Review: The Charioteer, Mary Renault (plus, a giveaway)

Since nobody loves this book (and when I say “nobody loves this book” I want you to understand that I really mean “Mumsy does not love this book and it breaks my heart”), I have decided to try once again to explain what I love so much about it.

The Charioteer deals with a conflict of values, my favorite kind of conflict to read about. The three main characters, Laurie and Ralph and Andrew, are gay men living in British army hospitals in the 1940s: Laurie and Ralph because injuries prevent them returning to battle, and Andrew as an orderly because he’s a conscientious objector. (Well, Laurie and Ralph are gay. Andrew exists in a state of presexual innocence, which is less annoying than that phrasing makes it seem.) So all through the book runs the tension between the moral necessity of integrity — these are all three men of integrity — and the social necessity of self-concealment that devolves upon a gay man in 1940s Britain. Here is Laurie sounding out Andrew (who fails to be sounded):

“If I only had my gramophone here, we could have had some Mozart, some time… I’ve got quite a bit of Tchaikovsky, ballet music mostly. It’s all right when you feel like it, or don’t you think so?  I read somewhere once, Tchaikovsky was queer.”


He seemed to wait hours for the upturned face to change; but the pause was  in his own imagination, as he realized when Andrew said with mild interest, “Was he? I hadn’t heard. He was never actually shut up, surely?”


“No, it never came out. Though I believe–” He saw his mistake, and with a painful jolt caught himself up just in time. “Not mad, you know. Just queer.” He waited again.


“You mean a bit…Oh, yes, I see.” Andrew wrung out the cloth in the bucket. “I find all Russians slightly mysterious, don’t you? Perhaps if one met more of them.” Laurie said yes, that was the trouble, probably.

One of Renault’s very best writerly tricks is her ability to show two people who are participating in a mutual conversation but not in the same conversation, and she has it on full display in The Charioteer. With everyone but Ralph (and, on most topics, Andrew), Laurie is on guard. There’s an incredible tension to the recognition that any casual line of talk — about nurses, night passes, pacifists, school, the crossing at Dunkirk — can turn on a dime and take him back into dangerous territory. Laurie’s attentiveness to this, and his competence and resourcefulness at reframing dangerous conversations are compelling in the same way as Tatiana Maslany wriggling out of one impossible situation after another on Orphan Black.

A side effect of these eyeline-mismatch conversations is that Renault produces elegant descriptions of the small and large shifts in persona any kind of human interaction can dictate. Laurie is devoted to his mother but still aware of her tendency to “retreat into optimism leaving him to face reality alone”; and he presents the gentlest version of his life for her perusal. He’s likewise very fond of his John-Bull stereotype hospital friend, Reg, who satisfies Laurie’s need for “simple, platitudinous sympathy” but also seems at all times on the edge of discovering that Laurie’s gay. Here he is expressing his unhappiness over Laurie’s close friendship with Andrew, a conscientious objector:

“No one here can’t say you ever done any highbrow act. But what I mean, these lads come along, college boys like yourself, reading literary books and that. Well, stands to reason, ordinary, you have to keep a lot of your thoughts to yourself. I watched you when you didn’t know it, time and again.”


Laurie came crimson out of the locker, where he longed to remain. “Christ, Reg, the bull you talk.” They sat, not looking at each other. Laurie knew his protest had been too weak; it should have been something more like “What would I want with that bunch of sissies?” Why, he wondered, was it the people one held in the most innocent affection who so often demanded from one the most atrocious treachery?

(Here again, by the way, these two men are not in the same conversation. Laurie spends this scene trying frantically to figure out whether Reg is objecting to Andrew on gendered or on ideological grounds, and Reg spends it determined to make his (ideological, if you’re curious) point, and feeling that Laurie is refusing to take a tactful hint.)

Renault does the incredibly difficult thing in The Charioteer of writing about three main characters who are all strongly moral, variously flawed, and flawlessly differentiated from each other. And not boring. It’s not just one character who’s moral and not boring — which is already a challenge for many authors — it’s three. Admittedly you get Ralph and Andrew through the eyes of Laurie, who’s sort of in love with them both, but it’s still clear from what Laurie learns of them that they are unyielding on points of morality, without reference to personal cost. Laurie himself, if you can frame his reluctance to be forthright with Andrew as Renault’s version of Dan Savage’s campsite rule, takes on a significant burden of pain to ensure that his presence in Andrew’s life does no harm to Andrew.

Lest I be accused of panegryic-peddling, I will say this: Although Mary Renault wrote in fetters when she wrote of her own time and at liberty when of Gods & Greece, The Charioteer is the least fettered of her modern novels; by which I mean that she speaks fairly openly about homosexuality and what it means to society and to individuals. She is not always at her awesomest on this subject. Renault slapped a frame of classical antiquity on homosexuality; and she could be monumentally unkind about people who framed it otherwise. The effeminate gay characters in The Charioteer are bitchy nightmares, and Ralph and Laurie despise them so casually it’s clear the reader is meant to do the same. It’s not great, even if you understand the reasons behind it.

