The Charioteer // Mary Renault

[from 2016]

I have, seemingly, developed a filthy habit of starting to read books of which the more conservative members at church would heartily disapprove during the final week of my exams. During the HSC, it was Lolita. For my first set of uni exams, it was The Charioteer.

Mary Renault’s 1953 gay classic would mark a transition in her career, as her final contemporary novel and first to explicitly deal with same-sex attraction. A skim through the introduction seemed to reveal her as my kindred spirit, with our shared concern for the ancient gay (or, as she would say, “queer”).

The Charioteer is set during the Second World War, though thankfully not on the dreary battlefield. Laurie Odell, a recently-injured soldier, convalesces back in England at a veterans’ hospital where he meets and falls in love with Andrew Raynes, a conscientious objector. At the same time, Ralph Lanyon, whom Laurie admired during school, re-enters his life with an underground circle of gay friends. Ultimately, Laurie is forced to choose between the innocent, blooming love between him and Andrew and Ralph’s sexual experience – and settles for the latter. The eponymous charioteer refers to Socrates’ tripartite vision of the soul from Phaedrus: the charioteer (who represents reason) drives a well-mannered white horse (which represents noble sentiments) and an unruly black horse (which represents irrational, base desires), and must exercise control over the two to reach enlightenment.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. The writing is absolutely gorgeous and understated. There is, of course, a wonderful emotional muting which evokes more emotion than more explicitly prosaic descriptions generally do. The plot is also quite eerily similar to Maurice by E.M. Forster – but this is somewhat understandable, since both Renault and Forster were acquianted in similar writing circles.

The most interesting element is the treatment of the love triangle. I am, of course, hardly a fan of love triangles – I’m very much a believer in Soulmates and Destiny (BBC Merlin whomst?). Renault’s treatment of it, however, was painful but necessary – in the way using a pin to remove an ingrown hair might be painful but necessary. Laurie, I would assert, was ultimately more in love with Andrew, and this love was reciprocated in full (cf. that very soft smooch in the kitchens, O My Heart). I was frustrated by his refusal to allow Andrew to make the decision to be with him but later, I was also reconciled with Laurie’s acknowledgement that he would not force Andrew into a difficult position out of that love for him. Ralph, of course, was a bit more complicated. I did not particularly like him – although, granted, this could be very much because of my Soulmates and Destiny bias – but I recognised his importance in allowing Laurie himself to find that there was liberation in being gay.

Either way, it’s a wonderfully-written novel with a lot of complexity bubbling under the surface. It’s certainly well worth a read.