The missing piece of the jigsaw: John Carey on meeting someone from William Golding’s past
Filed under: Biography
When John Carey wrote his biography of William Golding, one thing eluded him: the fate of Golding's first fiancee Mollie Evans. Then, at a talk following the book's publication, a stranger came up to him...
When William Golding was a pupil at Marlborough Grammar School he noticed that the girl who sat in front of him in class had a beautiful neck, and he fell in love with her. Her name was Mollie Evans. Some time in the 1930s, after he came down from Oxford, they were engaged. Then in 1939, when he was teaching at Maidstone Grammar School, he met Ann Brookfield and, as he later put it, ‘I ditched the girl I was going to marry and married Ann instead.’ How Mollie felt, we can only guess, but in an unpublished work called Men, Women & Now, written in the 1960s, Golding records, a touch grandiloquently, ‘I verily believe that I made her suffer and this suffering was the most profound emotion she ever felt. I wish it were not so.’ He does not explain why he broke off the engagement, but his recollections of Mollie do not conceal her limitations: ‘She was frigid, but only in the sexual sense. In every other way she was a mildly warm personality, dutiful, reliable, untalented, sensible…I don’t think she daydreamed or thought.’
Researching Golding’s life for his biography, I could not find anything in his journals or other manuscripts about what happened to Mollie after he left her. She simply disappears from the record. In his novel Free Fall (1959) Mollie becomes Beatrice, and when Sammy Mountjoy deserts her she goes mad, but whether that happened to the real Mollie I had no way of knowing. It was clear, though, that Golding’s treatment of her continued to trouble his conscience. Forty years later he was still haunted by guilty dreams, which he describes in his journal. In one he finds her naked corpse at his parents’ house in Marlborough and tries to bind her wrists so that he can drag her out and bury her in the garden. But they are stiff with rigor mortis. In another, she gives him back her engagement ring – which, in real life, he had told her to keep. In the dream it becomes surreal: ‘It is huge, silver. The top opens to reveal three artificial roses of precious metals.’
That was virtually all I knew about Mollie until a few months ago. Then, in September 2009, after I had been talking about my recently-published biography at the Marlborough Literary Festival, a lady came up to me at the book signing and showed me a ring she was wearing, a large opal, set in gold. It was, she told me, Mollie’s engagement ring, and she was Mollie’s niece, the daughter of Mollie’s sister Joan. I was, of course, very excited, and she kindly agreed to see me and tell me her memories of Mollie. So a couple of weeks later I drove down to the Wiltshire village where she and her husband live and she told me Mollie’s story.
Mollie was born in June 1914, so she was three years younger than Golding. (This makes it surprising they were in the same class, but maybe in a tiny country grammar-school classes spanned a wider age-range than you would expect now.) Joan, Mollie’s sister, was older, born in 1910. Their parents Frank and Florence owned the grocery shop in Great Bedwyn, a village near Marlborough; it had been in the Evans family since the early 1800s. Mollie was a bright girl and good at languages. There was a French lady called Mrs Egerton in Great Bedwyn, and Mollie went to her for language classes when she was a teenager. On leaving school she trained as a teacher at Southlands Training College, Wimbledon, and in 1935 she got a job teaching English and History at Fairlop School for Girls, near Epping.
In the little cache of relics Mollie’s niece and her husband found among Mollie’s things after her death are two snapshots, both taken at Whitsun 1937 on an outing to Chastleton House in Oxfordshire (they are annotated on the back in Mollie’s mother’s hand). One shows Mollie and Bill Golding. They are half-sitting, half-lying on the grass, both smiling happily. She is leaning back against him, and his right arm rests on her shoulder. The other photo, presumably taken by Bill, is a family group of Mollie and Joan and their parents. It is posed so that Mollie is in the centre, looking glowingly happy, and her sister is turning her head to look smilingly at her. Perhaps it is an engagement photograph.
Certainly Mollie and Bill were engaged by the autumn of 1937. Mollie’s cache of relics contains a letter from Bill to Mollie’s father, written on Brasenose College Junior Common Room paper at the start of the 1937 academic year when he had gone back to Oxford to study for the Diploma in Education. He says how much he envies Joan for being ‘settled and comfortable’ (she had married in October 1937), while he is still a ‘mere bachelor’. The thought of it makes him want to ‘catch the first train to town and marry Mollie instantly’. Frank has been ill, though, so the marriage must wait ‘until you are strong enough to give away the bride’. He guesses that Frank helped with the redecoration of Joan’s house, and asks him not to use up all his bright ideas, ‘because Mollie and I will need them for our cottage’. The letter ends on a playful note: ‘By the way Mollie wants a King Charles Spaniel; whatever that is – can you dissuade her? A violin is much better company.’
