The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
English writer Mary Renault (1905-1983) is known mostly for her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. Her 1953 novel The Charioteer, however, is set in a much different time period: World War II. Young British soldier Laurie (Laurence) Odell sustains a severe leg injury (his kneecap is blown off) in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. While recuperating in an army hospital from a series of operations on his leg, he meets Andrew Raynes, a Quaker and a conscientious objector. (These “COs” are very unpopular with most people.) Andrew doesn’t fight in the war because of his religion, but he’s doing “war work” as a hospital orderly. Andrew and Laurie Odell become friends, they begin to meet secretly every day and, after a time, they become more than friends.
Years earlier, when Laurie was in school, he was drawn to an older boy named Ralph Lanyon. Ralph was a “Head” (sort of a student leader) at the school. After Ralph is “sent down” at school (expelled), Laurie never sees him again but never stops thinking of him. Fast forward years later to the war: Laurie and Ralph meet again; it turns out that Ralph rescued Laurie at Dunkirk, even though Laurie was barely conscious at the time and wasn’t aware of what was going on. Not surprisingly, he still is drawn to Ralph in a sexual way and he discovers that Ralph feels the same way about him. Since Laurie has already committed himself in a way to loving Andrew, he is faced with a dilemma. Who needs him more, Andrew or Ralph?
Meantime, Laurie has family problems. His mother, who has been a widow since Laurie was five, is planning on marrying a vicar named Mr. Straike. Laurie and Mr. Straike don’t like each other very much and are at pains to keep it hidden. Mr. Straike was instrumental in having Laurie’s eleven-year-old dog, Gyp, euthanized while Laurie was away and his mother didn’t bother to tell Laurie about it until he comes home for her wedding. He swallows his grief over losing Gyp and ends up giving his mother away in her wedding to Mr. Straike. Whenever Laurie is alone with his mother, he wants to tell her of his homosexuality and of his feelings for Andrew, but he is never able to get the words out; he knows that Mr. Straike would violently disapprove.
The more Laurie sees Ralph on his leaves from the hospital for treatment, the more he sees him a different light. Ralph is a member of an insular group of gay men, whom Laurie doesn’t like very much. (They’re plenty bitchy and one of them attempts suicide while Laurie is present.) Although Ralph is talking about him and Laurie being together forever, Laurie isn’t sure that’s what he wants, especially since Andrew has come into his life.
The Charioteer is interesting fiction for its time, the early 1950s. If the plot creaks at times (especially for the American reader) in the long, long conversations in the second half and we’re not always sure what the characters are saying, we can overlook the plodding and the occasional flaws. (Who doesn’t have them?) On the whole, it’s a rather conventional wartime love story made unconventional because all the participants are men. Despite its theme, however, it’s easy on the ears and eyes for those who might be offended by descriptions of an “alternative lifestyle.” The sections dealing with any kind of love or sexual activity are very chaste. For all we know, Laurie and Ralph or Laurie and Andrew might be playing chess when they are alone together. We know what’s going on here, but we’re not hammered over the head with it. This is what is known as subtlety and artistry, two qualities sorely lacking in today’s tell-all, anything-goes culture.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp