to what one might expect, gay men are often the last men to come to terms with femininity.

Then there's the time and place of Renault's fictions. Ancient Greece and Rome may very well be the most most misogynistic societies on record, rivalled only recently by the ultra-fundamentalist Islamic ones. Perhaps Renault found a natural outlet for her own misogyny, or perhaps it was accentuated by the theme... All in all, I wouldn't be surprised if your reading were correct.

Jan 31, 2011, 1:33pm Top

Those are very strong points, LolaWalser. Thanks for making them.

Oh, dear, about gay men being so anti female. How discouraging.

I am still staggered by how nobody seemed to object to Theseus' cowardly throttling of Phaedra. It put me in mind of a horrible book by Norman Mailer I once read...


Feb 10, 2011, 4:13am Top

I have written a feminist critique of the Theseus novels under 'The Bull From the Sea' on Amazon - but it isn't very prominent, as someone marked it down at once.

Now, Amazon may not be seen as a hotbed of deep thought etc but I suppose it is a fair cross section of the population, so if anybody feels strongly that the crtique should be more visible, please mark it up by going to the reviews of 'The Bull From the Sea'. Thanks in advance.

I also started a discussion, but nobody wants to contribute, which puzzled me given the glowing reviews on the book, you think people would be rushing over to 'flame' me.

I wouldn't care if these books were going out of favour,but I believe they still sell a lot and are recommended to young people, which given the uncritical attitude towards Theseus' rape urges and and murder of his wife is highly discouraging. Whinge, whinge.


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