The Charioteer by Mary Renault – review

A compelling atmosphere of ‘amazed discovery’ characterises Mary Renault’s 1953 landmark of gay literature, now republished by Virago

Nineteen fifty-three was a good year for fiction, bringing us Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Go-Between by LP Hartley, The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann and Hurry On Down by John Wain, a novel that would retrospectively be hailed as the Angry Young Men’s first blast. The most controversial book of 1953, however, is somewhat less well known. Its author, Mary Renault, had a strange and sometimes stuttering career that divided sharply in two, and while the historical novels with which she built her reputation after 1953 – her beautifully realised, bestselling books about Theseus, Alexander and the Peloponnesian war – are still widely loved and admired, the five contemporary novels that preceded them have all but faded from view. Twenty-first-century readers see her name and conjure a rippling fighter in shining breastplate and leather sandals, not some pale fellow in a worsted suit and brogues, his fringe falling softly into his eyes.

But perhaps perceptions are about to shift. This week, the novel in question, The Charioteer, will be republished by Virago Modern Classics with a tender new introduction by the actor Simon Russell Beale (“an explosive and courageous book”) and a jacket decorated with praise from the novelist Sarah Waters (“compelling both as a snapshot of a particular cultural moment, and as a deeply romantic story of love fulfilled against the odds”).

Those who pick it up are unlikely to be disappointed. It’s true that there are moments when it has the sepia feel of a period piece, all aspidistras, linoleum and aunts called Olive; and like Renault’s Hellenic novels, it sometimes seems overly preoccupied with ethics, with high-minded considerations of how a man might live a good and honourable life. But The Charioteer is also one of the most singular and moving postwar novels I know, quiet passion and a certain awkwardness combining to striking effect. As Renault’s biographer David Sweetman has noted, the narrative has an atmosphere, sweet and touching, of “amazed discovery”, one that is maintained until the very last page.

The book tells the story of Laurie Odell, a sensitive young man who falls in love first with the magnificently assured head prefect at his school, Ralph Lanyon (soon to be expelled for sexual misbehaviour with a younger boy), and then, having been wounded at Dunkirk, with Andrew Raynes, one of the young conscientious objectors who is working as a hospital orderly. It’s largely thanks to this, of course, that the book was considered controversial: Renault’s treatment of homosexuality was, for the time, startlingly straightforward (“Andrew, thought Laurie; the name slipped into place like the clear colour note in the foreground of a picture”). But the novel also appeared at a moment when prosecutions for homosexuality were on the rise following a period during which gay men had enjoyed a certain amount of freedom, social taboos having eased a little during the war. Just a few weeks after its publication, in fact, John Gielgud was arrested and charged with “importuning male persons for immoral purposes” (having endured the humiliations of his trial, he was fined just £10). No wonder, then, that some critics linked The Charioteer to the burgeoning movement for reform.

Renault, though, was probably not after this kind of attention, for all that her book was so brave and compassionate. (Her American publisher, incidentally, turned the book down, considering it too hot to handle in a country where the administration believed that “sexual deviants” were likely to be traitors.) The Charioteer was written shortly after her arrival in South Africa, the country that would be her home until her death from cancer in 1983. In Durban she lived with Julie Mullard, her partner since they had fallen in love as student nurses in 1934, where they enjoyed the company of a crowd of gay friends, the behaviour of some of whom inspired the “queer party” scene in The Charioteer, one of its most crucial set pieces. But this didn’t mean that she wanted to stick her head above the parapet politically. Renault was reticent about her private life, mostly refusing interviews. She was also reluctant to identify as a lesbian. She and Julie had read The Well of Loneliness on a youthful holiday, tearing the pages out as they went along just in case they were discovered, and it had done nothing more than reduce them to helpless laughter. “If people talked about lesbians, we used to draw our skirts away,” said Mullard later. Even as Renault’s books explored sexuality – an earlier novel, Purposes of Love, had lesbian themes – they remained a place in which she could also hide.

Renault was born Eileen Challans (Mary was her middle name, and Renault was a pseudonym) in 1905, in West Ham, east London. Her father, Frank, was a doctor; her mother, Clementine, was a desperately aspirational housewife whose favourite word was “nice”. Neither parent was much interested in educating their daughter, but Mary was saved by her aunt Bertha, who paid first for her to go to boarding school and then, when she had landed a place at Oxford, for her university education. After her degree, the idea was that she would teach, or marry. Renault, though, was not having any of this. When her father refused to support her ambition to be a writer, she walked out, funding her independence by training as a nurse (her experiences on the wards proved useful when she came to write the post-Dunkirk scenes in The Charioteer). She and Julie met at the Radcliffe hospital in Oxford and took great risks sneaking into each other’s rooms in dead of night; on one occasion, matron burst in and one of them had to hide beneath the sheets. But they were, in the end, determined to be a couple, in spite both of the propriety of the time and the fact that Julie had received an offer of marriage from one of her male lovers.

Renault’s first novels were all written while she worked as a nurse, the two vocations competing for her energy if not her attention. It was only after she had won $150,000 for the rights to Return to Night from MGM Studios in 1946 that she was able to leave nursing and devote herself full-time to fiction, and it wasn’t until 1956, by which time she was already in her 50s, that she had a hit with The Last of the Wine, the first of her books to be set in ancient Greece.

The Charioteer, Renault’s signing-off from the world of contemporary fiction, was not, it almost goes without saying, a huge success. But as more than one critic has pointed out in the years since, it has come to stand alongside Gore Vidal‘s The City and the Pillar (1948) and James Baldwin‘s Giovanni’s Room (1956) as a landmark of gay literature. And there is so much to admire about it. Renault has an ear for the way people really speak, especially when their lives are clandestine. “The dialogues are really amazing,” said Gerald Heard, a friend of Christopher Isherwood, in a long and praising letter to Renault. “As Isherwood said to me, how can an author who must in many respects be ‘above the battle’ and outside that particular Purgatory understand it so well?”

It has some expertly drawn minor characters – unlike some, I rather like Bunny, a gay man who is addicted to tea and campery – and a vivid, almost sticky atmosphere, particularly when it comes to Laurie’s stay in hospital (at a film show for patients, he can feel the men around him “soaking up” its female star “through their pores”, though he is all the while thinking of Andrew, having withdrawn “to a middle distance behind his eyes”). A novel about a twilight world that is now, thank God, little more than a memory, it has a texture and pace that is all its own, conflict and self-loathing first rising from the page like a befuddling and toxic smog, and then clearing, its heroes moving finally but inexorably towards the light. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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