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The Charioteer (Vintage) Paperback – 11 Oct 2003


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Product details

  • Paperback: 347 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; New edition edition (11 Oct. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375714189
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375714184
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.9 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 257,925 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Poldy on 14 July 2006
Format: Paperback
In this exquisite novel, Mary Renault, best-known for her novels set in ancient Greece, turns her attention to the tendentious subject of homosexual love during the Second World War. Laurie, a wounded soldier recovering in hospital, becomes enamoured of the young and clearly innocent Andrew, a conscientious objector who is working as an orderly. Into the midst of this idyll comes Ralph, an old friend from Laurie's school days, with whom Laurie was in love, or in awe. Along with Ralph come a variety of his friends, some melodramatic, some manipulative. The subject of the novel is Laurie's indecision between Andrew and his otherworldly, ethereal charm, and Ralph's more down-to-earth reality.

The title refers to the metaphor that which the soul is a charioteer in charge of two horses, one beautiful and well-behaved, the other wild and wilful. The charioteer has to keep peace between them and ensure that they don't drag the chariot off-course.

Mary Renault is respected for being so adept at creating believable male characters. Although some of the denizens of this novel are types, the naïve pretty youth, the camp and dramatic queen, the manipulative, predatory homosexual, they never become stereotypes thanks to Renault's gift for characterization.

At the time this novel was written, during the 1950's, the subject of homosexuality was still contentious, and using it as the theme of a novel was a brave decision. There is nothing exploitive or prurient about the story, nor is there any kind of plea for tolerance; this is simply a story with well-drawn, consistent characters going about their daily lives.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By VCBF (Val) on 9 July 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Comparing the secretive comradeship of homosexuals to the brotherhood in arms of servicemen in the Second World War was a very daring thing to do in the 1950s, but Mary Renault does it in this book. All three main characters and some of the secondary ones (Reg, Dave and Alec) have a strong code of honour and a sense of comradeship which leads them to a desire to protect their fellows. Not everyone can live up to the ideals of their respective codes: the public schoolboy who 'rats' on his head of school, the soldier who kills his instructor and blows off his own hand in grenade training, the unfaithful wife of a war-wounded soldier, the superficial gay party-goers, the vicar lacking in empathy or charity. A few characters seem to have no code of honour or comradeship whatsoever, but they seem to show its existence even more strongly by their deviance from it. (Interestingly there are no cowardly conscientious objectors, it is taken as read that all were acting on a moral imperative, war and pacifism were not the targets here.)

I borrowed Mary Renault's historical novels from the school library and enjoyed them very much. This one, possibly her greatest work, was not in the collection. I wish it had been, this is a masterpiece novel which must have been mind-changing for those who read it on first release. Did this novel help bring about the legalisation of male homosexuality? It would have done if enough people read it.

There are no descriptions of sex in this novel. The reader knows when it happens, the omittance is not prudish. The only other concession to the public morality of the time is that characters are given childhood traumas as 'reasons' for their homosexuality.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By G. Rodrigues on 16 May 2003
Format: Paperback
As a great fan of the author, i discovered this title purely by accident in a charity shop and was mesmerised. Renault demonstrates exceptional insight into human nature and this talent, combined with a remarkable ability of transferring her observations to the written word, gives the reader a moving and very believable story of the lives of gay people during the second world war, well before the word was first penned. The characters are wonderfully complex and yet so very easy to relate to. The party sequence in which she continues to build the scene throughout the chapter, constantly introducing new and varied characters would be banal and confusing from anyone with less ability. If any novel is deserving of the title 'gay classic', this one gets my vote.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Essex Girl on 1 Aug. 2008
Format: Paperback
This novel works on a number of different levels: it's a love story as well as an examination of conscience and human behaviour. There's symbolism in it too: it's set during World War II, soon after Dunkirk, when Britain is marooned alone, and there is the protagonist, struggling with the two sides of his nature, trying to do the right thing but not always sure what the right thing is. In Greek myth, the human soul can be likened to two horses, one well-behaved, and one always off at a tangent, and it's the job of each person to be charioteer to their own two horses and keep them on the right track. Laurie is the charioteer of the title, struggling to be honest to himself and to his conscience.

We meet him in the first chapter, on the night his parents separate (this, and his mother's possessiveness, are the rather unconvincing explanation for his homosexuality); in the second he's a bored but idealistic teenager, rushing to the defence of head of house Ralph Lanyon, only to realise that Lanyon has done just what he's been accused of doing.

In Chapter 3 the story really starts: Laurie's on a bleak hospital ward with his smashed leg which will never be the same again (and that, really, is the least of his worries) feeling detached from all the other men around him. Some Quaker conscientious objectors come to work as orderlies, and with one of these, Andrew, Laurie falls precipitately in love. He doesn't do anything about it, other than to become Andrew's friend, because he thinks Andrew's better off not knowing.

Then he runs into Lanyon again: a dashing, experienced and rather cynical naval officer. It's the tension between Laurie's affections for Andrew and Lanyon that drives the story forward.
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