I read The Charioteer a number of years ago and thought it was wonderful. I always meant to read more Mary Renault, but instead I’ve read The Charioteer again—when I’m not much of a rereader.
I think there’s a couple of things going on. First off, Renault is not available in digital. I can of course buy print books, but it takes more effort, and I’m less likely to get around to it. Also, the other Renaults that get significant attention seem to be set in ancient Greece. I’m not against such a setting, but because I loved The Charioteer so much, I’d be more likely to pick up another book in that era. (Basically contemporary for her, I know.)
Anyway, the book itself. I can cast it as a romance, as the major throughline is the relationship between two men. But as a genre, it’s more gay fiction than romance. (Not that romance existed as a genre back then.) It’s also a love triangle.
The book opens with a powerful and sensitively written scene about a boy (five-year-old Laurie) who understands, if not that clearly, that his family life is about to change irrevocably. His father leaves that night, and he never sees him again. It then jumps forward to his teen years and his saying goodbye to Ralph (known at that point as Lanyon) who’s been booted out of school because of a scandal.
The final time jump is to Laurie recovering from a very serious leg wound in a hospital, or hospital-like facility. (I’ll admit to some fuzziness about both boarding school and medical institution terms.)
Here Laurie is being nursed back to health and falls in love with Andrew a conscientious objector who works there. Problem is, Andrew while falling for Laurie doesn’t recognize what their relationship really is, and Laurie won’t tell him. Even as those around them begin to identify what is going on.
Meanwhile, Laurie also meets Ralph again. They too draw closer, but Laurie, in a bit of mirroring, doesn’t fully recognize his feelings for Ralph as he holds on to this idealistic non-physical love for Andrew. It’s not that his feelings for Andrew (and Andrew’s for him) aren’t real, but that it’s not enough and can never be more. Laurie doesn’t understand the depth of Ralph’s feelings for him either, till near the end.
The end itself is bittersweet for a couple of reasons, and bittersweet is not code for the couple not being together, though that is tentative in some ways. The backdrop is World War Two, and there’s a sadness throughout, for me, to see these young men maimed and harmed by that violence. This makes their navigating society, in a time when being gay was not easy, more poignant.
There are some beautifully described moments in this book, both between Laurie and Andrew, and Laurie and Ralph.
Here, when Laurie realizes people see more clearly than Andrew does and wants to not expose their relationship.
“Good show.” But he said it too warmly, torn between the longing for Andrew to go and the dread of showing it.
“Yes, it is; you see when the war started he wouldn’t ask her, he didn’t think it was fair. I believe he was terribly unhappy. But she kept on writing, and finally, the other day—”
“Good for her,” said Laurie, cutting him short. Where did he think he was, exposing this naked happiness and trust: it was time he learned to be decent.
Andrew’s face changed. One day Laurie had been swishing a stick about, and caught his dog a cracking blow by accident; he had looked incredulous and bewildered, just like this.
Suddenly Laurie thought, Oh, damn the lot of them. He smiled up at Andrew and said, “Tell me all about it in the kitchen.”
Here, when Laurie feels he needs to tell Ralph they should break it off because of his feelings for Andrew whereas Ralph is intent on seducing him.
He had forgotten how easy, calming, and comfortable Ralph could be; nor had there been time to discover, till now, the sensation of coming home again which is one of the more stable by-products of physical love.
Here, Laurie is caught between his feelings for Andrew and for Ralph.
For Laurie couldn’t pretend to himself that even this last loyalty to Andrew was innocent. It was withheld at the expense of someone who on his side had withheld nothing, and whose need of love was in its kind no less. The idealist and romantic in Ralph, reviving late and left for dead, felt its own wants with the greater urgency; and it had lived too hard, too close to the ground, to be deceived.
One difference about rereading: I knew what was going to happen. The first time through I read The Charioteer with somewhat bated breath because I just didn’t know how she was going to resolve this very difficult love triangle. I rather missed that feeling, of reading where I had to know what was going to happen to the characters. However, it was rewarding to savor this and read her observations more slowly.
This is considered a classic by m/m readers. There is physical love between Ralph and Laurie, it’s alluded to or mentioned obliquely, and despite or because of that, the emotions are very strongly conveyed.
This week I’m going to have to order a Renault paperback from Amazon.