Biography of William Golding, British Novelist

A man almost as dark as his most famous novel, 'The Lord of the Flies'

William Golding
William Golding.

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William Golding was a writer best known for his debut novel, Lord of the Flies, which explored themes concerning the battle between good and evil and humanity’s hidden savagery; he would continue to explore these themes in his writing and his personal life for the next five decades.

Golding’s obsession with man’s dark side wasn’t just literary pretension. An intensely private man while alive, after his death his autobiography and personal papers revealed a man who struggled with his own dark impulses and who used his writing to explore and understand them. In some ways, Golding was cursed by early success—despite writing 12 more novels and winning both a Nobel Prize and a Man Booker Award, Golding is often remembered solely for his first novel, the story of children stranded on a deserted island during wartime who descend into brutish superstition and horrifying violence. This was particularly galling for Golding, who came to regard his debut as a substandard work despite the enduring critical praise the book enjoys.

Fast Facts: William Golding

  • Full Name: Sir William Gerald Golding
  • Known For: Author of Lord of the Flies
  • Born: September 19, 1911 in Newquay, Cornwall, England
  • Parents: Alec and Mildred Golding
  • Died: June 19, 1993 in Perranarworthal, Cornwall, England
  • Education: Brasenose College, Oxford University
  • Spouse: Ann Brookfield
  • Children: David and Judith Golding
  • Selected Works: Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, To the Ends of the Earth, Darkness Visible
  • Notable Quote: “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men; they are far superior and always have been.”

Early Years

William Golding was born in Cornwall, England in 1911. He had one older brother, Joseph. His father, Alec Golding, was a teacher at the school both brothers attended, The Marlborough Grammar School in Wiltshire. Golding’s parents were radical in their politics—pacifists, socialists, and atheists—and were not affectionate with their children.

Golding attended Brasenose College at Oxford University, initially studying natural sciences. Golding was uncomfortable at Oxford as the only student in his class to have attended grammar school (the equivalent of public school in England). After two years, he switched to English literature, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in that subject. Golding took piano lessons as a teenager with a girl named Dora who was three years his junior. When Golding was 18 years old and home from school on holiday, he attempted to sexually assault her; she fought him off and ran away. A year later, the same girl proposed sexual intercourse with Golding in a field where Golding’s father was observing from afar with a pair of binoculars. Golding later credited Dora with teaching him about his capacity for sadism.

Author William Golding Posing in Front of His Home
British author William Golding at his Wiltshire home, England. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Golding graduated in 1934, and published a collection of poetry that year, Poems. After graduation, Golding took a teaching job at Maidstone Grammar School in 1938, where he remained until 1945. He took a new position at Bishop Wordsworth’s School that year, where he remained until 1962.

Lord of the Flies and Early Novels (1953–1959)

  • Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • The Inheritors (1955)
  • Pincher Martin (1956)
  • Free Fall (1959)

Golding wrote early drafts of the novel that would become Lord of the Flies in the early 1950s, originally titling it Strangers from Within, and sought to publish it. It was rejected more than 20 times by publishers who found the book to be too abstract and symbolic. A reader at the publishing house of Faber & Faber called the manuscript “Absurd & uninteresting fantasy ... rubbish & dull. Pointless,” but a young editor read the manuscript and thought there was potential. He pushed Golding to come up with a new title, finally settling on the suggestion of a fellow editor: Lord of the Flies.

"Lord of the Flies" Performance
Elliot Quinn (as Maurice), Mark Knightley (as Jack) and Lachlan McCall (as Roger) perform in Pilot Theatre's production of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" directed by Marcus Romer at the Richmond Theatre, Surrey.  Robbie Jack / Getty Images

While the novel did not sell well upon its initial publication, reviews were enthusiastic and the novel began to garner a reputation, especially in academic circles. Sales began to build, and the novel is recognized today as one of the most important literary works of the modern era. Telling the story of a group of schoolchildren stranded on a deserted island during an unspecified war and forced to fend for themselves without adult guidance, the novel’s exploration of man’s true nature, ripe symbolism, and terrifyingly effective glimpse into what a society driven entirely by primal urge and the need for security would look like remain powerful and effective in the modern day. The novel is one of the most assigned in schools, and had, by 1962, become enough of a success for Golding to quit his teacher work and devote himself to writing full time.

