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The Good Ship Britannia

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 line by a rigid caste system and by the daily allotment of rum; housed with them are the poor emigrants bound for the new land. In the after-quarters are the more substantial passengers who constitute a gentry of sorts, attended by the ship’s servants. Among these passengers, in addition to Talbot and Colley, we encounter a drunken portrait painter, Mr. Brocklebank, who is traveling with his supposed daughter, the florid and accessible Zenobia; an aggressively self-important rationalist and free-thinker, Mr. Prettiman, who is eager to shoot an albatross in order to expose the superstition propagated by Mr. Coleridge’s poem; and an acerbic lady, Miss Granham, the impoverished daughter of a canon at Exeter Cathedral, now destined to become a governess in the Antipodes.

Then there are the officers and the teenaged “young gentlemen,” the midshipmen; these are in frequent contact with the passengers and serve as intermediaries between them and the crew on the one hand and the ship’s captain on the other. The latter is the ship’s absolute ruler, its “moghool.” Isolated in his cabin or barking orders on the quarter-deck, Captain Anderson, who had seen action in the great days of Nelson, is now an irascible and disappointed man; he reserves, as we soon learn, a special venom for clergymen.

The captain’s Standing Orders prohibit passengers from coming to the quarterdeck except by invitation. These orders, posted for all to read, are violated first by Edmund Talbot, who has not read them, and who, in his natural arrogance, would have ignored them even if he had read them. He mounts to the quarterdeck to complain to Captain Anderson about the entirely unsuitable “hutch” in which he has been accommodated. When the captain rages at him, Talbot coolly stands his ground, laughs, and then pulls rank by producing his patron’s name—“much as one might prevent the nearer approach of a highwayman by quickly presenting a brace of pistols.” Still furious, Captain Anderson has no choice but to retreat in the face of this display of Talbot’s powerful connections. But he soon afterward has occasion to vent his outrage upon the ridiculously obsequious Parson Colley, who in his ignorance and innocence violates the Orders to introduce himself to the captain and to express his regret over the lack of Sabbath observance aboard ship. A “positive roar” is heard from the quarterdeck, and poor Colley comes clattering down the ladder, landing at the bottom with a jarring thump, and then staggers into the ship’s lobby.

He had his shovel hat in one hand and his wig in the other. His parsonical bands were twisted to one side. But what was of all things the most striking was—no, not the expression—but the disorder of his face. My pen falters. Imagine if you can….

This is only the beginning of the humiliations to which Colley is subjected. This “country curate,” “this hedge priest,” as Talbot calls him, is the perfect victim—self-deluding, unworldly, sentimentally devout, priggish, and terrified. Above all, he is ignorant of the powerful homosexual streak in his nature that impels him toward the crew and especially toward one stalwart sailor, Billy Rogers—“a sad scamp, I fear, whose boyish heart has not yet been touched by Grace.” A climax in Colley’s torment occurs (we do not learn the full details until later) during the rites accompanying the crossing of the equator. While Talbot, our usual witness, is engaged with Miss Zenobia Brocklebank in his narrow bunk below deck, the Reverend Mr. Colley, wearing only his shirt, is summoned before the throne of King Neptune, interrogated in an obscene fashion, has his mouth stuffed with filth, and is then ducked almost to the point of drowning in a tarpaulin full of dirty water. Captain Anderson permits the bullying to get out of hand; finally, the first lieutenant of the ship, Mr. Summers, puts an end to the spectacle by firing off a gun.

It is this incident that leads directly to the catastrophe. Colley, unhinged by his persecution, dresses up in his full canonicals and goes forward to the fo’castle, determined to rebuke the crew (“these unruly but truly lovable children of OUR MAKER”) for their behavior to him as a man of God and to bring them to repentance; he will not be dissuaded, either by the now fearful Anderson or the truly concerned Mr. Summers. What happened in the fo’castle must be pieced together—by Talbot and by the reader—after Colley is brought out by the young sailor; the parson, now sillydrunk and stripped of his clerical garb, makes a spectacle of himself and is then lugged off to his hutch. Once sober, Colley, who has been destroyed by shame, never leaves his bunk again. Later, an inquiry is held, the young sailor is questioned—and cleverly turns the tables on his interrogators. The establishment closes ranks; the ship sails on, carrying with it our narrator, now a sadder and wiser man. He decides that poor Colley’s sister must be spared the truth—a deliberate echo, I assume, of Marlow’s decision to lie to Kurtz’s Intended at the end of Heart of Darkness.

Golding’s handling of Mr. Talbot seems to me brilliant. That young man is, in his own words, “a good enough fellow at bottom” but he is also utterly class-bound in his assumptions of privilege and in his standards of deportment. When Summers reveals to him that he—Summers—had come “aft through the hawsehole,” i.e., had been promoted from among the common sailors, Talbot genially replies, “Well, Summers,…allow me to congratulate you on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than the one you was born to.” He has no notion of having said anything amiss until much later, when Summers mildly reproaches him.

