The Lesser-Known Novel of the 1950s That Presaged Queer Liberation
Cat Sebastian on the Unexpected Power of Mary Renault’s The Charioteer
Whenever I recommend Mary Renault’s The Charioteer—something I do with embarrassing frequency—I feel like I ought to offer a list of caveats, some pre-emptive apologies for what you’re going to find inside this book I love so much. There’s internalized homophobia on every page and enough regular old homophobia to be jarring. The prose is so opaque that even after twenty years of intermittently rereading this book, there are still passages whose meaning I can’t quite parse.
The conflict hinges on that most reviled of plot devices: the love triangle. There are frequent discussions of Plato that mean vanishingly little to me (this, incidentally, is where the title comes from; there are no chariots in this book, which takes place in England in 1940, right in the aftermath of Dunkirk).
Usually any one of these factors would be enough to make me seriously reconsider reading a book, let alone recommending it, but despite all that, The Charioteer is not only a book I like, it’s possibly my favorite book. I own it in three formats. My paperback is tattered to the point that it will shortly cease to meet any working definition of “book.”
Half of what I love about The Charioteer is that it exists at all: it’s a gay love story with a happy romantic ending and it was published in 1953. Well, it was published in the UK in 1953; American publishers wouldn’t touch it until 1959. What’s remarkable about it isn’t that it features queer people—queer characters were already a staple of pulp novels, and several queer classics, such as Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, had been published by the time it came out in America—but that it ends optimistically: two main characters are romantically together.Half of what I love about The Charioteer is that it exists at all: it’s a gay love story with a happy romantic ending and it was published in 1953.
Queer romantic love lifts some heavy weight in this story: it redeems the trials of being queer in a hostile world, and it makes life in general worth living. There’s a chapter where Laurie, the main character, is at his mother’s wedding to a man who Renault—in a few brisk lines—establishes as insufferable in general and uniquely insufferable to Laurie. When Ralph turns up, Laurie describes him as “a well in the desert.” Laurie’s effectively being orphaned and cast out of his home, and Ralph is someone who is his. The relief is palpable.
In a straight novel, weddings often serve as a reminder of what’s to come for its main character (whether it’s a promise or a threat depends on the genre) but here the wedding situates Laurie as an outsider: he’ll never have this. But what he does have is Ralph charming various relations, Ralph helping assemble broken folding chairs, Ralph making sure Laurie eats, and Ralph packing up his childhood bedroom.
He also has Ralph on the floor in front of the fireplace, because in this book, queer love includes sex. It’s not explicit (it is, in fact, implicit: you have to read carefully to notice it’s happening in the first place).
“The sensation of coming home again,” Laurie thinks at one point, “is one of the more stable by-products of physical love.” Renault makes it extremely clear that chaste romantic love is one thing, and that cruising for strangers is another thing (I’d love to say that both are presented as valid. Alas, they are not.), but that this happy ending involves love and sex being intertwined.
That, in fact, is the entire point of the title, and why I have to google “Plato chariot metaphor” whenever I read this book: there’s a mythical chariot being pulled by two horses, one of which is morality and the other of which is the carnal passions. You need both horses to go in the same direction, at the same speed, or you’re not going anywhere.
This is classic love triangle stuff—you have one kind beautiful angel who’s also the most boring person you’ve ever met, and one darkly tortured soul you want to do very specific things with—and indeed this seems at first to be the basis for the triangle Laurie finds himself in. But at the end Renault tells us that the horses are just tired and what really matters is that they’re in this together: “they are both of them far from home, and lonely” and so they go to sleep (together; they sleep together).
Early in the book, there’s an air raid—we’re in the part of the war where the Germans are bombing England on a nightly basis. Laurie is not particularly concerned about being hit by a bomb; he’s instead focused on Andrew (Andrew is the other prong in Laurie’s love triangle; he is the boring angel man). The air raid, then, is kind of beautiful. That’s what love is for in The Charioteer. It makes life’s air raids bearable.It would be dishonest to call Mary Renault any kind of queer liberationist, but built into this book is a startling optimism that queer liberation is something that could exist.
A few years ago, I found myself wondering what it would be like for a queer person to read The Charioteer when it was first published. The sense of being surprised by seeing yourself in print is a depressing phenomenon that isn’t unique to the fifties. Nearly half a century later, I recall being so surprised by any queer representation I found in mainstream entertainment that whenever it happened, I almost doubted seeing it in the first place—and then I waited for the queer character’s inevitable doom.
Would a queer person in the fifties, encountering a story where queer characters aren’t doomed, take the existence of this book as proof that the world was changing? Would they think this book was just an aberration?
My thoughts coalesced into wondering what one specific person would think: someone who secretly wants a person to come home to, that most conventional fifties aspiration, but thinks they’re never going to have it. Someone who doesn’t expect things to get better, and who’s sort of furiously making a life for himself anyway.
That idea wound up developing into We Could Be So Good, in which a slightly hardboiled newspaper reporter simply refuses to believe that his friends are telling him the truth when they insist this book ends happily. I wanted to write a book about what it means to be hopeful when things don’t look promising; The Charioteer felt like it belonged in this story.
I first read The Charioteer in the early 2000s. I was in my twenties, a couple of states were legalizing same-sex marriage, and broader queer rights seemed inevitable through the mysterious workings of progress. At the time, I’m not sure I picked up on the current of hope that runs through this book; from the vantage of 2003 it must have seemed dismal. Twenty years later, I recognize progress as something that has to be fought for, and hope isn’t something that seems as plentiful or straightforward as it did then.
The hope that’s found in the pages of this book—a book that takes place during a time that’s terrible not only for queer people, but also for people due to the very real prospect of the Germans winning the war—seems so unlikely. In The Charioteer, hope is—maybe not exactly in short supply, but something that you have to work for. The work, in fact, is indistinguishable from the hope: nearly every character in this book is defined by their relation to the ongoing war, and the work they’re doing (or not doing) to further it.
Mary Renault knew the outcome of the war she was writing about; she knew that the hope that lingered in the spaces between air raids and hospital beds hadn’t been for nothing. I feel like it can’t be an accident; this perspective invites us to view the other major problem of the characters’ lives as something that could be relegated to the past. It would be dishonest to call Mary Renault any kind of queer liberationist, but built into this book is a startling optimism that queer liberation is something that could exist.
We Could Be So Good by Cat Sebastian is available via Avon Books.