William Golding's new novel, Fire Down Below is the third volume of a trilogy, the other parts being Rites of Passage and Close Quarters. The trilogy is about a voyage to Sydney in 1813, and a bald, merely literal account might run like this ... On the first page the hero appears, Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, an unformed young man of good family who is going out to help govern New South Wales in an aged line-of-battle ship, Captain Anderson commander, and who has been given a book in which to record his journey by his godfather, an influential peer. The ship also carries some other passengers, the more or less genteel in little cabins aft and the emigrants in the forecastle. With the exception of about fifty pages the trilogy consists of Talbot's account, and in it he describes the cabin-passengers, the officers, the servants and an occasional emigrant or foremast hand. He pays great attention to class, finding most of the passengers and officers rather common, the exceptions being Miss Granham, a governess in her thirties whose father had been a canon; Mr Prettiman, a social philosopher, something like Shelley in background and political opinions but middle-aged; and a Lieutenant Deverel. Talbot is strongly conscious of his social superiority; he shouts or yells for his servant; he very soon lets it be known that his godfather is a great man and that the great man will see his journal; and he is capable of congratulating the First Lieutenant, Summers, who has been promoted from the lower deck, 'on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than the one you was born to'. It is true that later he acknowledges the words were 'insufferable' and enters into a warm and indeed emotional friendship with Charles Summers: but the remark gives the general tone. He is soon known as Lord Talbot.
LRB 20 April 1989 | PDF Download