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Golding, Sir William Geraldfree


Golding, Sir William Geraldfree

  • Kevin McCarron

Sir William Gerald Golding (1911–1993)

by Michael Ayrton, 1965

© Estate of Michael Ayrton; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Golding, Sir William Gerald (1911–1993), novelist, was born on 19 September 1911 at his maternal grandmother's house, 47 Mountwise, Newquay, Cornwall, the second of two sons of Alec Albert Golding (1876–1957), schoolteacher, and Mildred Mary Agatha, née Curnoe (b. c.1870), an enthusiastic supporter of the women's suffrage movement. Golding wrote of his great-grandparents that he knew 'nothing except that they were so quarrelsome that one part of the family changed the spelling of its name so as not to be confused with the others' (Gekowski and Grogan, iv). Golding's aunt and uncle both died of tuberculosis, as did their eldest child, a son, and their daughter was adopted by Alec and Mildred. Alec, born into a working-class Quaker family near Bristol, was an atheist, a socialist, and a rationalist. Mildred, by contrast, entertained the family with terrifying Cornish ghost stories. Both parents were enthusiastic musicians: Mildred played the organ in the church at St Day, near Truro, before her marriage, and Alec was a serious and accomplished musician, playing the violin, as well as other instruments, from boyhood. In the evenings Mildred would play the viola, Alec the violin, and the boys would contribute on violin and cello. As a child, Golding spent holidays with his grandmother in St Columb Minor, and with his father's parents, who lived in Kingswood, near Bristol. Alec's father was a shoemaker, making boots and shoes for the Kingswood miners. In 1902 Alec became science master at Marlborough grammar school, Wiltshire, where he spent virtually the whole of his teaching career, finally retiring in the 1940s. He took an external degree in 1916, gained qualifications in music and architecture, wrote textbooks on various scientific subjects, including astrophysical navigation, and was also appointed a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In his autobiographical essay 'The ladder and the tree' (1965), William Golding acknowledged the overwhelming impact of his father on his life and work, describing him as 'incarnate omniscience', and it is clear that his father's enormous influence determined the son's initial choice of study at university, and also gave him an ambivalent attitude to both science and religion which was manifested throughout his lengthy writing career. However, given that most of Golding's finest writing exhibits a tension between the rational and the irrational, his mother's influence was almost certainly considerable.

Golding lived, until a young man, in the family home at 29 The Green, Marlborough, a three-storey house of medieval origin next to the graveyard of St Mary's Church. It was a lower middle-class milieu, similar to the setting for his novel The Pyramid. As a child Golding developed an abiding interest in Egypt and archaeology and found in Wiltshire's early Christian, Saxon, and Norman remains an architectural legacy to compare with Egypt. Although late in life he published a full-length travel book on Egypt, An Egyptian Journal (1985), the unique hold that Egypt had on his imagination is best exemplified in the essays 'Egypt from my inside' (1965), and 'Egypt from my outside' (1982).

Education and early writing

Golding received his secondary education at Marlborough grammar school, where his father was now senior assistant master. In 1930 he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, to read natural science, which he studied for two years, and then, in 1932, he transferred to English literature, delaying because he feared that this abandonment of science would displease his father. But this decision marked a turning point in his career: in his essay 'On the crest of a wave' (1965) Golding emphasizes that the arts are a more important area of study than the sciences. Golding became interested in Anglo-Saxon, specifically in The Battle of Maldon, a tenth-century heroic poem depicting stoic resistance to the Danes, which ended in defeat. He took his degree, a good second, in 1935, when he also studied for a diploma in education.

In 1934 Golding published a small volume of poetry in Macmillan's Contemporary Poets series. His Poems contained twenty-nine poems, and although in later life he was dismissive of this volume, and of his abilities as a poet, the collection anticipates some of the concerns that became central to his fiction. In 'Mr Pope', the best-known of these poems, Golding uses Alexander Pope as a spokesman for the age of reason and mocks the rationalist's desire for perfect order and control; this distrust of rationalism is a feature of virtually all Golding's novels. Poems was not a critical or a commercial success, and when Golding offered further poems to his editor, Macmillan showed no interest. However, Golding's five years at Oxford marked a decisive break with his father's scientific rationalism, and set him on a career as an artist.

