Reading empire’s absence in the novels of William Golding
William Golding's source for the first novel Lord of the Flies was 'the great original' of the boys-on-an-island tradition, R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, with its intrepid boy-heroes, sure of their position in the racial order of things. In Golding's second published novel, The Inheritors, it is an act of cannibalism which serves as the most powerful emblem of the drive to colonise. For the Crusoe-esque protagonist of Golding's third novel Pincher Martin, cannibalism is a 'superbly direct' expression of the drive to conquer. By the time Golding published his 'condition of England' novel, Darkness Visible, in 1979, he was addressing the condition of a post-imperial England in decline. Returning to post-imperial Englishness in the late 1970s and 1980s, in an increasingly comic mode, Golding tentatively explores the flaws and blind spots in a shared imaginative landscape forged through the history of imperialism.
This book explores the history of postwar England during the end of empire through a reading of novels which appeared at the time. Several genres are discussed, including the family saga, travel writing, detective fiction and popular romances. In the mid 1950s, Montagu Slater's brief essay in Arena is the first of a group of contributions, with the authors' warning of a growing American monopoly in cultural expression. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey are now the best remembered representatives of the distaff side of Britain's Golden Age of crime fiction which extended well into the early postwar period. The book focuses on the reception of John Masters' novels, the sequence of novels known as the 'Savage family saga'. William Golding's 'human condition' is very much an English condition, diagnosed amid the historical upheavals of the mid-twentieth century. Popular romance novels were read by thousands throughout Britain and across the world, and can be understood as a constituent element in a postwar colonial discourse. William Boyd's fiction displays a marked alertness to the repercussions of fading imperial grandeur; his A Good Man in Africa, explores the comic possibilities of Kinjanja, a fictional country based on Nigeria. Penelope Lively's tangential approach to writing about empire in Moon Tiger suggests ambivalence and uncertainty about how to represent a colonial past which is both recent and firmly entrenched in ideas of national identity.