I shall make one more point and then retire from the field. Even granting that Mary Renault lived in South Africa and couldn’t get into trouble, it is awesome to me that she wrote all these books that assumed the perfect reasonableness of the existence of queer people in Britain. Promises of Love, a book in which the protagonist develops a relationship with a man who has previously been in a relationship with her brother, was published in 1939. The Charioteer says outright that Laurie and Ralph have sex, and it was published the year after Alan Turing got convicted of indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. Just, way to go, Mary Renault, writing about characters who are (apart from, you know, fearing societal rejection) perfectly cheerful and un-angsty about being gay. Way to not be Radclyffe Hall.

AND NOW. Due to my unceasing search for the One Best Copy of The Charioteer, I have a (used, but in good condition) spare copy of it, and I would like to give it away. If you are interested, please leave a comment below with an email address where I can contact you. I will draw names out of a hat if more than one person asks for it. You can comment any time this week (from now until next Monday night), and I will draw names on the morning of 8 October.

Edit to add: Please go read the lovely Charlotte’s review of The King Must Die, it’s excellent.

21 thoughts on “Review: The Charioteer, Mary Renault (plus, a giveaway)”

  1. Oh, Jenny, you know how to make a strong case for yourself! I am amused at how good you make this book sound, when I know I just could not become interested in it. You make excellent points and do so VERY eloquently, and “panegyric-peddling” is indeed a lovely phrase. All that you say is true; I can only fall back on the one unanswerable argument: “Non amo te, Sabidi.”

    1. But Mumsy, you know sometimes one can start reading a book and not like it, and then you end up liking it ultimately? That could happen! It’s suuuuuch a good book. I used to think I could never be interested in Shirley Jackson’s novels and I was so wrong.

  2. ‘Panegyric-peddling’ – this is the kind of thing that makes me personally despair! How did you come up with that phrase??! It is indeed lovely. Not that we’re competing as book bloggers, but how does one compete??! 😉

    I haven’t yet been able to acquire ‘The Charioteers’, though I have a fabulous personal collection of all of the Greek novels and several of the contemporary ones. So yes, please, enter me in your book draw.

    I had thought to read either ‘The Friendly Young Ladies’ or ‘Purposes of Love’ this week. I’ll see if I can get somthing accomplished in the way of a review.

    Mary Renault was a brilliant writer! As you well know. 🙂

    1. Okay, you’re entered! If you do get to review one of her early books, I’d very much look forward to your review. 😀

  3. Well, now I don’t know if I want to start with Mary Renault’s classical novels or her modern novels. I just started Hemlock and After and now I’m wildly curious to read Mary Renault’s moral young men as a sort of contrast..

    Ooh ooh ooh please enter me in your book draw!

      1. Hemlock and After is by Angus Wilson and it’s about the life of a gay man in post WW2 England. I think it was published in 1952?

    1. Oh, and the answer to your musing is: Her classical novels are better. I love The Charioteer, but considered as a whole, her classical novels are substantially better than her modern ones.

  4. In defense of Radclyffe Hall, there’s a big difference between 1928 and 1939, and considering the reception that Hall’s book got, I’d say her being angsty was pretty much justified. Not that The Well of Loneliness is a good book, but somebody had to publish an openly gay novel in the mainstream press and get flak for it so that Mary Renault could be all blase about homosexuality eleven years later.

    I would also say, all things considered, that Hall’s characters cover a fairly wide spectrum of reactions to their own homosexuality, and that part of the book’s message is, in fact, that people shouldn’t be ashamed of their sexuality. It’s just hard for Hall’s characters to ignore the messages that society is constantly sending their way.

  5. I sometimes bypass books about gay characters because I’m expecting a lot of Angst And Stereotypes. I may have to give this one a shot – you’re pretty convincing.

    I hope I’m not the only one who had to look up panegyric.

    1. I had to look it up, and I am a better person for it.

      I’ve been reading along on the Renault love and thinking about whether I have it in me to take one of these on; this one actually sounds more appealing to me than the Greek ones; I have a terrible bias against books in ancient Greece because the few times I’ve tried I could never keep the names straight.

  6. I know I’m not Mumsy, but perhaps it will make you feel better if I say that I love this book! And you don’t have to include me in the draw, because I already have a copy.

    I have to confess it’s the only one I’ve read by her, though. Which of her other contemporary novels would you recommend?

    1. Of her contemporary novels, I’d recommend her first one, Purposes of Love. Her contemporaries really just aren’t as good. The classical novels are much better, and for those, I’d start with The Mask of Apollo. It’s very friendly and accessible, I think.

  7. Man, I remember taking The Charioteer out from the library years ago (in 2009! I just found my old Library Loot post about it) and returned it unread, and now I’m kicking myself. I LOVE it when authors do the thing where two characters are having separate conversations with each other! Sigh.

    1. It is not too late Anastasia! You can check it out again and read it and then maybe I won’t be the only person in the whole world who loves it

  8. Not only do I not love The Charioteer…I’ve never heard of it! But I loved your post about it nevertheless. If I see a copy of it, I’ll grab it up thanks to you. Fun post!

  9. Huh. My reaction to Renault in general, which I’m struggling to write a post about, is pretty much always “this is your father’s fiction.” So I think if I read another, it will be about Alexander the Great.

    1. Hahahah, okay, that seems like a really fair assessment. I’ll be very interested anyway to hear what you thought of Mask of Apollo. 🙂

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