Early career and war service: changing philosophy

After leaving Oxford in 1935, Golding moved to London, where he wrote, acted, and produced for a small, non-commercial theatre. He once played Danny, the unpleasant scholarship boy in Emlyn Williams's Night must Fall. Golding clearly used his experiences in the theatre in his books Pincher Martin and The Pyramid. In 1939 Golding took up a teaching post at Maidstone grammar school for boys and subsequently met (Mabel) Ann Brookfield (1911/12–1995), daughter of Ernest William Brookfield, a grocer. Ann was dark-haired, and attractive, with great wit. She was one of ten children most of whom were involved in left-wing politics. Her brother Norman, thirteen months her junior, had recently been killed fighting for the International Brigade in the last few weeks of the Spanish Civil War. The Goldings married on 30 September 1939. They had two children, Judy and David. Shortly after the marriage, Golding took up a post as schoolmaster at Bishop Wordsworth's School, Salisbury, teaching English and Greek literature in translation. The couple lived in a small cottage, and Golding spent a great deal of time also involved in adult education, teaching in army camps and at Maidstone gaol.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Golding joined the Royal Navy, registering in 1940 as an ordinary seaman. In taking the examination to become an officer, he answered a question on the difference between a propellant and an explosive with such elaborate knowledge, including graphs, that he was sent to a secret research centre under the direction of Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, Churchill's scientific adviser. While at the research centre he was injured in an explosion, and, after hospitalization and recovery, he asked the admiralty 'to send me back to sea, for God's sake, where there's peace' (Biles, 26). He was sent to a mine-sweeper school in Scotland, then to New York to wait for a mine-sweeper being built on Long Island. By the time he returned, mine-sweepers were no longer seen as crucial and he was given command of a small rocket-launching craft. He was involved in the chase and the sinking of the Bismarck, and took part in the D-day assault on Fortress Europe in 1944. In one invasion, that of the small Dutch island of Walcheren, Golding's craft was assigned a difficult role without air support. Preparing to go through a small channel in which 'everybody was throwing stuff in every direction', Golding transfixed his face with a grin and his men assumed that the job could not be as dangerous as it looked because he seemed to be enjoying it so much. When orders were changed, assigning his craft a much safer function, Golding's 'grin fell off' and his face 'collapsed'. His crew said to each other, 'Do you see that old bastard up there? When he learnt we weren't going in, he was disappointed' (Gindin, 4).

The war was one of Golding's most significant educative experiences. It forced him to query even more forcefully than at Oxford the scientific, rationalistic, and ultimately optimistic picture of the world that his father had offered him. As he wrote in his essay 'Fable' (1965):

Before the second world war I believed in the perfectibility of social man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society … but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another … I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head.

These words could serve as an epigraph to virtually all the fiction Golding subsequently wrote. Although horrified by the Nazis' war crimes, Golding was adamant that little other than social sanctions and prohibitions prevented most people in the allied countries from acting with a similar brutality and disregard for humanity.

The war not only changed Golding's moral and political outlook, but also broadened his intellectual perspective. To pass the dull hours on watch, he began to study Greek, and Greek myth played a significant role in shaping his literary imagination; Euripides's The Bacchae is an obvious influence on Lord of the Flies, just as Ion is on The Double Tongue, and as Aeschylus's Prometheus is on Pincher Martin. The importance of Greece and classic Greek literature for Golding, however, went further than specific textual influences. Greek art formed the basis for his own metaphorical statements about the nature of humanity, but he also used Greece as a contrast to the idea of Egypt, contrasting the rationality and light associated with the Greek tradition, with the mystery and darkness of the Egyptian tradition.

