Publication date: 1980
Genre: Literary fiction, historical with LGBT interest
Rites of Passage Review Summary: Stunning and sad historical prizewinning novel set on a ship bound for Australia in the early 19th century. The arrogant upper class narrator is unintentionally hilarious, but it’s really the story of the young parson Mr Colley and his catastrophic wish to please.
In a makeshift cabin on a stinking former warship bound for the new colony of Australia, an educated young man writes a journal to entertain his godfather back in England. With a mixture of wit and arrogance he records mounting tensions on board, as an obsequious clergyman attracts the dangerous animosity of the tyrannical captain and surly crew.
Rites of Passage Review
Young Edmund Talbot is on his way to Australia to take up a post in the government there. He’s well-connected but not rich, and has been sponsored by his godfather, to whom he addresses the diary that he writes on board.
We get a strong sense of the snobbish young aristocrat who clearly thinks he’s the most important person on the ship. Both he and a newly-ordained young parson, Mr Colley, offend the captain with their different demands: Edmund’s focused on his status and comfort, Mr Colley’s on his wish to provide religious services for the passengers and crew.
Poor Mr Colley is desperate to be liked and accepted, especially by Edmund, since he agrees with Edmund’s own view of his status, and by a certain handsome young crew member. But it’s his mistakes in approaching the captain that ultimately bring about the tragic ending.
The ship was formerly a warship; the captain is hostile to passengers. What starts as an unpleasant situation becomes dangerous. In that respect it’s like Golding’s Lord of the Flies – a group of people isolated by circumstances move closer and closer to savagery – although the tone and style are completely different.
This is the first in a series of three novels about Edmund Talbot and his trip to Australia. The character of Edmund is well developed with him becoming older, wiser and humbled by the events of the book. It’s a very convincing sea-going historical read with an LGBT theme in a subplot (but don’t expect a happy ending).