Though she’s better know for her rigorously historical fiction about Alexander the Great, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer was a very significant novel for the 1950’s. Historical fiction affords the author plausible deniability for their support of homosexuality, but The Charioteer was contemporary fiction, and one of a very, very small handful at the time positively depicting homosexual love.
Laurie Odell is a patient at an English veterans hospital recovering from an injury sustained at Dunkirk during WWII. He shortly becomes fast friends with Andrew, one of the orderlies and a conscientious objector, and soon their friendship evolves into something more. But Ralph, an old friend of Laurie’s from school, reappears and introduces him to a community of established, jaded gay men, and Laurie must choose between the physical and practical pleasures of Ralph’s world and the innocent and idyllic love of Andrew’s.
I’ve come to think of Renault’s The Charioteer as the gay Pride and Prejudice, not because the plots are particularly similar, but because she and Austen both approach romance with an earnest, honest, and literary pen. There is no love at first sight or perfect partner because loving another person is very difficult, and Renault is dedicated to exploring that process. It’s a slow burn, both for the plot and their relationships. A modern American reader might find some of the language or dialogue to be a little perplexing, though an English one will likely feel more comfortable.
Fun fact: Renault takes her title from Plato’s famous Chariot Allegory presented in the Phaedrus (which will someday appear on this blog). In it, Plato imagines a charioteer whose vehicle is drawn by two winged horses, one of which is noble and beautiful while the other is the opposite in every way, and their competing personalities make piloting the chariot very challenging. The first horse represents rational, positive passions such as morality, whereas the second symbolizes irrational ones like appetite or lust, and the charioteer must control both in order to guide the soul to truth.