Lord of the Flies

In 1945 Golding returned to Bishop Wordsworth's School to teach English and classics. While teaching he wrote several novels, all of which were rejected, and, in his later opinion, deservedly so. The book that made him a household name, and the first of his seventeen published works, was itself rejected by twenty-one publishers, until in September 1953 Charles Monteith, a young editor at Faber, received a dog-eared manuscript entitled Strangers from Within. Monteith recognized its potential but suggested several changes, which included eliminating lengthy scenes set prior to the boys' arrival on the island, compressing its ending, and reducing the novel's overtly theological aspects. Monteith also expressed dissatisfaction with the novel's title and while Golding offered several alternatives, including A Cry of Children and Nightmare Island, it was another editor at Faber, Alan Pringle, who suggested Lord of the Flies. The novel was published on 17 September 1954, exactly a year after it had been submitted. In the published novel a group of boys, the oldest of whom is twelve and the youngest six, is marooned on an idyllic desert island, and almost immediately a battle for supremacy takes place among the principal characters. Violence and death follow. Lord of the Flies is one of the finest adventure stories of the second half of the twentieth century, impressively employing language which both provided narrative impetus while also evoking profounder, more theological implications. Lord of the Flies ‘rewrote’ R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858), offering a grim rejoinder to its imperial, Christian optimism. Golding used the same names for his central characters as Ballantyne did for his trio of brave, clean, young Englishmen, which assists the comparison and eventual subversion of the beliefs central to The Coral Island. While the depiction of evil in Ballantyne's book is strikingly simplistic, revolving around a Christian–pagan dichotomy, Golding makes his characters Christian from the novel's beginning, and yet it is the choir who become the most cruel and violent of all the boys on the island. One of the major reasons for the novel's enormous success in the post-war years was its ability to merge the didactic with the dramatic; Lord of the Flies is not an examination of the idiosyncratic nature of a group of young English boys, but of the essential nature of humanity itself, its predisposition to violence and cruelty when removed from the restraining influences of civilization. The island becomes a microcosm of the adult world, which is also destroying itself. The grim account of murder and propitiation on the island, Golding suggests, is re-enacted in the greater, adult world, continuously. It is difficult to envisage a period in human history when Lord of the Flies will not be relevant.

Lord of the Flies was well received by the reviewers, and several very influential writers, including E. M. Forster and C. S. Lewis; T. S. Eliot described it as 'not only a splendid novel but morally and theologically impeccable' (Carey, 63). It began to sell well and was soon reprinted. In America it made little impression at first, but by 1957 the paperback edition had attracted a huge cult following among university students, and from there it moved rapidly into the mainstream. Over the next thirty years the novel became a ‘set text’, at secondary and tertiary level in America and Europe, and by the end of the twentieth century it had been translated into over thirty languages, including Russian, Icelandic, Japanese, Serbo-Croat, and Catalan, with worldwide sales estimated at over 10 million copies. Lord of the Flies brought Golding fame and financial security, but he was deeply ambivalent about the book, often claiming the same irritated relationship with his first novel as Rachmaninoff had with his famous C minor prelude, which, Golding often bleakly observed, his audience insisted on his playing throughout his career. The novel was made into a memorable film by Peter Brook in 1963, and was filmed again, less memorably, in 1990. Lord of the Flies was adapted for the stage by the novelist Nigel Williams, and was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford upon Avon in summer 1995.

Novels 1955–1964: isolation and intertextuality

Lord of the Flies is usually read as Golding's commentary on human evil, and almost certainly it would not have been written had Belsen and Auschwitz never existed, or indeed had Dresden never been bombed by the allies, but a crucial aspect of the novel, and of the majority of its successors, was its indebtedness to an earlier literary source. Golding was always a ‘literary’ writer, with a somewhat austere and elevated sense of the writer's responsibilities, and he was unashamed about writing ‘literature’, a deeply unfashionable stance in literary studies from the late 1960s onwards. Just as Lord of the Flies ‘rewrote’ The Coral Island, its successor The Inheritors (1955), Golding's own favourite among his novels, written in twenty-eight days while he was still a teacher, rewrites H. G. Wells's 'The grisly folk' (1921). In The Inheritors Golding employs an extraordinary combination of imaginative empathy and technical virtuosity to describe the extermination of a gentle tribe of Neanderthalers by a stronger, more ruthless and intelligent community of Homo sapiens, who are, Golding makes clear, humankind's predecessors. In Pincher Martin (1956) Golding shifts his focus onto an individual and describes the rapacious protagonist's grim struggle for survival on a barren rock in the Atlantic. Free Fall (1959) recounts the attempts of a painter, Samuel Mountjoy, to find a meaningful pattern to his chaotic life, and in The Spire (1964), set in fourteenth-century England, Golding uses the construction of a cathedral spire to dramatize the tragic consequences of a disturbingly ambivalent religious vision. Golding's first five novels are all densely textured, fable-like narratives, employing brutally limited and strikingly unconventional narrative perspectives. He demonstrated throughout this period an unmatched ability to infuse pragmatic and minutely observed detail with a visionary significance. In these novels Golding depicted isolated man, stripped of social encumbrances, usually in extremis, while alluding throughout to, and usually subverting, his literary predecessors, who included Ambrose Bierce, Dante, and Ibsen.

