The Friendly Young Ladies
By Mary Renault
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780375714214, 304pp.)
Publication Date: May 13, 2003
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Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.
Mary Renault wrote this delightfully provocative novel in the early 1940s, creating characters that are lighthearted, charming, and free-spirited partly in answer to the despair characteristic of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness or Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. The result is a witty and stylish story that offers exceptional insight into the world of upcoming writers and artists of in 1930s London, chronicling their rejection of society’s established sexual mores and their heroic pursuits of art and life.
Mary Renault was born in London and educated at Oxford. She then trained for three years as a nurse, and wrote her first published novel, Promise of Love. Her next three novels were written while serving in WWII. After the war, she settled in South Africa and traveled considerably in Africa and Greece. It was at this time that she began writing her brilliant historical reconstructions of ancient Greece, including The King Must Die, The Last of the Wine, and The Persian Boy. She died in Cape Town in 1983.
“Undeniably charming . . . has an enormous nostalgic attractiveness.” —New Yorker
“Written with rare insight.” —Boston Globe
“A very lively and human story.” —New York Times Book Review