‘Dated’ Books, Part Two: The Charioteer

Is this book ‘dated’? Well, not in the same way as Wigs on the Green. The Charioteer wasn’t out of print for decades, it was never rejected by its author, and it continues to be discussed and admired by readers. However, it is definitely a novel of its time. It’s set during 1940, and was written in the early 1950s. The author, Mary Renault, was a nurse during the Second World War. She looked after soldiers who’d been evacuated from Dunkirk, and she worked in the same sort of hospitals described so vividly in the book. In part, the novel is about the war, about the moral (and occasionally physical) conflict between wounded servicemen and young, male conscientious objectors. However, to quote the summary on the back of my 1968 paperback edition:

“The theme of this compassionate and deeply understanding novel is homosexual love . . . Each [character] in his own way wrestles to compensate for what he feels to be biological failure.”

And doesn’t that sound like something out of a 1970s journal for psychotherapists, and make you want to avoid this novel like the plague?

'The Charioteer' by Mary RenaultBut if you did, you’d be missing out on a compelling story. Yes, this is a deeply serious book, with little of the humour that lights up Renault’s earlier novel, The Friendly Young Ladies. Yes, The Charioteer does go to ridiculous lengths to ‘explain’ (or perhaps ‘excuse’) the homosexual natures of the characters. Most modern readers will feel a bit bemused by the author’s careful explanations that Laurie, the narrator, had a philandering, alcoholic father who abandoned his family; that Ralph’s mother was a religious fanatic who had him flogged as a six-year-old after she caught him ‘discussing anatomy’ with the little girl next door; and that Andrew’s father died before Andrew was born and was probably bisexual. At social gatherings, the characters all sit around and have solemn debates about whether homosexuality should become legal, with one arguing:

“I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening . . . I think we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross over-population . . . I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlars and prostitutes. Criminals are blackmailed. I’m not a criminal.”

To which, another retorts:

“[The authorities have] learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that’s not enough, you start to expect a medal. Hell, can’t we even face the simple fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn’t have been born?”

(Actually, perhaps this isn’t so dated, after all. The same debate is being played out right now in the Australian parliament, except over same-sex marriage, rather than the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Conservative politicians continue to trot out the ‘But they can’t reproduce!’ line, along with other, equally idiotic, ‘arguments’ against gay and lesbian rights.)

Anyway, the characters of The Charioteer live in England in 1940, so their lives are ruled by terror. As if the war isn’t bad enough, they’re also terrified of attracting the wrath of the police, their commanding officers, their families and God. Not surprisingly, many of them are suicidal, alcoholic or drug-addicted. Also not surprisingly, they have enormous difficulties being honest with each other. It’s the sort of book in which many of the characters’ problems would be solved if they simply sat down and talked about how they felt. But no, Ralph can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, because he thinks it will turn young Laurie gay. Laurie can’t tell Andrew he’s in love with him, because he thinks Andrew is too religious to cope with the knowledge. Ralph still can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, years later, because he knows Laurie is in love with Andrew. Andrew can’t tell Laurie he’s attracted to him because . . . Arrgh! It made me want to smack them all over the head. Still, I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what would happen next. And the writing is superb – thoughtful, rich, beautifully-paced. The only issue I had with it was the coy fade-to-black whenever anything sexual happened, which again, is probably due to when the book was written. Perhaps the publishers censored it; perhaps the author censored herself? Still, after Laurie obsessively describing every thought, word and eye twitch during his interactions with Ralph and Andrew, it seemed bizarre that when he finally went to bed with one of them, there was a big blank in the narrative. I doubt a modern writer would have flinched at describing the scene (for example, see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, set during the same period but published in 2006). Surely how these two men interact in bed is just as significant to the story as how they act when they’re eating a meal together in public?

So, yes, The Charioteer is ‘dated’. However, it’s an authentic depiction of the experiences of gay men during the Second World War, and I found it impossible to put down.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

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