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.