I love historical (queer) fiction, but it suffers even more than other genres under the burden of killing the gays. It pleases me inordinately that modern m/m fiction is giving historical queer characters the happy endings they so richly deserve, but nothing thrills me more than finding a book from an earlier time period that gave its queer characters an on-page happy ending. Two of my all-time favourites are Maurice and The Charioteer.
Written in 1913 and dedicated “To a happier year,” Maurice is the work of E.M. Forster, published posthumously when the manuscript was found in his home after his death. I’ve blogged in detail about the origins of the novel already. The short version is Forster wanted to create a world in which a happy ending for queer men was possible, and he gave his main characters the happily ever after he couldn’t envision for himself in life.
The Charioteer is the work of Mary Renault, a lesbian writer who more commonly produced works about the Ancient Greeks, although she did dabble with a couple of other contemporary novels. (It’s another novel I’ve previously written about.) While Maurice shies away from the looming reality of the First World War, and the implications that event had for the future of its characters, The Charioteer is set firmly within the events of the Second World War, particularly the aftermath of Dunkirk.
Unlike Forster’s novel, The Charioteer was published soon after it was written. Heavily influenced by both the Greeks and Freud, the novel is one man’s journey from denial and repression to self-acceptance and love.
Both novels tangle with the distinction between platonic and sexual love. Being queer in the first half of the twentieth century was one thing. Acting on it was something else. Yet act on it the characters eventually do, and realise sex—queer sex—is not the damning sin or unspeakable crime they had been led to believe.
Of course today there are other books that go far beyond the scope of these two. Books that don’t draw the curtain. That don’t state so problematically what is “normal” or otherwise about the characters. Books that offer more modern, and often more satisfying, HEAs that either Forster or Renault could have believed possible.
Yet in the fact they did believe, even just a little, there is something more enduring and magical to be found. Maurice and The Charioteer are love songs to love, both prayers and challenges for the world to be different. Their happy endings were the daring dreams of real queerfolk trying to change the world, and for that reason, in my opinion, they’re worth such much more.