Love and romance are not themes that are usually associated with Golding’s writing! But one particular romance that stands out in his work is between Edmund Talbot and Marion Chumley. Talbot is the hero of ‘The Sea Trilogy’, and in the first book, Rites of Passage, he embarks on an affair with Zenobia Brocklebank, which is passionate, but short-lived. In one of the early chapters in Close Quarters, Talbot meets Marion Chumley, a passenger aboard the Alcyone.
Talbot names this chapter in his journal ‘The Great Day’, and his first encounter with Marion is ethereal. She is bathed in ‘white light’ and Talbot is immediately enraptured:
‘The corners of her mouth turned up – my very heart jumps at the memory – it is a pleasure to try to record it. Yet even when Marion was not smiling nature had provided her with a mouth which made her look not merely good-humoured but as if she were enjoying a joke of such power it was a source of permanent pleasure’ (94).
Having heard that Marion has been suffering from sea-sickness, Talbot immediately offers her his cabin and urges her to travel on his ship, despite the fact that they are heading for different destinations. This causes much amusement, but Talbot barely notices – he is ‘dazzled’, and tells her that she has ‘bewitched’ him. They talk together at dinner and he realises he has fallen in love at first sight, which he had always dismissed as a fairy tale. He writes in his journal that he has ‘fallen so deeply and generously in love’, but he feels fear at the same time – fear of their impending separation, and also her status as a ‘parson’s penniless daughter’ (113).
The two ships have a ball where Talbot and Marion spend the evening dancing and talking. He is jealous when Marion dances with Lieutenant Deverel and begs Lady Somerset, Marion’s benefactor, to allow her to sail on his ship. She refuses, but later consents to Talbot corresponding with Marion. In his increasing desperation, Talbot addresses Marion directly:
‘Miss Chumley, I will find some way – we must not part. Do you not feel, do you not understand? I offer you – oh, what do I offer you? Yes, the ruin of my career, the devotion of a lifetime, the–’ (129).
Ever mindful of social propriety, Marion tries to ignore his words and suggests they return to the others. Talbot is reluctant to let her go without knowing how she feels about him, and she whispers a heartfelt sentiment before disappearing into the night. He promptly bursts into tears and requests passage on the Alcyone to be with her. His behaviour becomes so uncontrollable that he is taken to his bunk, where the ship’s crew realises he is suffering from a bump to his head. Talbot realises he has ‘declined to the status of a madman and a prisoner’ (143). When he awakens from his delirium, Alcyone, and Marion are gone.
The dangers of the journey provide some distraction from his suffering at the loss of Marion, but he is relieved to be given a note from her:
‘A young person will remember for the rest of her life the meeting of two ships and prays that one day that may put down their ankers in the same harbour’ (226).
He memorises the contents of the note, then attempts to write poetry – ‘a matter of enchantment’ – as a way of expressing his love for her. He is disappointed, in Fire Down Below, when Benét finds ‘no encouragement’ in Marion’s words, and Talbot retains his hope of seeing her again after their journey is finished.
In a rare fairy-tale ending in Golding’s work, Talbot and Marion are reunited at the conclusion of the trilogy:
‘She was smiling delightedly and shaking her head as if in disbelief and then fanning away flies – I suppose I was grinning like an idiot or laughing like one […] We spoke but as people in trances’ (311).
Happy Valentine’s Day!