I hate it when this happens. Here’s a review I wrote late last year for the reissue of Renault’s wartime novel The Charioteer. The piece was commissioned but never ran. I thought it was a wonderful book.
The Charioteer by Mary Renault, Virago £8.99
The Charioteer, first published in 1953 and now republished by Virago, marks a transition in Mary Renault’s work, being the last contemporary novel she wrote before turning to historical fiction. A lesbian, she wrote perceptively and passionately about the lives of gay men; as Simon Russell Beale affirms in his introduction, setting her stories in the ancient world gave her ‘the freedom to portray homosexual love as part of the unquestioned order of things… without judgemental baggage’. By contrast, Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, is dimly aware of what he is and might be, but society’s hostility chills his dreams.
There’s a crucial early scene at boarding school, where the 16-year-old Laurie is thunderstruck to learn that Lanyon, the revered head of his house, is being expelled for alleged sins with another boy. Convinced of a miscarriage of justice, Laurie calls for an insurrection; summoned to Lanyon’s study he has a fierce, almost violent confrontation with his idol. In farewell, the Olympian Lanyon hands the awed younger boy a copy of Plato’s Phaedrus, with its image of the civilised man resembling a charioteer controlling two mismatched horses. ‘It doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, so don’t let it give you illusions. It’s just a nice idea,’ Lanyon says cryptically. The whole scene is a masterclass in repression and self-control.
A few years later in 1940, Laurie, badly injured at Dunkirk, is undergoing treatment for his shattered leg in an English hospital. The arrival of a troupe of conscientious objectors as orderlies electrifies the whole ward; the war-wounded bitterly resent those whom they feel chickened out of the fighting. But the COs’ calm dignity wins most hearts, and Laurie falls in love with the boyish, cheerful Andrew, aware that even a chaste friendship might set tongues wagging. Then by a strange twist of fate, Lanyon reappears in his life.
Renault, a trained nurse, expertly captures the boredom, drama and gossip of a ward where the sisters rule supreme and the men are infantilised. The war seems both far away and horribly close; there are raids and blackouts, dogfights in the skies and bombs in distant London. Drugs are omnipresent; Laurie shovels down official and unofficial pills to kill the pain he suffers for much of the book; and there’s a brief, poignant glimpse of a pilot so wired he can barely function. ‘Relax, my dear, you’re full up with Benzedrine and five drinks behind. Come along and get loaded.’ ‘Shut up… What he wants is bromide and ten hours’ sleep.’
Still besotted with Andrew, Laurie can’t expunge the glowing ideal that Ralph (as he learns to call Lanyon) represents for him. Joanna Trollope has recently published her modern version of Sense and Sensibility. It suddenly struck me that Renault has written the gay Pride and Prejudice, with Ralph Lanyon an irresistibly dishy, dark and masterful Mr Darcy.
If Ralph has pride, then Laurie has prejudice aplenty. In a pivotal scene at a gay party, he looks around aghast at his febrile fellow guests. ‘They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his… they had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them.’ Beale quotes this as an example of ‘a degree of conflict’ in Renault, but just as in all great romantic fictions, lovers who appear to be destined for one another must be kept apart, or there’ll be no story. Laurie doesn’t know what he wants; perhaps he doesn’t even want what he wants.
Beale is on surer ground when he points out that in Ralph there is a flicker of Renault’s great hero Alexander the Great, whose fictionalised biography she went on to write. They are both composed of bravery, menace, self-will, beauty, charisma and personal flaws – not least problematic drinking. Laurie is cast down to discover that Ralph already has a partner, the camp Bunny, and revolted when Ralph abbreviates it further to ‘Boo’. But the hypermasculine Ralph has also had a few, not unenjoyable affairs with women: ‘I thought I might become naturalised, so to speak,’ he explains. ‘Some people seem to take inordinate pride in never having made the attempt, but I don’t see it myself.’
It’s left to Alec, a doctor, to provide a stagey ‘defence of the homosexual’, probably essential in 1953, less so now: ‘I think that probably we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross overpopulation, and I don’t see how we’re a worse remedy than modern war… I’m not prepared to accept a standard which puts the whole of my emotional life on a plane with immorality.’
Romantic trappings or no, the background of the war and its extravagant wastefulness of young male flesh underpins a narrative that seems first to be tiptoeing, then galloping, towards tragedy. Such is Renault’s insight that you care desperately for her troubled characters and turn the final pages with a beating heart.