Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2003

Back Catalogue

In a “Back Catalogue” special, Jim Herrick – an award-winning humanist, a founder member of GALHA and editor of New Humanist – looks back on a book that had a profound effect on his young life, and helped him towards “a living and loving and involvement in the world”.

The Charioteer, by Mary Renault

reviewed by Jim Herrick

The Charioteer by Mary Renault, published in 1953, is a gay classic. It was published between the relaxing attitudes of the early 1940s and the reforming mood of the 1960s in a period of increasing persecution of homosexuals.

Nineteen fifty-three was also the year in which John Gielgud was prosecuted for cottaging. In the McCarthyite US, “perverts” were branded as communists and an executive order from Eisenhower banned gays from federal posts. Before The Charioteer the only novels dealing head on with homosexuality were The City and the Pillar (1948) by Gore Vidal and works by Isherwood, which covered homosexuality fairly obliquely (in the 1930s). Although The Charioteer has been criticised by modern gays, it is a pioneering work.

It was also a key work in my own development. I read it while a sixth former around 1960 and it was a revelation. I keep my yellowing disintegrating copy as a talisman. This was the first that I had read of homosexuals who were real people at a time when I had never knowingly met any gay men. It was an eye-opener to me before the reforms of the sixties to read that there were many gay men who fell in love and who had their own subculture. When I reread it recently I found it still packed quite a punch.

Mary Renault had already written six novels, largely romantic and one alluding to lesbians, and was subsequently to write eight novels about ancient Greece. They all have homosexual love – platonic as much as romantic – as a major theme, and they are all given vivid context and rounded characters.

The three protagonists in The Charioteer, which is set during World War Two, are Laurie, Andrew and Ralph, whose lives and love are interwoven. Laurie is the key person, whose father’s departure opens the novel. Of course, the fatherless boy is then extremely close to his mother, maybe a precondition of his homosexuality (a type of primitive Freudianism that was popular at the time but that few would accept today). At his public school, Laurie realises that the head boy, Ralph, is being dismissed for misbehaviour with a younger boy. He tries to intervene and defend Ralph, but Ralph warns him away. A chord is struck between them and Ralph gives Laurie a copy of Plato’s Phaedo, which he always treasures.

The novel moves on to a hospital full of the Dunkirk wounded, where Laurie finds himself with a damaged leg. He falls in love with Andrew, a young conscientious objector working as an orderly. Theirs is an unspoken love based on conversation and silent presence. Laurie meets someone in a pub who knowingly invites him to a queer party, where he remeets Ralph, now a naval officer. The affection and tension between them is another theme of the novel.

The metaphor of a charioteer runs like a vein through the novel. In Plato’s Phaedo the chariot is led by two horses, one dark and one light, one pulling firmly, the other unruly. It is the role of the charioteer to pull them together. They represent light and dark, the path to heaven and the path below. In the context of this novel they seem to represent platonic love and sexual love and also society and transgressive behaviour.

Laurie’s love for Andrew is entirely platonic, though he might wish it otherwise. His feelings for Ralph are completed with sexual experience, though flawed by Ralph’s desire to control him. The gay subculture is represented by a queer party in which the subculture is excoriated and stereotyped. Current “queer studies” courses in universities uphold this party as an example of the stereotype of the bitchy and the camp. Laurie calls it “something between a lonely hearts club and an amateur brothel”. But Mary Renault is concerned to show how easy it is to become part of “a closed shop” – “nous autres”.

Laurie thought that his relationship with Andrew would never be like that, how they felt special “only in their happiness, and separate only in their human identities”. He feels after contact with other homosexuals that he has been “living in an enclosed and tiny personal world”.

Mary Renault is not being judgmental, but her thrust – which is in the Greek novels too – is for an open integrated life for gays. In one of her most telling analogies, she has Ralph compare the prohibition of liquor in the US to the proscription against homosexuality: “You can’t make good wine in a bathtub in the cellar, you need sun and rain and fresh air, you need a pride in the job you can tell the world about. Only you can live without drink if you have to, but you can’t live without love.” That seems as a strong a statement to me as any gay pride tract.

There is explicit demonstration of the need for freedom and the dangers of blackmail, but The Charioteer is not a dogmatic novel, rather a deeply human one. It is about knowing yourself, and knowing others and knowing the world you live in. Essentially, she is concerned for the needs of homosexuals to integrate their love and their sexuality (even if, in the 1950s, her account of sex is muted) and to integrate into society at large. This she succeeded in as a lesbian living with her lover in South Africa and she conveyed in compelling ways in her series of ancient Greek novels.

Reading The Charioteer 40 years ago led me to a living and loving and involvement in the world – for which I am grateful. So that we all, gays and lesbians, can say (in defiance of Mrs Thatcher) – “we are society”.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-07-27 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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