While Talbot regards Colley as a contemptible worm, he is occasionally civil to him, chiefly out of the awareness that the clergyman, however much a “peasant” in his origins, is technically a gentleman and therefore deserving of some consideration; but of course Colley’s excessive gratitude for these small courtesies is revolting to him. Talbot is obtuse about himself. We learn—from conversations that he overhears but does not register—that he laughs at his own jokes and that his opinions are gothic. On the other hand, he is curious about what goes on around him and is eager to learn about the running of the ship and to pick up the nautical jargon—“I have laid Falconer’s Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows!” He has, furthermore, a sense of honor and of noblesse oblige and even a latent sense of justice to which Summers can appeal—with some success. Already a bit of an anachronism in the age of Nelson, Coleridge, and the French Revolution, Edmund Talbot has the speech, bearing, and punctilio that we might associate with, say, one of the younger brothers (if such existed) of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy. Simultaneously seeing and not seeing, this conceited young man is admirably suited to Golding’s purposes as the main narrator of the events—and as a character who can, haltingly, learn from them.

His chief foil is the other narrator, Mr. Colley, whose letter runs to some sixty pages. The parson takes his place as one of Golding’s grotesques—a morbid, self-lacerating figure, sensitive to the beauty of the external world, touching in his neediness, and, above all, blind—blind not only to his suppressed sexual nature but to the reactions of those around him. His naïveté is appalling; his capacity for suffering and shame limitless.

Summers is to some degree a foil to both Talbot and Colley. He is also the novel’s raisonneur. When Talbot apologizes for his “insufferable” remarks on Summers’s successful imitation of the manners and speech of a higher class, Summers bitterly replies:

But true, sir…. In our country for all her greatness there is one thing she cannot do and that is translate a person wholly out of one class into another. Perfect translation from one language into another is impossible. Class is the British language.”

Later, he courageously (for Talbot is in a position to damage his career) takes Talbot to task for his contribution to Colley’s disgrace:

Had you not in a bold and thoughtless way outfaced our captain on his own quarterdeck—had you not made use of your rank and prospects and connections to strike a blow at the very foundations of his authority, all of this might not have happened. He is brusque and he detests the clergy…. But had you not acted as you did…, he would never in the very next few minutes have crushed Colley with his anger and continued to humiliate him because he could not humiliate you.”

And he goes on to explain the necessity of the Standing Orders—something that Talbot has given no thought to before. Unlike Colley, who is unable to translate his fervent devotion to Christ into effective action, Summers, who also regards himself as a Christian, is equipped to live and act within the world—and with full knowledge of the ambiguities which the world places in the path of moral action. Although Talbot condescendingly characterizes Summers as the “Good Man” in the shipboard drama and adds that “there is this in common between Good Men and children—we must never disappoint them!’—still he responds to the force of Summers’s natural authority as he would not to the blustering of the captain. In Summers Golding has created a character of whom Conrad’s Marlow would have approved—and has made him interesting to boot.

It should be clear by now that the ship is a microcosm of sorts, encapsulating an entire society or nation. It may even have occurred to some that the concealed name of this obsolete old ship of the line, with its female figurehead obscenely nicknamed by the crew, might well be Britannia. At this hint of allegorizing I can imagine a shudder passing through certain prospective readers. But they need not fear. Though there is indeed a school-masterish streak in Golding, inclining him toward the didactic, tempting him to embellish his work with literary references (to the Ancient Mariner) and echoes (of Conrad and Melville), he has in Rites of Passage constructed a narrative vessel sturdy enough to support his ideas. And because his ideas—about the role of class, about the nature of authority and its abuses, about cruelty (both casual and deliberate) and its consequences—because these themes and others are adequately dramatized, adequately incorporated, they become agents within the novel, actively and interestingly at work within the fictional setting.

I found the style a delight. The late eighteenth-century pomposity of Talbot’s locutions is tempered by spirit and wit, while the use of the “Tarpaulin language” which Talbot so eagerly acquires and which could so easily become a bore, is in fact quite functional as well as colorful; it is as if Fanny Burney and Jane Austen had been successfully spliced to Marryat. None of this is overdone: the reader never feels that he has fallen into the hands of an antiquarian pedant.* Often the language is powerfully descriptive:

Our huge old ship with her few and shortened sails from which the rain cascaded was beating into this sea and therefore shouldering the waves at an angle, like a bully forcing his way through a dense crowd.

Always it is supple enough to move from reflection to action, from scenes of light banter with the ladies to moments of intense drama, as when Captain Anderson, the other officers, and Talbot confront Billy Rogers over Colley’s disgrace and are forced by a single question of the sailor’s to retreat instantly into a cover-up of the whole affair. In its style as in its other aspects, Rites of Passage is certainly the best of Golding’s novels since Lord of the Flies.

  1. *

    I have, in my own pedantic way, spotted a few anachronisms. “Badgerbag”—a term which Golding teasingly refrains from explaining and which refers to the costume of the man playing King Neptune at the crossing of the line—was not in use, according to Partridge, until the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, “loo” could not have been used c. 1814 as a term for a sailing ship’s “head” or privy; it specifically means “water closet” and dates from around 1900.

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