First edition cover
The Charioteer is a 1953 war novel by Mary Renault. It was first published in the United States in 1959. The Charioteer is significant because it features a prominent gay theme at an early date and quickly became a bestseller within the gay community.
This romance novel is set in the period of World War II at a military hospital during nightly bomb raids and blackouts. The story's protagonist, Laurie 'Spud' Odell, is a young soldier wounded at Dunkirk (Renault worked as a nurse during the war), who must decide if his affections lie with a conscientious objector or a naval officer.
The conscientious objector, Andrew Raynes, is a young Quaker, as yet unaware of his own homosexuality, who is working as an orderly at the military hospital where Laurie is being treated. Ralph Lanyon, who commanded the Merchant Navy ship which brought Laurie back from Dunkirk, was Laurie's boyhood hero at school, but he was expelled for an incident with another boy. He is sexually experienced and an established member of the homosexual sub-culture of the nearby city.
Laurie must come to terms with his own nature as well as the two different aspects of love characterised by Andrew and Ralph: the 'pure', asexual nature of his love for Andrew; and the sexual satisfaction of his love for Ralph. The novel derives its title from the Chariot Allegory employed by Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus, in which the soul (the charioteer) must learn to manage the two aspects of love, the black horse representing the lustful side of love, and the white horse representing the altruistic side of love.
Circumstances force Laurie to choose Ralph over Andrew, giving Andrew up rather than force him into conflict with his religious beliefs. There is altruism on Ralph's side too as he is prepared to sacrifice himself rather than stand in Laurie's way and force him into his own lifestyle of covert sexuality and 'specialisation'. Renault is concerned that homosexual men be fully integrated members of society and not existing in a ghetto of their own making, as exemplified by the party (part-brothel, part lonely hearts club) at which Ralph and Laurie are reunited. In Ralph, Renault sees a tarnished hero with the potential to be a noble warrior (she alludes to Plato's Symposium, in which a character philosophizes about an army composed of male lovers), whom Laurie, who has not yet lost his youthful idealism, can redeem. The hope is that Laurie and Ralph can build a meaningful relationship rather than a life of sexual gratification.
The story's wartime setting enabled Renault to consider issues such as how gay men could be valued and useful members to society, to 'make out as a human being' as she expresses it, whilst still remaining true to their nature. In her subsequent novels, Renault turned away from the 20th century and focused on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece. Thus she no longer had to deal with modern gay issues and prejudices, and was free to examine the nature of male love and heroes as the object of love.
Reception and critical analysis
Anthony Slide noted that The Charioteer was a bestseller within the gay community. Michael Bronski called the novel "an outright plea for the tolerance of homosexuals" and praised it as "sincere and well-written."
- Slide, Anthony (2003). Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Routledge. p. 152.
- Chapter 6 "The party had warmed up by this time. A momentary detachment came upon Laurie as he looked on. After some years of muddled thinking on the subject, he suddenly saw quite clearly what it was he had been running away from; why he had refused Sandy‘s first invitation, and what the trouble had been with Charles. It was also the trouble, he perceived, with nine-tenths of the people here tonight. They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his, loyal to his humanity if not to his sex, and bringing an extra humility to the hard study of human experience. They had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them. They had turned from all other reality, and curled up in them snugly, as in a womb."
- Chapter 14 "I don‘t just mean that queers would be there. A queer party: something between a lonely hearts club and an amateur brothel."
- Chapter 16 "Good luck to you, Spud. We always agreed that right, left or centre, it is still necessary to make out as a human being. I haven't done it but you will."
- Bronski, Michael (2003). Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 359–360.
- The Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels