2011 is the centenary of the birth of the Nobel-prize-winning author William Golding and as such, this year sees a number of events and publications to celebrate the writer. Perhaps the most welcome of these is Judy Golding’s The Children of Lovers, subtitled ‘A memoir of William Golding by his daughter’. To avoid confusion, and with apologies for what seems like over-familiarity, I will be referring to Judy Golding as ‘Judy’ and William Golding as ‘Golding’ throughout this review. Strangely though, while reading the memoir, one finds oneself so closely enmeshed in Judy’s world, it feels as if you really do know her.
Despite the categorisation of the book as a memoir, it opens with a terrifying scene – almost like the beginning of novel. The Goldings are sailing in their boat Tenace when they collide with a huge ship which appears as a ‘sharp, grey triangle’ then becomes ‘a cliff … fifty, sixty, seventy feet above’ them (2). Fortunately, as Tenace begins to sink, the ship returns to rescue them. Golding insists on being the last one to climb the ladder to safety and Judy remembers shrieking ‘Daddy’ as he initially missed his footing. During the panic of the collision, Judy writes that she has never seen her father cry: ‘his face reverted to composure, another lifetime habit’ (4). Back on dry land, in what she describes as a ‘moment of great stupidity’ (6), Judy gives her father a coil of rope she had saved from the family’s beloved boat. This prompts Golding to burst into tears in front of the predatory journalists that are photographing the family. Thus the reader can understand her guilt at provoking this most public breakdown.
The Golding family
The book then continues in a roughly chronological order beginning with Judy’s earliest memories of her father and providing a background to her parents’ marriage. As Judy describes it: ‘they were always by far the most important people in the world to each other, bar none, absolutely none: friends, lovers, children, grandchildren’ (7). The title of the memoir is taken from a proverb – ‘the children of lovers are orphans’ – and Judy and her brother David were often sent to their paternal grandparents to stay (although because of their fierce arguing could not go at the same time). Judy recognised that she was sent to Marlborough, home to her grandparents, ‘to be out of the way’ as her parents were ‘busy … they wanted to get on with things’ (49). Shockingly, at the age of five, Judy took the bus to Marlborough by herself; the bus ride lasted for an hour and a half. Her grandfather, Alec, did not let her travel back by herself and escorted her back to the family home.
The relationship between the Golding family was complex. Judy hero-worshipped her father but her feelings towards her mother were more ambivalent. At one point, she writes: ‘it was a bit like having a stepmother – not a wicked one, just someone who was naturally more interested in her relationship with her husband than she had with his children – or, at any rate, with his daughter. I think she really was fond of David’ (27). Despite this, David had a very difficult relationship with his father and Judy describes how unkind Golding could be at times – both to her brother and to herself. As an adult writing this memoir, she stresses how difficult it is to reconcile the dichotomous nature of her father. She writes: ‘I need to make these two men one – the warm embracing man I adored, and the indifferent, sometimes self-centred, occasionally cruel man, who could drink too much, could be crushing, contemptuous, defeating, deadening’ (75). Judy’s memories of her brother’s difficulties are deeply touching, and filled with guilt that she didn’t do more to support him. Even when she has what she calls a ‘perfect ending’ with Golding, she acknowledges that this did not happen for David (241).
One of the most compelling aspects of the memoir is Judy’s discussion of Golding’s novels. In 2009, John Carey published a biography entitled William Golding: The Man who wrote Lord of the Flies (Faber), which took a detached and balanced view of the subject and included exemplary, often academic readings Golding’s work. What is so interesting about The Children of Lovers is Judy’s personal recollection of events that inspired Golding’s writing or ‘real-life’ people who ended up as characters. Judy recalls a friend of her brother making a bonfire in their garden on which he placed her ‘nice new dolls’ pram’. She describes Golding as being ‘darkly furious, all the more because little could be done’ (85). Judy imagines that he ‘brooded over memories of that bonfire, with its shouting, fire-lit boys and exuberant destruction’ (85). The boy’s name was used in Lord of the Flies and is perhaps the most sinister character – Roger. Elsewhere, we learn that the rock in Pincher Martin is based on a tooth Golding had removed by a dentist in Fowey, Cornwall and that the character of Nick Shales in Free Fall is based on Alec, Judy’s beloved grandfather.
There are two slightly disappointing elements in The Children of Lovers although the second of these is actually due to the brilliance of the book. First, the photographs are fascinating but they are reproduced at the end of each chapter, rather than printed on glossy paper in the middle of the book as is more usual. They are quite small and sometimes a little blurry; of course this may be due to the original quality.
Second, Judy Golding writes in the acknowledgments that she ‘could have written three times as much’ – and I really wish she had. This is to the writer’s great credit as she sweeps up along on such a poignant and engaging story. For instance, in Chapter 15, Judy meets her father on the street in London and tells him she has been burgled; Golding turns ‘white’ with shock (213). Judy doesn’t give us any further details about the burglary and as a reader, I wanted to ask: ‘What happened?’, ‘What was stolen?’, ‘Were the burglars ever caught?’. But of course, this is a memoir, not an autobiography! Although the vast majority of people will read this book because of their interest in William Golding and his writing, Judy writes with such insight and at times, in a beautifully poetic style, that the reader cannot help but be fascinated with Judy’s own story, in addition to that of her father.
The memoir begins to come to an end at the death of Golding and Judy recollects the final evening spent with her father. A family friend asks Golding what he would say to Judy if he knew he would never see her again. Golding’s response is to rub Judy’s neck and say ‘Love…Just love’. (241). During that night Golding dies. At the very end of the book, Judy’s mother tells her: ‘I did love you. I just couldn’t show it’. A poignant and touching end to a superbly written memoir.