The Charioteer

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After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce. There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance. Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tight-knit social...

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The Charioteer: A Novel

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After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce. There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance. Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tight-knit social circle of world-weary gay men. Laurie is forced to choose between the sweet ideals of innocence and the distinct pleasures of experience.

Originally published in the United States in 1959, The Charioteer is a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II that stands with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories as a monumental work in gay literature.

The story of Laurie Odell, wounded survivor of Dunkirk, slowly becoming aware of his own sexual nature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Phenomenal. . . . Renault is one of the major novelists of our time.” —New York Herald Tribune Book Review

“Miss Renault masters a lyrical style, meticulous and probing, and introduces us into a world of emotions so delicate and private that the reader often feels like an intruder.” —The New York Times

“Tribute must be paid Miss Renault for remarkable literary talents. Her prose, at its best, is dazzling, her perceptions sharp and original, her dialogue natural to the ear.” —Saturday Review

Library Journal
Talk about diversity: The Charioteer (1959) is a love story between two men, set in Dunkirk during World War I; The Praise Singer (1978) reveals the ancient Greek poet Simonides; and The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) takes place in 1937 Bloomsbury. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375714184
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/13/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 616,293
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Renault was born in London and educated at Oxford. She then trained for three years as a nurse, and wrote her first published novel, Promise of Love. Her next three novels were written while serving in WWII. After the war, she settled in South Africa and traveled considerably in Africa and Greece. It was at this time that she began writing her brilliant historical reconstructions of ancient Greece, including The King Must Die, The Last of the Wine, and The Persian Boy. She died in Cape Town in 1983.

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Read an Excerpt


It was the first time he had ever heard the clock strike ten at night. If he had been asleep and waked to hear the strokes, it would have been different, a small manageable fragment broken off the unknown hugeness of night, from somewhere in the middle. He would have been a little uneasy, perhaps, in his waking solitude, and, if he heard anyone stirring, would have found something legitimate to call out for, such as a drink of water. Only babies called out about nothing. The ten months which had passed of his fifth year felt like at least half his remembered life, and he was used to his responsibilities.

Tonight was unique. Tonight he had not been to sleep at all, and it was ten.

Seven o'clock was familiar and domesticated. With luck and good management, at seven his mother might still be sitting on the edge of his bed with an unfinished story. Eight was unusual, and associated with trouble: having been punished, or being sick. Nine was the wild outpost of an unknown continent. Ten was the mountains of the moon, the burial-place of the elephants: white on the map. He lay staring with round birdlike eyes at the dim lapping of light on the ceiling, incredulous of the journey he had made alone.

Outside a man passed the house, whistling. The noise had an absolute foreignness, like the note of a jungle bird. It had no link with humanity; it was simply a mysterious feature on the face of night. Somewhere, so far off that in the daytime one never heard it, a line of railway trucks was shunted together. The metallic clangs, melancholy with distance, not quite harsh and not quite musical, made a loose chain of sound, then stopped inconclusively, leaving the ear suspended and waiting.

If one sat up as long as an hour past bedtime, except on Christmas and birthdays, one would be ill. Laurie, who had had this explained to him many times and accepted it as incontrovertible fact, inferred from it that after three hours, one would probably die.

Separated from life by this vast stretch of solitude, he would not have been surprised to find himself dying any minute. But first an angel would come. Grannie, who had been in heaven for a year, was the only one personally known to him, so it would probably be she. Laurie didn't remember her very well, and thought she would have altered a good deal. She would pick him up out of bed (Grannie had had cold hands, he remembered), and fly with him out of the window, up to heaven. He looked at the space between the curtains. The sky was vast, empty, and quite black.

Last time he had seen Grannie she had been in bed, thin and yellow and absent, with a sweet sick smell. He pictured her thus, wearing her embroidered flannel nightgown with the addition of wings; then as a younger lady like the other angels, with long golden hair floating behind her and a thinner nightgown, just like all the rest. Neither of these pictures soothed, nor—and this was the worst— wholly convinced him. In this enormous vacuum, he felt a crack open in the warm pearly shell of belief. He knew that dying was being fetched by the angels and taken to heaven; but, suddenly and terrifyingly, he could no longer feel it. What he felt was that it would simply grow darker, not only in the room, but also inside him; and that his mother would not be there.

A wave of despairing terror seized him. A known fact had become real to him for the first time, that sooner or later everyone died; not only old people like Grannie, but Laurie, Laurie Odell, I. He sat bolt upright in bed, a point of protesting, passionate identity in echoing space.