Golding's work was always out of step with that of other writers who were publishing novels in the early and middle 1950s. While Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and Iris Murdoch seemed to be describing parochial communities of considerable limitations, Golding was writing aggressively bold fables which claimed for themselves a universal applicability, underpinned by Greek myths and legends, echoing their harsh, primitive tone. Particularly during this period, Golding's was an art of essences; he strove to depict what lay beneath, or above, the observable surface of life. If contemporary society had no fictional interest for him, it was because, unfashionably, he made humanity's spiritual struggle, its craving for religious enlightenment, over its desire for social cohesion, his primary concern.

Other work and later writing

Soon after Lord of the Flies was published, the Goldings left their flat in Salisbury, and bought a cottage, Ebble Thatch, named after the little river which flows behind it, in Bowerchalke, a small, quiet village a few miles west of the city. Golding was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1955. His first and only play, The Brass Butterfly, received its first performance in Great Britain at the New Theatre, Oxford, on 24 February 1958, directed by the comic actor Alastair Sim, who also played one of the principals. In 1961 Golding resigned as a schoolteacher, a job he claimed never to have enjoyed, and after spending the academic year 1961–2 at Hollins College in Virginia, USA, left teaching for ever. He was made an honorary fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1966, an honorary DLitt by the University of Sussex in 1968, and a CBE in 1966.

In the early 1960s Golding wrote numerous articles and book reviews for, in particular, The Spectator, Holiday Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Listener, many of which were published in the collection The Hot Gates (1965). Golding was later a frequent visitor to Greece, particularly throughout the 1960s, and in the title essay of this collection he describes a visit to Lamia and the pass where, in 480 bc, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans defied the huge army of the Persian king Xerxes. The essay is entertainingly written and historically informative, but of value primarily for the dramatization of the singularity of Golding's perspective. The essay gradually reveals a pessimistic, deterministic, and deeply conservative view of human nature, similar to, but even more emphatic and unambiguous than that expressed in his fiction. Throughout his career, Golding had little sympathy with the pervasive twentieth-century view which saw human nature as culturally determined, created by social circumstances. Golding's essentialism is revealed clearly in this essay because there is no detached narrative perspective, just the voice of the writer responding to one of the most important events in western history. Golding acknowledges that Leonidas and his Spartans 'contributed to set us free' (The Hot Gates, 20), and concludes by translating the stark simplicity of the Spartans' epitaph; it is an essay none of his peers could have written, and its sentiments run through everything he wrote.

Having published five novels in ten years, Golding over the next fifteen years published only one novel, The Pyramid (1967), a volume of short stories, The Scorpion God, and a collection of essays, the majority of which had been written earlier. It was generally believed during this period that Golding had taken his austere vision as far as it would go, and that he was a spent literary force. In 1979, however, he published the bleak and disturbing fantasy Darkness Visible, a novel about which the usually communicative Golding would say nothing at all. Unpredictable as ever, he immediately followed this with Rites of Passage (1980), a lively and often comic novel, although not without a characteristically tragic dimension, which recounted the sea voyage of the arrogant young Edmund Talbot as he sailed to Australia in 1815. The novel was immensely successful with both the critics and the public, winning the Booker prize, and giving Golding the largest readership he had enjoyed since Lord of the Flies. It gave rise to two sequels—Close Quarters and Fire Down Below—and all three novels were published in 1991 as the single volume To the Ends of the Earth. In 1983 Golding was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, an unexpected, and even contentious choice, with most English critics and academics favouring Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess. He became one of only five British writers to have been thus honoured, Winston Churchill being the most recent, receiving it thirty years earlier. In 1988 he was knighted.

