“The Charioteer” by Mary Renault
I finished reading “The Charioteer” by Mary Renault for the fourth time, with a view to, I suspect, deciding that I had passed beyond my juvenile crush for it. Instead, I find myself more in love with this novel than ever. I have read and re-read every word. But quite why it has such a profound effect on me is much harder to discern. Why does it make me feel achingly sad?
It’s the story of two men who fall in love; more specifically, of one man, Laurie, who can’t choose between his love of a young conscientious objector Andrew, a Quaker, and an older, cynical but very-much-in-love-with-Laurie naval officer. My money is on the officer: dashing, handsome, emotionally intelligent and loving. What’s not to like? I side with the older man, Ralph, because he is at heart kind, articulate and certain of what he chooses. He trusts youthful Laurie with his love and asserts, proudly and unashamedly, the importance of physical love in the whole idea of being “in love”, challenging Laurie to flesh out his youthful idealism.
Physical satisfaction in love is something that I’ve always suspected represents a minority interest in the lives of disabled adults. So I’m blown away by Ralph’s honesty. He expresses so carefully the challenges of an integrated, unashamed desire for every aspect of being in love, without resorting to euphemism or coy evasion. How refreshing! I can hardly imagine the impact this novel must have made when it was first published in 1953, when homosexual relationships between consenting adults were still criminalised in the UK.
I’ll always be indebted to this novel because of its honest exploration of hypocrisy and the rights of adults to self-define. The main characters stand up for the rights of a minority who must keep their physical desires hidden, and of whom it is expected shame must be a daily burden. Ralph does not accept that; and despite his mixed – and at the time, probably shocking – sexual history, he is prepared to act heroically. In myself being part of a minority group that probably shy away from talking about their intimate relationships, I find my identification with him and am challenged to live as fully as I can, every day.
This book will keep its place on the short shelf of books that I will own for always.