In September 1953, a dog-eared typescript entitled Strangers from Within arrived at the offices of the publisher Faber. It had obviously visited several other publishers on its optimistic journey towards print. The first few pages were yellowed; the later ones seemed relatively untroubled. The typescript arrived with a handwritten note from its author: “I send you the typescript of my novel Strangers from Within which might be defined as an allegorical interpretation of a stock situation. I hope you will feel able to publish it.”
The feeling at Faber was that they wouldn’t be inclined, actually. Their professional reader, Polly Perkins, had dismissed the work in no uncertain terms. In green biro, on the corner of the covering letter, she wrote:
“Time: the Future. Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.”
She consigned it to the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. From there, the typescript was rescued by a new recruit at Faber, Charles Monteith, and by chance. Monteith needed something to read on a train journey to Oxford, so he grabbed the top bundle from the slush pile.*
Monteith’s reading material turned out to be Strangers from Within. The opening Prologue was indeed interminably boring. There was a nuclear war going on. No actual characters seemed to participate. After a while, there was an airborne evacuation of schoolchildren to safety. The hapless mites were shepherded onto planes which had detachable “passenger tubes” which could float safely earthwards. The author then spends time describing an air battle, after which a passenger tube floats down to a tropical island. Finally — finally! — some characters emerge: two boys.
Charles Monteith was on a train. In 1953.
Charles Monteith did not have a Kindle he could switch to; he did not have email to catch up on. He could neither take to Twitter to opine upon the unwarranted delays on the Oxford line, nor Instagram the surrounding wheatfields. He read on. There was nothing else to do. He read on past the point where previous editors had lapsed into a coma through boredom or hurled the typescript across the room in a rage. He ventured where no editor had ever ventured before.
As Monteith did so, something happened. A story started to be told. A story that was both vivid and murderous. The schoolboys, in the strange new world of their Pacific island, gradually descended into uninhibited savagery. The typescript closed the story with a warning, a time and date: “16.00, 2nd October 1952.”
This wasn’t a story of “Time: the Future.” This was a story of now.
Charles Monteith recognised three things:
1) The Prologue was terrible. It would have to go.
2) The title was terrible. It would have to go.
3) He really, really wanted to publish this book.
The third was dependent on whether the author would be amenable to his proposed changes. Turns out, the author was. He recognised that how the boys got to the island was neither here nor there. What mattered was what they did when they got there.
That’s why the opening lines of the book are as we read them today: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”
The nuclear war vanished. As for the title, the author offered several equally appalling alternatives, including Nightmare Island. In the end, it was another Faber editor, Alan Pringle, who named the novel with a translation of the Hebrew “Beelzebub”: Lord of the Flies.
Its author went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.
On the 60th anniversary of the publication of his most famous novel, on 17 September 2014, his heirs loaned parts of William Golding’s archive to the University of Exeter.
The papers take up a whole five metres of shelf space.
Somewhere on those shelves is the original manuscript of Lord of the Flies, as the archival entry notes:
1. Manuscript notebook ‘Lord of the Flies’, green hardback notebook with front cover missing (Bishop Wordsworth’s School, 90 leaves (including leaf attached to rear cover). Includes extensive annotations and almost all of the pages are struck through with a vertical line. Dated 2 October 1952. Exceptionally fragile, requires assistance to handle.
That handwritten notebook does not contain the opening that had sent so many editors to sleep. Golding must have added it to the typescript that made its way from publisher to publisher. That typescript is long lost.
We’ll never know what drudgery of reading Charles Monteith ploughed through on that journey to Oxford. We can only be thankful he was on a train and so breached the final frontier. He arrived not just in Oxford but at the point where the story started.
Because, after all: some story.
* You always need something sensational to read on a train. Turns out, this was no exception.