The room was darker. He looked at the night-light, sitting in its saucer of water on the bedside cupboard. Was it really lower, or was he beginning to die? No; the flame was little and round, instead of long and pointed; it always got darker then. He craned over, and looked into the pool of clear wax cupped in the paper shell. It was deep and still, and through it, at the bottom, he could see a glittering square of tin. This was very interesting; it was also strange, and different, like everything else tonight. His especial things were on the cupboard-top beside it: the blue and gold cap from a broken fountain-pen of his father's, a knob of pink quartz which had been the head of one of his mother's hatpins once, a piece of green bottle smoothed and frosted by the sea, a big glass marble with a red and blue twist in its middle. He wasn't allowed them in bed since the quartz had slipped down while he slept and made a sore place on his leg. He remembered this; but everything was different tonight, lawless and wild; if he were dying, he must have at least one of them with him. The pen-cap was the newest and most dear; his father had given it him only a week before. With the desperate courage of an invested garrison making a sortie, he jumped out, snatched it up, and curled back again, still alive.

As a traveller beset with wild beasts and fighting a fever has no time to think about the causes that took him abroad, so Laurie had almost forgotten what it was that, aeons ago, had first kept sleep from him. "Tais-toi; voici l'enfant." He still had the animal's ear whose vocabulary is in the pitch, not the words. The pent-up vehemence of his mother's caress, to herself a comfort and release, had been to him a great breach blasted in the walls of heaven, letting in the terrors of empty space. Something was going to happen. He did not expect to be told what it was, any more than a dog expects to know why the trunks are being got out, or for how long, or if he will be going. He had gone about dumbly, aching with secret fear and avoiding his father; for as surely as he knew that something was going to happen, he knew it was his father's fault. His mother, a fastidiously truthful woman, would have denied with the dignity of affronted innocence that she had given the child so much as a hint of her wrongs; but to him she seemed to have declared in the clearest language that he was her only solace and the last refuge of her violated trust.

During his approaches and retreats he had heard snatches of the conversations his presence had interrupted. He knew that his father had done something wicked while he was away from home. He was often away, covering things (it was not so very long since Laurie had first understood that his father was a newspaperman and not a kind of upholsterer). Laurie loved and admired, without respecting, his father. They were too often in trouble together, for making a mess without clearing up, or being late home from their joint expeditions. Laurie knew that his father had to obey his mother just as he had, under penalty of exile from love. Even though the exile was brief and symbolic, it was still the worst punishment he knew. Now that his father had committed some mysterious, unforgivable sin, he felt his own security still more vulnerable, and in the whole huge unknown world there was no relief for his fears, since she, the source of all safety, had appealed for protection even to him. Tonight, when she tucked him into bed, her face had looked as it had the day Grannie died; and he had listened dumb and uncaring to St. George and the Dragon, though it was his favorite tale; he knew that nothing was safe. Now, his fears confused with the stuff of bad dreams and frightening stories, he had gone so far into danger that he had forgotten how it all began.

Then suddenly rescue came, a step on the stairs. It was his father's. In the relief of hearing it, he forgot all associations except the old one of laughing reassurance. He sat up in bed, but the feet passed, and when he called it was too late; they had gone on to the door of what had in the last few days become Daddy's Room. But he knew by the sound of the door that it hadn't shut properly. Suddenly he was filled with the conviction that all his terrors, like so many before, had been evolved out of his own head and could be dispersed for him, returning him to the eternal verities of warmth and safety. For this his father was better than anyone; he took things easily, and whether he decided to answer a question or not, never rebuked one for having asked it. The landing was dark outside; it took him a few minutes to drum up his courage. Then he jumped out of bed on the side nearest the night-light: a compact, hazel-eyed little boy, with the beautiful gold-red hair that darkens at the end of childhood, and the redhead's thin skin which stays for life, bleeding too quickly and showing sooner than others the stigmata of pain and of fatigue.

The passage perilous of the landing was relieved by the crack of light from the door at the other end. Laurie padded up to it, and looked in.

His father was packing. This was no new sight to Laurie, who had often helped pack; yet he knew, at once, that it was different. Not only had his father got down the big suitcase that he used only for going abroad, not only was every drawer open and the cupboard as well, but there was something different too about the way his father stood and moved. As Laurie looked, he took a file of papers out of a drawer, flipped it through, took out a few sheets, and tore up everything else the file contained. The pieces he threw down in a corner, on the floor, and simply left them there. Laurie had never in his life seen a grown person do this. He went in.