Golding was short in stature, and over the years his neatly trimmed, brown naval beard gave way to a magnificently white and untamed growth, giving him an appearance which, unusually, combined sagacity with wildness, a look perfectly captured by Mark Gibson's celebrated photograph. Golding was a committed sailor, and in the early 1960s he owned a Whitstable oyster smack, Wild Rose, built in 1896. He spent a great deal of time during the 1960s on his boats, cruising through the English channel, the Dutch waterways, and ports along the North and Baltic seas. In 1967 his boat the Tenace sank after a collision in the English Channel off the Isle of Wight, an episode which had a decisive impact on his life. As he informed an interviewer in 1985: 'I had to come to terms with the fact that I was never again going to be responsible for anybody else's life at sea' (Haffenden, 105). He enjoyed chess, cricket, and horse riding, and he retained an interest in natural sciences throughout his life, giving the scientist James Lovelock the word ‘Gaia’ for his theory that the Earth's biosphere is a self-regulating organism. He enjoyed alcohol, but gave up smoking in order to play the oboe. He was, indeed, particularly passionate about music throughout his life. He played the cello and piano from childhood, and was an exciting and effective pianist, talented and persistent: the night before his death he was playing Chopin studies, but he was also extremely fond of the work of Liszt and Bach.

It was widely believed that Golding had met his wife when they were members of the same communist cell in the late 1930s, and Samuel Mountjoy's experiences in Free Fall show considerable knowledge of the workings of such a cell, but Golding was publicly reticent about his politics. He was certainly somewhat to the left, but as his close friend Stephen Medcalf observed: 'On or off a horse he recalls William Cobbett—a patriot, a radical patriot, a humorous indignant passionate grumbling mouth filling radical patriot' (Carey, 42). He was nothing like the gloomy pessimist of public legend, but rather an amusing and gifted conversationalist and raconteur when among his few close friends, although he could be waspish. He studiously avoided literary cliques, and while he was invariably polite when carrying out public duties, many journalists and academics who interviewed Golding found him irascible. He was very protective of his privacy. In 1985, partly to avoid the increasing numbers of tourists, academics, and journalists asking for some of his time, the Goldings moved to Tullimaar, in Perran Ar Worthal, Cornwall, a graceful Regency house surrounded by woods and gardens, where Eisenhower had lived during the allies' invasion of Europe. The house was 6 miles from Truro, where Golding's parents had been married in 1904, and where his mother had been baptized in the parish church of St Mary in 1870.

Golding died suddenly of a heart attack, aged eighty-one, at Tullimaar on the morning of 19 June 1993. He was buried in the churchyard at Bowerchalke. At the funeral there were only his family and a few close friends, but the memorial service held in Salisbury Cathedral, in November 1993, was packed with friends and admirers. A boy from Bishop Wordsworth's School read the account of Simon's death from Lord of the Flies and the poet laureate, Ted Hughes, declaimed passages from The Inheritors. Two days after Golding's death, Ann Golding had a stroke from which she never properly recovered. She died on new year's day 1995, after many weeks in hospital, and was buried with her husband. In 1995 The Double Tongue, set in Delphi during the first century bc, the second draft of which Golding had just completed at the time of his death, was posthumously published to generally favourable reviews. It was clear from the obituaries that Golding was considerably more highly regarded by his fellow novelists than by either educated general readers, most of whom were familiar only with Lord of the Flies and Rites of Passage, or the large majority of academic critics. The general reader found the formal experimentation of novels such as The Inheritors and The Spire uncongenial, while academics, many of whom were irritated by Golding's satire on academia, The Paper Men (1984), also found his pessimism, determinism, interest in religion, and, perhaps above all, his lack of interest in contemporary society, unforgivable. At the end of the twentieth century, Golding's reputation was at its highest in continental Europe, particularly in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and France.


  • J. Biles, Talk: conversations with William Golding (1970)
  • J. Gindin, William Golding (1988)
  • R. A. Gekowski and P. Grogan, eds., William Golding: a bibliography (1994)
  • W. Golding, The hot gates (1965)
  • J. Carey, ed., William Golding: the man and his books (1986)
  • J. Haffenden, Novelists in interview (1985)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.




  • photograph, 1964, Hult. Arch.
  • M. Ayrton, pen-and-ink and wash drawing, 1965, NPG [see illus.]
  • A. George, oils, 1986, NPG
  • J. Brown, photograph, repro. in The Observer (30 Oct 1994)

Wealth at Death

£238,266: probate, 1 Feb 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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