William Golding by John Carey

The man who wrote Lord of the Flies
(Faber £25.00)

Daily Mail  10 September 2009

If TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats remains, courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the most valuable book on the Faber and Faber backlist, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies must run it a close second.  The novel has sold 20,000,000 copies in the UK alone since it first appeared in 1954.

Its rocky road to publication has become the stuff of literary legend.  Golding, then a 42 year old schoolmaster with three unpublished novels in his desk drawer, had seen the book rejected by most of London’s leading publishers, including Faber itself, whose reader dismissed it as an ‘absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb in the Colonies.  Rubbish and dull.  Pointless.’

Fortunately, Charles Monteith, a senior editor at the firm, rescued the novel from the slush pile and decided that, after extensive rewriting, it would be published.   It garnered huge acclaim at home and overseas, above all in America, where it replaced The Catcher in the Rye as the novel of adolescent angst.

Golding’s reputation was made.   He went on to write such modern classics as The Inheritors, about Neanderthal man;  Pincher Martin, a reworking of the Prometheus story; the Booker-winning Rites of Passage, set on an eighteenth century sea voyage;  and his masterpiece, The Spire, about the building of a medieval cathedral.   Unlike so many lesser novelists who use history to retreat from the complexities of contemporary life, Golding used it to give his work a mythic dimension.

Golding was ambivalent about the chronicling of his own life, both recognising its inevitability and hoping to forestall it by bringing out an autobiography.  To this end, he wrote a self-revealing, self-lacerating memoir which is among the 2,500,000 word cache of unpublished material on which John Carey has drawn here.

As might be expected from such an eminent critic, Carey’s account of the genesis and reception of Golding’s novels is both pertinent and precise.  Some might argue with his views on individual books, notably his championing of the impenetrable Darkness Visible, but few could fault his overall judgement.  He pays tribute to the seriousness of Golding’s work and acknowledges that, however tortuous his relationship with God, Golding was primarily a religious novelist whose concern was not man in society but man in the cosmos.

Carey is equally sensitive to Golding’s personal development.  He shows how, even when a world-famous novelist, he retained an element of the social inferiority he had felt as a poor boy growing up in the shadow of Marlborough college and as the only grammar school boy among an intake of 71 students at Brasenose, Oxford.

Golding enjoyed a long and happy marriage to Ann Brookfield, whom he met at a Left Book Club meeting in 1938, and with whom he had two children, nevertheless several of his friends believed him to be inherently homosexual.  He himself acknowledged his sexual ambivalence and explored it in his work, but his relationships were exclusively with women.

His parents’ acute inhibition meant that he discovered his nascent sexuality in a most unusual way, while climbing a flagpole on Marlborough common.  He went on to climb it repeatedly over the summer, believing it to be the only way to repeat the sensation.

He soon found otherwise, embarking on a casual relationship with Sheila Garnett, a girl he had rescued from molestation by three sailors in a St Ives pub lavatory, and a much more fraught one with Dora Spencer, a younger contemporary at school.  She took fright when Golding tried to force himself on her, even publicly accusing him of rape.  Meanwhile he was appalled to discover that she was having an affair with their games master who was eager to whip her.  The image aroused a latent sadism in him which later influenced the writing of Lord of the Flies.

Despite his worldwide reputation, his knighthood (for which it comes as a surprise to learn that he lobbied) and his Nobel Prize, Golding remained a tortured soul.  He wrote that readers of his biography ‘will come to the conclusion that I am a monster.’

It is hard to know what precisely provoked such a brutal verdict.  It may have been his abandonment of his boyhood sweetheart or his later insensitivity to his son.  It may have been on account of the many people, both combatants and civilians, whom he killed in the war.  John Carey suggests that it was most likely to be his own brutal self-examination and his awareness of the evil in his own heart.

Carey’s achievement in this exemplary study is to reveal the complexity of Golding’s life and work.  He shows that, far from being a monster, it was Golding’s acute sensitivity to the potential monster in us all that was the saving grace of his life and the driving force of his fiction.