In July 1939 Mollie and Bill went on holiday together to France. As Mollie’s parents were strict Methodists it is surprising this was allowed, but evidently they trusted Bill. Though he was teaching at Maidstone by this time, he was hard up and still owed money to Brasenose, so it seems Mollie lent him money for the trip. In her cache there is a ‘Certificate of the Issue of a British Money Order’ for £10, date-stamped 16 June 1939. The order is made payable at Maidstone to W.G. Golding. Found with it was an envelope on which Mollie has jotted down some details of fares and journey times: ‘Newhaven Dieppe £4.10.11’ and ‘Leave London 8.20 Grenoble 4.53 aft’.
Together with the certificate and the envelope is a picture postcard – a view of Grenoble – which Mollie sent back to her mother on 29 July 1939:
‘Bill says I’m to say ‘Arrived and exhausted – can’t write any more’. That about sums up the situation at the moment – the train journey was the last word, but the crossing was marvellous. We haven’t found anywhere to stay in Grenoble yet – I’m writing in a café – but we shall be here possibly for two days. I’m afraid I can’t give you the next address because we haven’t got a map yet. Love M.’
What went wrong after that is a mystery. But according to Mollie’s sister Joan, Mollie came back from France alone, and that was the end of the affair. She would never speak of Bill again. On the envelope with Mollie’s jottings of the journey-time and cost she has added, at some point, eight lines of writing. They have a formal look: the lines go across the paper to the right hand edge, as if to imitate print.
‘There are two things which, tho’ they cannot be heard by the physical ear a mile away, cry from end to end of the earth. The one is the crash of a tree that has been felled while it is still bearing fruit; the other is the sigh of a woman whom her husband sends away while she still loves him.’
Perhaps Mollie copied this from a book. Or perhaps she translated it – the phrasing of the first sentence is slightly awkward. But Mollie’s niece likes to think that she composed it herself as she made her sad and lonely return trip from France.
And afterwards? Mollie did not go mad. She had a successful teaching career. She was a tolerant, loving person but, her niece attests, there was something in her that was strong, and it made her a good and popular teacher. As she was very patient, she was especially effective with backward children. She was offered the headship of Fairlop School, but she declined because she wanted to continue teaching, which she loved. She never married, and when she retired she lived in Great Bedwyn with a friend, Kate, who had been a probation officer in the East End. They read the same books and took an interest in politics. Mollie was very left-wing. She was also an agnostic or atheist, insisting that when she died there should be no service and no mourners. Kate, who died first, had made the same requests, and Mollie saw they were carried out, and did not go to the crematorium. ‘She said nobody and she meant nobody,’ she insisted. She died on 27 December 2004, and her niece put her ashes beneath a turf on her parents’ grave.
Golding may have been thinking of her, it seems, as his own death neared. On 18 June 1993, he and Ann gave a big party at their house in Cornwall, and after midnight, when almost all the guests had gone, he recited Ronsard’s translation of the dying Hadrian’s address to his soul from theOxford Book of French Verse. His copy, still in his library, had belonged to Mollie: it is inscribed on the title page ‘K.M. Evans’. At some time during that night he died.
Mollie’s story does not help us to understand why the engagement ended. But it confirms that the end was, as Golding said, abrupt, and just two months after Mollie sent her happy postcard home from Grenoble he married Ann. Whether they had met before his French holiday with Mollie is not known, nor is it known whether Mollie and he were ever lovers. If his claim that she was frigid is any sort of clue, perhaps there was an attempt to consummate their relationship on the French holiday which shocked or repelled one or both of them. At all events it seems clear that his account of Mollie in Men, Women & Now is not wholly reliable. He cannot really have thought that the bright young schoolteacher he took to France was ‘untalented’. With her teaching qualification, which he fails to mention, she was, by comparison with Ann, highly educated, and his own excited anticipation of their life together in his letter to her father hardly suggests that he believed she ‘neither daydreamed nor thought’. Men, Women & Now was written for Ann, and perhaps he wished to conceal from her what Mollie had really been like. Or perhaps, to lessen his guilt, he wished to conceal it from himself. Or both.
RSL Review 2010.