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Review of John Carey, William Golding: The man who wrote Lord of the Flies

Review of John Carey, William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies (Faber and Faber, paperback, 2010).

When reading John Carey’s absorbing biography of William Golding, one is struck by the sheer amount of material that survives in the Golding archive.  As a researcher, it is easy to imagine Carey’s delight to have access to such an eclectic, important, and to date, uncatalogued collection.  Writing a literary biography can often be a fraught and complicated process; the biographer may face opposition from the subject’s estate, fail to gain permission to quote extensively from the original works, or even face opposition from the subject themselves.

One of the most famous examples of this is Ian Hamilton’s lengthy pursuit of the reclusive J.D. Salinger, which led to Salinger unsuccessfully attempting to block publication of the book.  My own research examines the work of the poet Sylvia Plath, about whom countless biographies and memoirs have appeared, the majority of which (some, quite rightly so) have not been allowed to quote fully from Plath’s work and several of which have faced legal challenges from the Plath estate.  Even the biography that is considered ‘approved’ by the Plath estate (although unofficially) is mired in controversy.  William Golding himself explored literary biography in his novel The Paper Men, which features a young professor Rick Tucker desperate to write the biography of writer Wilfred Barclay.  Tucker is determined to get his hands on Barclay’s private papers, and Barclay appears to be just as determined in eluding him, leading to a pursuit around Europe and a fatal ending.

Fortunately, Carey had no such concerns while undertaking his research, and the finished product is exemplary in its use of archival material and reminiscences. He had access to Golding’s journals, letters, unpublished manuscripts and support from Golding’s friends and family. The material is brilliantly handled and assimilated by Carey, and crucially, he allows Golding’s words to speak for themselves, refusing even to correct Golding’s poor spelling. This is in direct response to Golding’s journal entry in 1982: ‘it’s a moody-making thought…that some bugger will either silently correct my spelling, or even worse, interrupt the text with brackets and sic in italics. But my bad grammar and bad spelling was me’ (x).

Every aspect of Golding’s life is explored chronologically, from his early childhood split between Cornwall and Wiltshire, through to his career as a schoolmaster, marriage and family and finally, life as a writer. Carey does not shy away from revealing details about Golding that portray him as a negative character; for example we learn that he made an attempt to sexually assault a girlfriend in his teens, that his relationship with his son was often difficult, and that his dependence on alcohol caused numerous problems with his family and friends. We also gain a portrait of an immensely clever man, whose desire to write could not be silenced, and a writer who challenged literary conventions, often in defiance of previous criticism of his work. Golding was awarded the James Tait Black Prize, the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize and a knighthood; and he was the recipient of these accolades despite being described by Oxford dons as ‘not quite a gent’ (57). Indeed, the biography is also a fascinating read as an example of the class boundaries in England in the twentieth century.

The chapters that discuss the writing and development of his many books are of immense interest. Of course, Golding remains most famous for his first novel Lord of the Flies, but this is to the detriment of his many other works which are always strikingly original and, in many cases, defy categorisation because of their depth and brilliance. Nonetheless, the story of how one of the most-read novels of the twentieth century was rejected by so many publishers and was only rescued at Faber & Faber by a young editor, Charles Monteith, is as unbelievable as it is fascinating. Lord of the Flies was well received in England after its publication in 1954 but went out of print in the United States. However, by the early 1960s the book had become a phenomenal success and required reading in many schools and colleges, as it still is today.  Carey guides us through the euphoria of the acceptance of Lord of the Flies but also shows us the burden that the success of the book had imposed on Golding. As Carey writes, ‘Golding [had] complicated and resentful feelings about his first book’s enormous success, which had dwarfed everything he wrote afterwards’ (363).

The chapter that I found most useful as a companion to one of Golding’s novels was the one on Pincher Martin, written around 1956. The book is truly a work of genius, and in fact the reader does not recognise just how tremendous the book is until they reach the final page. Even then, the reader needs to turn back to the beginning and start all over again to fully appreciate, as Frank Kermode put it, the novel’s ‘dense interweavings of image and reference’ (201).  Reading about the development of Golding’s plot and his understanding of the main character is crucial for any reader of Pincher Martin.

John Carey’s William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies is a remarkable achievement. It should be essential reading for anyone interested in Golding’s work and in twentieth century literature. For those readers who have read only Lord of the Flies this book is a great introduction to the others, but, of course, no substitute for the novels themselves. One hopes that the publication of this biography will stimulate more interest in the work of this hugely original and successful writer.