During this period, Golding was not idle, and published three more novels. The Inheritors, published in 1955, is set in prehistoric times, and details the destruction of the last remaining tribe of Neanderthals at the hands of the encroaching, dominant Homo sapiens. Written largely from the simplistic and impressionistic point of view of the Neanderthals, the book is more experimental than Lord of the Flies while exploring some of the same themes. Pincher Martin, appearing in 1956, is a twisting tale of a naval officer who apparently survives the sinking of his ship and manages to wash up on a remote island, where his training and intelligence allow him to survive—but his reality begins to crumble as he experiences terrifying visions that cause him to doubt the facts of his existence. The last of Golding’s early novels was Free Fall (1959), which tells the story of an officer in a prisoner of war camp during World War II who is put into solitary confinement and scheduled to be tortured concerning his knowledge of an escape attempt. As his fear and anxiety eat away at him, he reviews his life and wonders how he came to his fate, breaking even before the torture commences.

Middle Period (1960–1979)

  • The Spire (1964)
  • The Pyramid (1967)
  • The Scorpion God (1971)
  • Darkness Visible (1979)

In 1962, Golding’s book sales and literary fame were sufficient for him to quit his teaching position and begin writing full time, although he never again achieved the impact of Lord of the Flies. His work became increasingly rooted in the past and more explicitly symbolic. His 1964 novel The Spire is narrated in stream-of-consciousness style by the unreliable Dean Jocelin, as he struggles to see the construction of a huge cathedral spire, too large for its foundations, that he believes God has chosen him to complete. The Pyramid (1967) is set in the 1920s and tells three separate narratives linked by the two main characters. Both The Spire and The Pyramid received strong reviews and cemented Golding’s reputation as a major literary force.

Following The Pyramid, Golding’s output began to wane as he dealt with personal struggles, most notably the clinical depression of his son, David. Golding became less and less enthusiastic about producing new work for his publisher. After The Pyramid, it was four years until his next novel, The Scorpion God, which was a collection of prior short novels, one of which (Envoy Extraordinary) had been written in 1956. This was Golding’s last published work until 1979’s Darkness Visible, which was hailed as a comeback of sorts for Golding. That novel, which explores the themes of insanity and morality through the parallel stories of a disfigured boy who grows up to become a cultish object of obsession for his kindness and twins who struggle with individuality. Darkness Visible received strong reviews and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize that year.

Later Period (1980-1989)

  • To the Ends of the Earth (1980–1989)
  • The Paper Men (1984)
  • The Double Tongue (1995, posthumous)

In 1980, Golding published Rites of Passage, the first book in his trilogy To the Ends of the Earth. Rites of Passage is set in the early 19th century aboard a British ship transporting prisoners to the penal colony in Australia. Exploring familiar Golding themes of man’s hidden savagery, the illusion of civilization, and the corrupting effects of isolation, Rites of Passage won the Man Booker Prize in 1980, and the trilogy (continued in 1987’s Close Quarters and 1989’s Fire Down Below) is regarded as some of Golding’s best work.

William Golding Nobel Prize
US geneticist and biologist Barbara McClintock, winner of the 1983 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine, and English novelist William Golding, winner of the 1983 Nobel prize for literature, at Stockholm. Keystone / Getty Images

In 1983, Golding was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, marking the height of his literary fame. A year after being awarded the Nobel Prize, Golding published The Paper Men. Unusual for Golding, this is a contemporary story and in retrospect appears to be a somewhat autobiographical one, telling the story of a middle-aged writer with a failing marriage, a drinking problem, and an obsessed would-be biographer who schemes to gain possession of the writer’s personal papers.

Fire Down Below was the last novel Golding published in his lifetime. The novel The Double Tongue was discovered in Golding’s files after his death and was published posthumously in 1995.

