Rites of Passage by William Golding
Golding’s book divided the Booker judges initially, as it was the first part of a planned trilogy, (the other two volumes were published several years later). Could the prize be given to a part work? Of course it could – and that has happened several times since in Booker history – viz The Ghost Road by Pat Barker and Hilary Mantel twice. The 1980 judges conveniently forgot that Paul Scott’s Staying On, the 1977 winner was itself a sequel of sorts to his Raj Quartet!
It is the early 19th century, and Edmund Talbot, an irksome young toff, is bound for Australia where he will work for the Governor of New South Wales. He vows to keep a journal for his Godfather of what happens during the long voyage, warts and all. His class, however, gives him a privileged place on board, with accommodation in one of the better ‘hutches’ as he calls them on the converted man-of-war ship.
He gets into the swing of his journal by introducing us to the other passengers, key crew members and a tour of parts of the ship. He is enthralled by the idea of chronicling the sailor’s life, and is very keen to assimilate the ‘tarry language’ of the crew. He writes with gusto, only dampened by bouts of initial sea-sickness, along with many of the other passengers, availing himself of the steward’s expensive ‘paregoric’ cure:
I have suffered again – the colic. Oh Nelson, Nelson, how did you manage to live so long and die at last not from this noisome series of convulsions but by the less painful violence of the enemy.
Golding beguiles us with light-heartedness in these initial chapters which are full of comedy, but then the story’s real drama begins.
It concerns the Reverend Colley, a lowly priest and fellow passenger, who incurs the wrath of the Captain by intruding onto the quarterdeck against the apparently clergy-hating Captain’s express orders. Talbot seeks to bolster the poor man’s confidence by having him conduct a service for the passengers, but this doesn’t really work. Later Colley is got exceedingly drunk and is assaulted by some crewmen. He retires to his bunk in shame, refusing to move until he dies. It is only when Talbot finds Colley’s own journal that he realises what has happened. There is a big cover-up in the Captain’s log, but Talbot keeps his and Colley’s journals locked up and safe with their damning accounts inside. Edmund truly grows up in his realisation of everyone’s murky parts in Colley’s fall. During this time, the relationship between the lowly-born Lieutenant Summers, who proves to be a good man, and Talbot allows Golding to explore class themes further. Summers criticises Talbot for not initially using his position of privilege in being the bigger man in sorting out the Colley debacle, but the two men end up as friends.
Rites of Passage ends when Talbot’s journal is full and it is a fitting place to stop, making the novel complete in itself. Further volumes of Talbot’s journals of his epic voyage continue in Close Quarters and Fire Down Below.
I first read Golding’s trilogy in the 1980s, enjoying all three books very much, although Rites of Passage had the most impact. Having re-read the first one for Shiny’s Booker project, I enjoyed it so much again that I must revisit the other two volumes while in the mood. (10/10)
I shall also rewatch the BBC’s 2005 TV adaptation, filmed under the combined title To the Ends of the Earth. It was well received and stars a young Benedict Cumberbatch as Talbot (right)– what perfect casting, alongside Sam Neill, Jared Harris, Richard McCabe and Victoria Hamilton. Apparently the production crew built two ships for the series which was filmed in South Africa to get the tropical feel.
A slightly different version of this review will appear in Shiny New Books’s Booker Week in early July.
Source: Own copy.
William Golding, Rites of Passage (Faber, 1980), paperback, 320 pages.
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