To the Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy by William Golding

brushing off the dustEvery Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.

Sea Trilogy

First published: 1980 – 1989 (New single volume edition: Faber & Faber 2004)
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work
First read and reviewed by me: October 2010

Book 1: Rights of Passage

Memorable quote: “Why – it has become, perhaps, some kind of sea-story but a sea-story with never a tempest, no shipwreck, no sinking, no rescue at sea, no sight nor sound of an enemy, no thundering broadsides, heroism, prizes, gallant defences and heroic attacks!”

Although this is ostensibly a piece of naval fiction set in the early nineteenth century, if anyone picked this up anticipating the firing of broadsides and other high seas derring-do may be disappointed.   As my choice of memorable quote suggests, this is a very different kind of sea-story in which very little actually happens, at least in terms of stereotypical adventure and action. Golding’s story takes place onboard a rather aged and unnamed vessel, converted from a warship to a passenger vessel and now making the arduous voyage from England to Australia. The jounrey is already underway when the narrative begins and the novel ends before the ship arrives. Rather than high seas survival, this is really a story about class tensions. Golding’s protagonist is the snobbish Edmund Talbot, heading out to the colonies and a minor governmental position obtained for him by his godfather. The action is narrated as a series of entries in Edmund’s journal, capturing very effectively the minute sights, sounds and (often very unpleasant) smells of life on the waves. The close proximity of the ship’s confines brings Edmund into close contact with people from all walks of life: from the pimp masquerading as a gentlemen; to the sickly families travelling in steerage and dreaming of a fresh start; through to the crew of the vessel itself, including its abrasive and avowedly unreligious captain. The main action concerns one newly frocked parson, the Rev. Colley, a very different sort of character from Talbot who suffers intensely as the ship slowly progresses.

As well as painting a vivid picture of the painful conventions of the nineteenth-century class system, the novel examines some major questions about the nature of faith and the power of shame. I have to say I found this pretty slow going and it took me a while to get through it, but once I finished it, the narrative – and particularly Golding’s very powerfully realised characters – lingered on in my mind. I kept daydreaming of that unnamed ship and wondering what would happen – or perhaps not happen – to she and her passengers during the remainder of their journey. Luckily for me, the author felt similarly haunted. In his introduction to this edition, Golding admits that, although this story was not conceived as a trilogy, having completed Rites of Passage he also felt that there was more to tell of  of Edmund and his fellow travellers, and so the Sea Trilogy was born. As I read the one volume edition I will review all three novels in a single post.

Book 2: Close Quarters

Memorable quote: “…the busy yet only half-understood business that was carried on twenty-four hours a day in both ships to keep life supportable – the planking with its black and sometimes bubbling seams – enforce a dreary and sickening substantiality in which their movement was malign – this was all that was real.”

While Book One of Golding’s Sea Trilogy is quite a slow burner, in parts two and three the tension and general air of unease ratchets up considerably, making both novels very hard to put down. Close Quarters picks up the story with the unnamed ship mid-way through its voyage to Australia and languishing “in the doldrums,” mired by weed on the hull and a mast that has been seriously damaged due to the inattentions of one troublesome lieutenant. Golding’s atmosphere here is a striking mix of passionate celebration and sinister threat. After a brilliant scene – simultaneously tense and farcical – in which the crew of the ageing converted warship prepare for a possible battle with the French, they find themselves instead moored alongside a British frigate, the Alcyone and carnival prevails as the two crews and passengers intermingle. In the first novel the priggish narrator, Edmund Talbot, finds his prejudiced social outlook challenged by a number of different encounters, most notably with those with the Rev Colley. In Close Quarters the gradual process of Talbot becoming a more rounded and likeable character continues, most dramatically when he falls in love, a passenger on the Alcyone.  It is an intense but seemingly doomed passion, as soon Talbot must continue his voyage to Australia, while his beloved Miss Chumley is bound for India.

Talbot is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and his existing flaws of naivety and self-deception are intensified in Close Quarters by a blow to the head which has him quite literally hallucinating, and narrating the already strange and strained social circumstances onboard through a haze of pain and confusion. But Talbot’s battered physical and emotional state is nothing compared with the state of the ship itself, which is gradually falling apart, groaning, weakening and leaking more desperately with every nautical mile covered. The  air of menace gradually intensifies and by the end of the book I found myself genuinely fearing for the vessel and her passengers – a response that accentuates just how much  I had come to care for this wonderfully characterful assortment of believably flawed individuals.

Book 3: Fire Down Below

Memorable quote: “You know, however long I live I shall remember the middle watch. I shall think of it as a kind of – island – out of this world – made of moonlight – a time for confidences when men can say to a – transmuted face what they would never bring out in the daytime.”

Love and despair are the ruling emotions of Close Quarters, and while these themes do extend into the final book in the trilogy, Fire Down Below, above all, explores friendship and rivalry. And, if anything, it’s an even better read! Greatly transformed from his snobbish pre-voyage self, Talbot is now able to strike up meaningful friendships with both those below him in the social hierarchy and with those who do not share his conservative politics.  As Talbot takes on some of the duties of a midshipman and begins to learn more about the ship his eyes are opened: his friendship with the humbly born Lieutenant Summers becomes movingly intense, and – less positively – the vessel’s stricken state also becomes all the more apparent.

This novel centres on the major personality clash between the ship’s two lieutenants, practical and prudent Summers versus the hotheaded rising star Benet, whose risky plan to release them doldrums but could equally leave the ship’s hull punctured and its timbers aflame. The contrasting characters of these two men make for gripping reading as each vie to convince Captain Anderson of their superiority. Already considering himself to be “of Summers’ party,” Talbot also comes to clash with Benet on a more personal level as the young lieutenant recounts stories of the Alcyone that cause Talbot to question his feelings for Miss Chumley.

After so many pages set at sea, the end of the voyage – whether that be a tragedy or secure disembarkation – could easily prove an anti-climax, but Golding still has some surprises in store. I won’t say how the novel ends, only that, like the preceding pages it manages to do so in a way that is brilliantly characterised and which mixes hope, high tragedy and earthy farce.

While each of the three volumes has a sufficiently unique focus and internal structure to stand alone, it is only when read together that the full extent of Talbot’s journey and his very satisfying character arc becomes clear. If you’re the sort of reader who likes to plunge yourself into a brilliantly realised but fascinatingly complex world, then I really can’t recommend this Sea Trilogy enough: pick up the one volume edition and dive right in!

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