Monday, 17 August 2009

William Golding's 'Rape': Amor Vinshit Omnia

More reaction today to the Sunday Times's story about William Golding's 'attempted rape' of a 15-year-old girl. Golding's self-punishing phrase has been repeated in the newspaper headlines without quotation marks. The online comments sections which follow are filled with complaints that 'rape' is not the right word. As one defender of Golding put it, 'why let nuance get in the way of a good headline?' Kathryn Hughes, for Guardian online, wonders whether the incident would 'be better described as a botched seduction scene which took place between two teenagers living at a time when sexual knowledge was something you had to acquire unofficially, often in fear and loathing?'

Here are the crucial paragraphs in Richard Brooks's Sunday Times article:

Golding writes that they went for a walk to the common and he “felt sure she wanted heavy sex, as this was visibly written on her pert, ripe and desirable mouth”.

Soon they were “wrestling like enemies” as he “tried unhandily to rape her”. But she resisted and Golding, all those years later, wrote that “he had made such a bad hand at rape” before shaking her and shouting “I’m not going to hurt you”. Dora ran off.

After a gap of two years, they met again and consummated their relationship. Golding records her unromantic question, when she asked: “Should I have all that rammed up my guts?”

The word 'rape', as used here, does not seem to carry all its modern connotations. Can it be 'attempted rape' if Golding 'felt sure' that Dora wanted 'heavy sex'? 'Rape', in this context, would seem to mean 'have rough sex with'. 'The act of taking anything by force', the OED gives as its first definition. There the confusion becomes apparent. The boy tries to take the girl by force, initially believing that she consents to and even welcomes that force. Eventually realising his mistake, he angrily reassures her that he doesn't want to hurt her.

There is an added difficulty in judging an incident which took place in 1929, and for which we have only one account --- from an unpublished memoir written during the 1960s. Golding is said to have written the piece to show his wife that he was a 'monster': the defendant becomes his own most aggressive prosecutor, having recourse to emotive language in order to clinch his case.

If any good comes from these headlines, it must be that it will send readers back to The Pyramid (1967), a darkly comic novel based (it now appears) on Golding's teenage years in Marlborough. Evie fights off Oliver, and conspires to expose his antics to his father by having sex with him on the escarpment overlooking the town. 'Should I have all that?' she asks the proudly tumescent Oliver with a hint of mockery, thereby providing an abbreviated version of Dora's eloquent question.

Increasingly irritated by the spotless reputation of the town's golden boy, Evie later denounces Oliver in the pub for having 'raped' her. Meanwhile her father, the town crier, has been loudly proclaiming through the streets of Stilbourne that 'Amor vinshit omnia'. With its nice mixture of idealism and excrement, it seems as good a motto for The Pyramid as any.

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