The year is 1815. Like thousands of other young men looking to start a new life, Edmund Talbot boards a ship destined for a British colony. With the help of his godfather patron he is to join the staff of the Governor’s office in Australia. To amuse his godfather he begins to write a journal. In it he records his impressions of the ship which is a creaking and ancient former warship, not affording the naive young man anything like the standard of accommodation he was expecting (his ‘cabin’ is more akin to a hutch).
But this doesn’t curb the enthusiasm of this young dandy. He may be a novice in maritime life but Edmund is an enthusiastic student who wants to learn the ways of the men onboard.
“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows”
With wit and energy he describes daily life aboard ship, the disdain he feels for the bad manners of his fellow passengers (who are generally beneath him in the social hierarchy) and the mounting tensions between officers, crew and passengers. His observations are mixed with salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters.
His curiosity is awakened by one passenger in particular, the Reverend James Colley, who, for reasons we don’t discover until he end of the novel, is despised by the captain. Edmund initially tries to support the parson but is ultimately repelled by Colley’s over-eager attempts at friendship. Colley also falls foul of the sailors who, in the seclusion of the fo’castle, exact their revenge, delivering the parson into a “hell of degradation” involving a crossing-the-line ceremony. The shame Colley feels at his treatment is so deep he never recovers.
And it’s at this point that the light and frothy tone of the novel suddenly changes and it becomes a much more disturbing narrative. Golding, it’s clear, has led his readers up and down the garden path in the first half of the book. Talbot’s journal paints the parson as an absurd man with a hacked-about haircut and ill-fitting wig at whom we are invited to laugh. It’s hard not to when Colley is seen dead drunk, naked, “his mind only lightly linked to his understanding”, crying out “joy, joy, joy” and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.
But after his shaming, we get to read Colley’s own journal and slowly this young parson is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man. His wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing. All the laughs we’ve had at Colley’s expense now seem hollow as we learn about the many other cruelties that Edmund failed to notice or failed to understand.
By the end of the novel, we like Edmund, feel complicit in Colley’s downfall. It was his own aggressive behaviour towards Colley which made others on board feel it was ok to bully this man. The truth of his death however never comes to light because the captain’s inquiry is a whitewash and Edmund is so compromised he’s left with no option but to hide the facts from Colley’s sister. The boy who ends the novel is a far wiser, more mature creature than the one we encounter at the beginning.
With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.
There were many enjoyable features of this novel. Firstly Golding’s use of the two journals disrupted the trajectory of the novel and turned what could otherwise have been a pleasant, if unremarkable, tale about a young snob, into a fascinating narrative. Everything about this book feels authentic, from the language and the events described to the choice of typeface with cracked edge letters and slightly rough paper in my edition. And then we get the themes of shame and class consciousness which undercut the comedy of Edmund’s naivety. Golding shows that even within the confines of a ship that “streams with sea water, rain and other fouler liquids’, the British class structure prevails. For all the humour of the first half of the book, Rites of Passage is a quite disquieting novel.
The Novel: Rites of Passage is the first title in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy —Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989. They are all set on a British former man-of-war ship that is transporting migrants to Australia in the early 19th century. Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1980 against fierce competition from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers.
The Author: William Golding is best known as the author of the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Why I read this book: It won the Booker Prize so naturally I had to read this as part of my project. I did so during a short break in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire unaware that I was staying just a few hundred yards from the school where Golding taught between 1939 and 1961. I made the connection when walking past the school and noticed this plaque.