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William Golding: Rites of Passage

Edmund Talbot is a somewhat snobbish young Englishman on his way to Australia from England in the early part of the nineteenth century. This novel is the diary he keeps, apparently for his unnamed patron. The ship, as well as carrying sheep and cattle and plants, also carries some very well-defined passengers and sailor. The captain is Captain Anderson, who hates the clergy. One of the passengers, a clergyman called Reverend Colley, with the obvious initials J C., bears the brunt of Anderson’s attacks and teasing and is pitifully unable to defend himself, being weak and also with homosexual inclinations. In particular, he is attracted to the handsome sailor Billy Rogers (likely based on Billy Budd). Other characters include the decent man, Lieutenant Summers, Zenobia Brocklebank, now getting on in years and who is defending indifferent charms before they disappear forever by a continual animation which must surely exhaust her as much as they tire the beholder and the rational Mr. Prettiman. Of course, the ship is a microcosm of English society of the day, illustrated by how they behave, their culture and so on, when placed together in a confined space. Moreover, all have to go through their rite of passage, whether it is merely growing up for Talbot or actually dying of shame for the unfortunate clergyman. It works well, both as a sea-faring story as well as a fine historical novel that has relevance for us today.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Faber & Faber