This novel, set in 1938 but published in 1944, takes place mostly in the Thames houseboat of the young ladies of the title. Leo, a trouser-wearing character, works as a writer of Westerns, while her companion Helen, a former nurse, now works as a medical artist, drawing operations and dissections. The two women are popular with the other river-dwellers - including Joe, an avant-garde writer who lives on a nearby island - and with Helen's medical colleagues, and both successful in their professions, if not rich. Into this harmonious atmosphere comes Leo's sister Elsie, encouraged to escape from her quarrelling parents by Peter, a young doctor with whom she thinks herself in love. Leo, who ran away herself ten years earlier and is never mentioned at home, has some sympathy for Elsie, and welcomes her warmly. But Elsie invites Peter to visit the houseboat; Helen and Leo both admit to attraction to him, which they attempt to suppress, to save Elsie's feelings. Peter is a committed flirt with no serious interest in Elsie, and pursues his opportunities with vigour. But it is the relationship between Leo and Joe which will be most disrupted by the events of the novel.
Renault's friendly young ladies are fairly obviously lesbian, even allowing for 1940s coyness on the topic. Leo refers to "her way of life" and "people like me", considering lesbian relationships a natural consequence of the "surplus" of women in British society. I'm not sure, however, if this is really a novel about lesbian identity; Leo's desires seem to me to place her somewhere towards a transgender position. A tomboy in childhood, she still favours masculine dress - although she will transform herself in femme drag when the occasion suits - and is often mistaken for a man; she bonds with a schoolboy on Waterloo Station over a copy of Aeroplane magazine. The "greatest happiness of her life" has been a week spent climbing in the Lake District with Joe, a week in which her gender and her clothing had been unremarkable, a week of masculine companionship. What Leo wants from Joe is for them to be men together, to be allies; but what she will get will be very different indeed.
The book also has some interesting things to say about the status of the writer, and the quality of the written word. Leo and Joe make no distinction between the quality of what they do, and Leo is scornful of writers who think they could do better work: "It's like losing a game and then saying you didn't try". Joe takes Leo's writing seriously and advises her on technical aspects of ranch life, having grown up in Arizona. Elsie, an exemplary middlebrow reader who likes books to be nice and pleasant and to make her happy, has a hilarious encounter with a novel of Joe's which contains a stark portrayal of a woman washing her dead child; Elsie puts the book back on the shelf.
The tone of the novel is very dry and understated, but there is often humour - Renault has a lot of fun at the expense of the bumptious Peter and the naive Elsie - as well as some genuinely moving passages. I particularly liked the few phrases in which Helen realises that her relationship has shifted into crisis (edited to avoid spoilers):
"Helen's voice trailed to a standstill. She stood with the butter-dish, which she happened to be holding, still in her hand, staring at Leo's back [...] Her face altered. She put down the dish on the table, moved forward a step or two, and stayed where she was. 'Oh, Leo,' she said. 'My dear.'"
This sort of narrative reticence - we don't know how, exactly, Helen's face has altered, but we know her equilibrium is disturbed - is typical of the whole novel's subtlety of phrasing. It reminds me quite a lot of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch - I wonder if this was a source book for her? In the Afterword in the Virago edition, Mary Renault describes how she has been asked if she would have made the book more explicit, had she been writing it later in her career - the answer is a firm no, which does not surprise me, because the reticence is in many ways part of the book's charm, and allows her to create layers of ambiguity. If she were more frank, some of the dramatic possibilities would be lost to her, as would much of the humour.
The Virago edition of this novel is still in print, and secondhand copies are widely available.