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Lord of the Flies – Literary Pursuits radio programme

Literary Pursuits – Lord of the Flies, broadcast on Radio 3 last Sunday and presented by Sarah Dillon, was a fascinating look at how Golding’s first novel came to be published. The story of Golding’s multiple rejections is well-known, and part of literature folklore, but the programme used evidence from both the Faber archive, and the Golding archive held at the University of Exeter, to highlight this remarkable story. Excitingly, Judy Carver, Golding’s daughter, read extracts from Golding’s unpublished journals, which showed how the process of publishing Lord of the Flies remained with Golding throughout his life.

The programme began with the words of Jan/Polly Perkins, who originally read the manuscript when Golding submitted it to Faber and Faber. Her damning assessment – ‘Rubbish and dull. Pointless’ – meant that Golding was to face yet another rejection. Professor Tim Kendall, from University of Exeter, showed Dillon a page from one of Golding’s early notebooks, which featured a list of seven publishers, and one literary agent, who had rejected Lord of the Flies, then called Strangers from Within. Dillon set out to discover why the manuscript had been rejected so many times, and concluded that the original opening to the story, which featured the boys on the plane before the crash, was less effective in introducing the reader to Golding’s world. This was evidenced in the manuscript itself as the opening pages are dog-eared from so many viewings, but the rest of it was far less marked. A short part of the original opening chapter was read out, showcasing what Dillon called Golding’s ‘beautiful’ writing.

Lord of the Flies was rescued from the rejection pile by a young editor, Charles Monteith, and he persuaded Faber to consider it for publication. In his memoir, he wrote that he ‘was becoming not merely interested, but totally gripped’ as he read through Golding’s pages. A real strength of the programme was the establishment of Monteith and Golding’s relationship, and excerpts from letters between them were read out. There was a suggestion that Monteith may have identified with the character of Piggy as he too had been a ‘lower class, heavy, glasses-wearing boy who had suffered at the hands of his classmates’. Monteith and Golding shared a similar view of the British class system, and Golding’s biographer John Carey revealed how difficult Golding had found it at Oxford, and the attitudes towards him as ‘not quite a gent’.

Golding’s desperation to have his manuscript published did come at a cost, as Monteith persuaded him that aspects of Simon’s spirituality needed to be edited out of the final draft. Golding was particularly concerned that revising Simon’s character would make the book much darker. But he agreed to do it, although Kendall notes that in Golding’s later novels, a Simon-like character is often present. This is perhaps most striking in Darkness Visible, where the protagonist, Matty, is a mysterious, Christ-like figure. Carver read out a section from Golding’s journals from 1971, where he details a dream he had about the publication process of Lord of the Flies. This demonstrates that he was still haunted by this experience, and as Dillon says, the revisions did ‘compromise his [original] vision for the novel’.

Literary Pursuits – Lord of the Flies was an excellent look at this famous novel, and it was well put-together, backed by some lovely piano music (Golding was a keen pianist and musician), and with other speakers including Robert Brown, Faber Archivist, and Toby Faber, who has written a history of the company Faber and Faber: The Untold History of a Great Publishing House. An error was made in the name of the director of the wonderful 1963 film adaptation – it was directed by Peter Brook. Carey characterised Golding as a ‘terrible’ teacher, but this was perhaps rather unkind, as Golding did get involved in all aspects of school life and ran a number of extra-curricular activities. My favourite moment of the programme was a recording of Golding himself talking about Lord of the Flies, in 1989, and how it was inspired by the experience of the Second World War:

‘You think you’ve won a war. What you’ve done is finished a war and you’ve got to do something about it.’

The programme is available on the BBC Sounds app.

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