‘The ghost of their old companionship seemed to be lying here beside them with a face of its own like the face of a dead boy struck down quickly in a smile.’ So thinks Leo Lane, the autobiographical protagonist of Mary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies (1944), after sex with her friend Joe Flint. Leo, who has been sharing a houseboat with her lover Helen for a number of years, is compelled to this encounter with Joe by a moral scrupulosity which is opaque in its logic, but in that opacity entirely characteristic of Renault’s earlier, modern- and British-set fiction. Following an inconclusive flirtation with a young doctor with whom her teenage sister Elsie is infatuated, Leo is prompted to have sex with Joe deliberately to end their happy, platonic amity, which is repeatedly described as like a close friendship between two men. The ghost boy represents an alternative, but unfeasible, transmasculine identity for Leo, which is deliberately quashed in the heterosexual act, which also seems to jeopardise her relationship with Helen. Leo concludes the novel weeping not as in the past, ‘like a beaten boy,’ but tears whose ‘flow and rhythm were different, release without humiliation, the tears of a woman.’ Heterosexual intercourse becomes a maturational Rubicon from which retreat is impossible, either with a lesbian or transmasculine identity. In an afterword composed in 1983, Renault lamented the ‘silliness’ of this ending, and it is difficult for the reader not to concur in the judgement.
Nonetheless, Renault’s ‘silly’ ending provides a point of comparison with a contemporary much more rarely considered in terms of queerness, Antonia White. White’s protagonists, unlike Renault’s always autobiographical, express a similar desire to experience masculine company as a man or boy. In White’s case this has usually been understood as a need to identify with her domineering father, but I would like to suggest that there is an element of genderfluidity in White’s work that cannot be accounted for either by this family dynamic nor a simple wish to escape systemic sexism. The Lost Traveller (1950) ends with the death of the boy to whom the main character, Clara, has become a devoted governess-companion, prompting her to accept the marriage proposal of a young man with whom she has another ‘boyish’ friendship. These circumstances are drawn directly from White’s own life, except for the death of her charge (who in reality lived into his seventies). The fictional death of the boy signifies Clara’s irrevocable passage into a womanhood that she does not want, accompanied by the expectation of a sexual relationship with a (possibly gay) man with whom she would rather have had a ‘masculine friendship.’
White’s novel, and its depiction of the end of an ‘immature’ genderfluidity with the death of an external (if symbolic and fictional) boy, is, compared to Renault’s weakest and most muddled work, an artistic success. But a comparison of the novels, I suggest, opens the possibility of reading both writers in terms of a transmasculinity that is related to, and yet quite distinct from, their differing sexual identities.