Nonfiction and Poetry

  • Poems (1934)
  • The Hot Gates (1965)
  • A Moving Target (1982)
  • An Egyptian Journal (1985)

Although Golding’s literary output was primarily focused on fiction, he also published poetry and several works of non-fiction. In 1934, Golding published his only collection of poems, titled Poems. Written before his 25th birthday, Golding later expressed some embarrassment concerning these poems and their status as juvenilia.

In 1965, Golding published The Hot Gates, a collection of essays he had written, some of which were adapted from lectures he would give in the classroom. In 1982, Golding published a second collection of lectures and essays titled A Moving Target; later editions of the book also include his Nobel Prize lecture.

After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1983, Golding’s publisher sought to capitalize on the publicity with a new book. Golding did something unusual: Always interested in history and ancient Egypt in particular, he produced An Egyptian Journal, an account of Golding and his wife’s trip on a private yacht (hired by the publisher) along the Nile River.

Personal Life

In 1939, Golding met Ann Brookfield at the Left Book Club in London. Both were engaged to other people at the time, and both broke off those engagements to be married a few months later. In 1940, their son David was born, and Golding interrupted his teaching career to join the Navy as World War II spilled out over the entire world. Shortly after Golding’s return from his service in the war, their daughter Judith was born in 1945.

Sir William Golding and Wife Ann
English novelist William Golding and his wife Ann Golding in their Wiltshire garden. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Golding drank heavily, and his relationships with his children were fraught. He especially disapproved of his daughter Judy’s politics, and she describes him as being particularly contemptuous of her and often scathing in his treatment of her. Her brother David suffered from serious depression, leading to a nervous breakdown during his childhood which crippled him mentally for life. Both Golding and Judith attributed David’s struggles in part to Golding’s treatment of his children. As Golding aged, he became aware that his drinking was problematic and often blamed it for his lack of productivity. His drinking spiked as his productivity dropped, and he was known to be physically rough with Ann.

In 1966, Golding began a relationship with a student named Virginia Tiger; although there was no physical affair, Golding brought Tiger into his life and Ann was very unhappy about the relationship. Ann eventually insisted that Golding stop corresponding with or seeing Tiger in 1971.

Legacy

Golding’s unflinching examination of mankind’s inner darkness resulted in some of the most compelling fiction of the 20th century. His personal papers and memoir have revealed Golding to have struggled with his own darkness, from his reliance on alcohol to a self-loathing born from recognition of his own base instincts and poor behavior. But many people struggle with their inner demons and few translate that struggle to the written page as effectively and eloquently as Golding.

Although Golding came to regard Lord of the Flies as “boring and crude,” it is a powerful novel that operates on both a symbolic and a realistic level. On the one hand, it is clearly an exploration of man’s brutish nature when freed of the illusion of civilization. On the other, it is a thrilling story of a group of children sliding into primitive terror, and serves as a warning to everyone who reads it concerning the fragility of our society.

Sources

  • Wainwright, Martin. “Author William Golding Tried to Rape Teenager, Private Papers Show.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Aug. 2009, www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/16/william-golding-attempted-rape.
  • Morrison, Blake. “William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies | Book Review.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Sept. 2009, www.theguardian.com/books/2009/sep/05/william-golding-john-carey-review.
  • Lowry, Lois. “Their Inner Beasts: 'Lord of the Flies' Six Decades Later.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/books/review/their-inner-beasts-lord-of-the-flies-six-decades-later.html.
  • Williams, Nigel. “William Golding: A Frighteningly Honest Writer.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 17 Mar. 2012, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9142869/William-Golding-A-frighteningly-honest-writer.html.
  • Dexter, Gary. “Title Deed: How the Book Got Its Name.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 24 Oct. 2010, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8076188/Title-Deed-How-the-Book-Got-its-Name.html.
  • McCloskey, Molly. “The Truth and Fiction of a Father.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 23 Apr. 2011, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-truth-and-fiction-of-a-father-1.579911.
  • McEntee, John. “A Midlife Crisis That Followed Lord of the Flies.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 12 Mar. 2012, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/a-midlife-crisis-that-followed-lord-of-the-flies-7562764.html.