He was halfway across the room before his father noticed. He had picked up another file, and now turned with it in his hand. His face altered. There was something startled in it, shocked and strained. This frightened Laurie. He knew he was committing an enormity by being out of bed in the middle of the night; but he knew too that the look in his father's eyes was not adjusted to his offense. It was private and personal. It recalled the unknown fears of the day.

"Hello," said his father, staring at him. "What do you want?" He spoke quite kindly; but the feeling of difference grew.

Laurie made the emergency known at once. "I can't go to sleep."

"Never mind." His father drew his thick dark brows together; his eyes glancing at his wristwatch looked narrow and blue. He said absently, "It's not eleven yet."

Laurie perceived that his father didn't think he would die. But this fear had dropped away of itself as soon as he entered the room. The fear which returned in its place had, for all its doubtful shape, a dreadful solidity.

"Daddy," he said in a tight, casual voice, "where are you going?"

"Now look," said his father quickly, "this is no time at all to be running all over the house. You'll catch cold. Straight back to bed now and not another word out of you. D'you hear?"

"Yes," said Laurie slowly. The cold was striking through his pink-striped flannel pajamas. He waited for his father to pick him up and carry him back to his own room. But his father stared at him in silence for several seconds, then said in a quick, different voice, "Away with you, now." He began to smile at Laurie, but that was worse, for the smile had something wrong with it. Suddenly his father turned away, and began throwing things into the suitcase from the bed.

At this moment the undertones, the gradual gathering of some days' uncomprehended dread, coalesced for Laurie into a terrible certainty. He didn't attempt to speak. The absolute impotence of childhood crushed him like the weight of the pyramids. His throat swelled; his face, squared like his father's under his mother's hair, grew crimson; the first silent tears burst out, followed by the first, most painful sob. The pressure rose in him, working toward the raging rebellious grief of the man-child who seeks in sound and fury for the strength of a man.

"Mother of God!" said his father. All other considerations swamped momentarily by dread of the approaching noise, he caught Laurie up into his arms, and smothered the convulsed face against his shoulder. The unfamiliar words and the rough gesture increased Laurie's panic. He tried to scream, and, when his father held him more tightly, fought him, rigid, seeking space to thrash about and open his lungs. Dimly sensing this need, his father slackened his grasp, which now felt firm and reassuring. Laurie's screams sank to sobs, to hiccups; he was quiet. Father and son gazed for a moment, with an equal anxious uncertainty, into one another's eyes. Laurie gulped softly, his throat swollen from crying; and his father's hard grip softened into tenderness. He freed one of his hands and began to ruffle Laurie's hair. "Sure," he said softly, "it's a terrible thing then, so it is."

The door opened wide. Laurie, looking over his father's shoulder, saw his mother standing on the threshold.

"Michael!" she said quietly. "Oh, how could you?"

Laurie's father said, "He woke up and came in."

There was a pause. Still held in his father's arms, Laurie looked around and saw his parents confronting one another. With a sense of profound shock, which altered the meaning of everything, he realized that his mother didn't believe his father was telling the truth.

So dreadful a misunderstanding couldn't last for more than a second. But, when he looked at his father's face, he perceived that his father was accepting it. In some larger, unknown way beyond Laurie's scope, the accusation had struck him home. He didn't argue. He just lowered Laurie gently down, and set him on his feet on the floor.

As the firm, warm, supporting strength withdrew, Laurie was seized with a panic sense of insecurity and loss. He rushed blindly forward, sobbing, into his mother's arms. Now all was familiar, immutable, sure. Cozily patted and smoothed, he pushed his wet cheek into her shoulder, and felt the final, absolute reassurance of her soft breast. Dimly he was aware of footsteps, and of a door shutting. When he looked up again his father had gone.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 10, 2014

    Love in a Cold Climate

    This is Mary Renault's classic novel, which is based on a theme from Plato' 'Phaedarus'. The two horses of the chariot, one black the other white, have to discover for themselves that they are meant for one another. It is a difficult journey, set in austere, wartime Britain, in an around hospitals. Readers have to be patient, because the novel takes a while to 'warm up', but the wait is worthwhile. Fate, the Charioteer, takes his two characters through encounters and many situations until they realize the direction that is meant for them. Unlike modern novels, Mary Renault's book has a literary quality about it which makes it a more enriching read. The final section almost gallops, and was most touching. The two protagonists discover their true natures in the cold climate of wartime and hostile attitudes.

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    honest and passionate....

