The Good Ship Britannia

William Golding
William Golding; drawing by David Levine

Though William Golding was by no means forgotten, it is fair to say that his reputation has been maintained on a very low flame for nearly two decades. Following the immense success of Lord of the Flies in the 1950s and the somewhat muted but still favorable reception of The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, his later novels met a progressively frigid response from reviewers and readers alike. Free Fall and The Spire had their admirers but were for the most part judged to be inert in narrative, symbolical to a heavy-handed, quasi-allegorical degree, prone to the tedium likely to be incurred nowadays by an author’s too obvious concern with the Human Condition or the Problem of Evil. The Pyramid was simply dismissed as a failure on nearly every count. During the twelve years of silence that ensued, almost the only currency Golding still enjoyed was to be found among undergraduates for whom the central situation of Lord of the Flies and its themes (of the natural depravity of children, of the origin of cults) still retained—and retain—a freshness of appeal.

The silence was ended, last year, with the appearance of Darkness Visible. While this work could not by itself restore Golding to prominence, its qualities merited—and won—renewed attention. Darkness Visible is a most curious book, often opaque in its intentions, sometimes lurid and sometimes merely smoky in its revelations of human agony, isolation, viciousness, and heroism. But the novel does manage—in a gothic sort of way—to brand the reader’s memory with its image of a seedy, ramshackle England ripe for terrorism and to compel interest in the fire-scarred, religiously maddened “prophet,” Matty, who lurches through the collapsing scene, touching lives nearly as grotesque as his own. And now, with Rites of Passage, William Golding has presented us with a first-rate historical novel that is also a novel of ideas—a taut, beautifully controlled short book with none of the windiness or costumed pageantry so often associated with fictional attempts to reanimate the past.

Set at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Rites of Passage takes the form of a sea journal kept by a young Englishman of high breeding, Edmund Talbot, for the perusal of his godfather, an influential and cultivated nobleman (rather on the order of Lord Chesterfield) who has secured for Talbot an appointment as assistant to the governor of one of His Majesty’s colonies in the Antipodes (whether Australia or Tasmania is left unclear). Attached to Talbot’s journal is a long, unfinished, unposted letter written by a pathetic clergyman, the Reverend Robert Colley, to his sister back in England.

From these two documents we can follow certain events aboard an unnamed ship of the fleet, an “old crone” of a vessel dating from the eighteenth century, now disarmed and converted for passenger use, stinking with bilge and general decay. In the fo’castle are the brawny, turbulent crew, kept in…

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