    The Charioteer is the story of Laurence "Laurie" Odell and his plight as a soldier and gay man in WWII Britain. Beautifully written in 1959 this book is heartfelt and truly a classic.<BR/><BR/>Laurie Odell is a wounded soldier sent to a veterans' hospital when his leg is nearly blown off at Dunkirk. The hospital is short on nursing staff so a group of conscientious objectors are sent to fill of them being Andrew Raynes. Laurie falls for Andrew almost immediately and they become fast friends and spend as much time together as possible...even though some of the other soldiers begin to talk. At about the same time, Laurie is reunited with an old schoolmate named Ralph. At the beginning of the book, Ralph was expelled from school for "immoral" behavior. Ralph is now a naval admiral who is also recovering from wounds....and happily getting reacquainted with Laurie. Laurie is young and still in the process of accepting himself for who he is. He is in love with both Andrew and Ralph and is struggling to come to terms.<BR/><BR/>Mary Renault writes this book with honesty and passion. Her characters are laid bare by their very human emotions; jealousy, love, fear and loneliness. At it's core is a love story but it's descriptions of blackouts, bombings and air raids reminds us that it takes place during a brutal war. At the hospital, bringing pacifists and soldiers together, Renault sets the stage for a secondary thematic. The Charioteer is a book to be savored, and to get the most out of the characters, to be read again and again

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2001

    A book that goes deep to your heart

    ¿The Charioteer¿ is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read, I hadn¿t felt such intense emotions reading a book since my adolescence. Before and much more than being a gay story, this is first of all a novel about love, showing in a most powerful way how all life is a struggle to love and to be loved, because only by giving and receving love one can feel alive and life is meaningful and worth being lived. The three main characters, each of them absolutely fascinating and superbly portrayed, discover and are confronted with their own true nature when falling in love, but they also have to make choices and take on responsibilities which often seem unbearable. Love is shown through all its sweetness and romance but also in all its terribly dramatic implications: love always means suffering and none of the characters is spared his share of pain and defeat. But the force of life triumphs despite everyone¿s conflicts, limitations and mistakes, which must be coped with and accepted in mutual respect and forgiveness. The young protagonists are brought to life in an amazingly effective way and they are so vivid and forceful that they outlive the end of the book itself. The reader can share their most intimate thoughts and the decisive turns of their lives and is therefore bound to feel strong compassion. I am not surprised that a lot of readers wish there had a been a sequel of the novel, but I believe the author did the right thing not writing one. The end of the story leaves very open prospects and, especially considering the circular structure the novel acquires at its conclusion, all the characters are liable to being again together in their maturity and it is better to let the reader imagine possible evolutions. Yet, I perfectly agree with one of the reviewers that it¿s very hard to part from Laurie, Andrew and Ralph after finishing the novel. The narrative scheme is very solid and well balanced, all parts of the book contribute to light up the whole plot; the text flows slowly but continuously and once you adapt yourself to the inner rhythm of the story you are fully involved and almost become a part of it, each line adding a relevant detail or setting the suitable atmosphere to lead you deeper into the characters¿ inner thoughts and feelings; the language is rich though never mannered and the style is often very poetic but never in a cheap way. ¿The Charioteer¿ certainly stands also as a great gay story and is very effective in demonstrating the universality of love, which transcends lovers¿ genders and social barriers. Its explict homosexual theme is all the more surprising if one thinks the book was written almost fifty years ago, when to state that love between two men has the same dignity as heterosexual love was certainly a hard challenge, and that it was written by a woman, as the protagonists are absolutely and coherently credible and masculine in their appearance and psychology. Reading ¿The Charioteer¿ can be a heart-wrenching experience and cause to shed more than one tear, especially if one is in love, but it also makes one feel more attached to the beauty of life and long for youth and pure, noble, authentic love, the most important of all things. This novel and its appealing characters, Laurie, Andrew and Ralph, will always remain in my mind and heart as wonderful companions of my youth, revealers of the complexity and fragility of the human soul and of myself, an important landmark in the search for my identity of adult gay man.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2001

    GREAT BOOK!!!!!!!

    This book is so awesome because the character is so well expressed that we can identify him and understand him. Read this book and you will learn to have more compassion and feeling for people who are different than the norm. Laurie is so real to me and I love the fact that he doesn't give up his beliefs to satisfy society and his friends. He sticks up for his personal beliefs and feelings and that is inspiring!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2000

    A Revelation

    I finished this book last night and felt as if I couldn't bear the thought of leaving Laurie and Ralph and Andrew. The book brings to life Plato's famous allegory of the soul as the charioteer, and because it is one of Renault's few contemporary novels, brings it home (somewhat) for the modern reader. Reading this book has changed me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2015

    No text was provided for this review.

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