As some of you may be aware, I’ve been taking a break from social media and online comms for personal reasons. Whilst this post doesn’t mark a return to blogging on a regular basis, it does represent an attempt to keep my toe in the water with the bookish community. I actually read this book at the back end of last year, but as it fits with Simon and Karen’s #1977Club (running all this week), I thought it worth posting today. Enjoy.
Regular readers of this blog may well be aware of my fondness for the work of Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve been making my way through her novels, not always in order of publication, over the past few years. The Golden Child (1977) was her first novel, a hugely entertaining tale of internal politics, mystery and mayhem, all set amid the most British of institutions, a prestigious London museum.
The museum in question, a thinly veiled version of the British Museum, is hosting an exhibition of precious treasures from the African Republic of Garamantia – more specifically, the Golden Child and its various accompaniments and grave goods. Outside the museum, families and schoolchildren are queueing in their droves, patiently waiting for hours on end in the hope of catching a brief glimpse of the relics once they make it through the door. Inside the museum, however, all is not well…
We are quickly introduced to a variety of characters, most of whom are eccentrics, each with their own individual problems and concerns. There is Sir William Simpkin, the elderly archaeologist who rediscovered the Golden Treasure of the Garamantes back in 1913. A kindly man with the public’s best interests at heart, Sir William now resides in a private flat in the museum, kept on in the belief that he will leave his not inconsiderable estate to the Director, Sir John Allison, for the purposes of future acquisitions. For reasons which become a little clearer as the story unravels, Sir William refuses to visit the Exhibition in person. Instead, he is aided in his day-to-day activities by a ubiquitous warder from Stores, a faithful yet somewhat lonesome chap by the name of Jones, and a bright but long-suffering junior Exhibitions Officer named Waring Smith. There are other key players too, most notably the rather pained Hawthorne-Mannering, Keeper of Funerary Art, whose department has been saddled with the job of managing the exhibition.
It was said that he was born into the wrong century, but what century could have satisfied the delicate standards of Hawthorne-Mannering? He was very young (though not quite as young as he looked) to get a department, but then it was not the department he wanted; his heart was really in water-colours, not in the coarse objects, often mere ethnographica, of which he must now take charge. His appointment had been, in a sense, an administrative error, or perhaps a last resort; still more so had been the obscure manoeuvres by which the direct responsibility for the Exhibition for the Golden Child, in spite of its numerous consultative, financial and policy committees, had ultimately been landed, nominally at least, on the small Department of Funerary Art, (p. 18)
Hawthorne-Mannering, in his infinite wisdom, has taken a dislike to the diligent Waring Smith, viewing him, rather unfairly, as a potential threat to his own position. As such, he is on the lookout for an opportunity to put this junior Officer firmly in his place. By contrast, Waring Smith himself is a very likeable and amenable chap, forever putting the needs and wishes of others before his own desires. He is plagued by financial worries over his mortgage and the deteriorating state of his marriage to Haggie – a character who is brilliantly sketched by Fitzgerald even though we never actually meet her in person in the book.
Anyway, back to those troubles in the museum. When Professor Untermensch, an independent authority on the Garamantian language and hieroglyphics, comes to visit the Exhibition, he reveals to Sir John, the Museum Director, his belief that the Golden Treasures are in fact all fakes. Good copies, but replicas nonetheless. Fearful of a potential media scandal on the horizon, Sir John shares this troubling information with Hawthorne-Mannering.
‘He told me that this toy, this artefact, was not an original, but a replica. The Golden Bird, the Golden Drinking-Cup, the Golden Twine, are all replicas. The jewels are counterfeit. The sacred Mask and Milk Bowl are quite recent copies. The only genuine thing in the Exhibition – an exhibition with which the name of the Museum, and indeed the name of the British Government, is now deeply involved – are those wretched clay tablets which litter the area and which, it seems, can be picked up for a few pence in the bazaars of Tripoli.’ (p. 81)
So, Sir John faces a dilemma. Should he keep quiet about Untermensch’s theory in the hope that it doesn’t leak out? Or call in an independent expert to assess the Treasures in the faith that they are genuine? The obvious candidate is Sir William as he has first-hand experience of the relics; however, the old archaeologist cannot be trusted to keep quiet whatever the outcome of the assessment. Instead, Sir John has another idea in mind – to send a member of staff on an undercover mission to Moscow to show one of the ‘Treasures’ (a Weeping Doll) to another independent expert, Professor Semyonov, a man who is unlikely to make a fuss. It must all be done quite casually, of course, just to gauge the Professor’s spontaneous reactions to the Doll.
Someone quite junior must be sent, of no particular importance, and he need be told very little about it. He should go over tomorrow, I think as an ordinary tourist on a package weekend. That will probably mean going to Leningrad first, but that only wastes a couple of days. All he has to do, when he reaches Moscow, is to contact Semyonov. He should, if possible, know a little Russian, not too much, enough for a short explanation – show him the Doll and carefully note his reactions. It will be obvious at once from the Professor’s manner whether he regards it as the priceless original or simply an ingenious imitation.’ (p. 89)
And Hawthorne-Mannering has just the junior in mind: the young whippersnapper, Waring Smith. So, Waring is dispatched to Moscow, under the guise of a tourist on a Suntreaders package holiday – cue much hilarity as he tries to navigate his way through the duality of his situation.
What follows is a series of rather surreal and oblique encounters as Fitzgerald spins a story of mystery, intrigue, murder and disorder – no wonder there is talk of The Curse of the Golden Child – with the action moving from London to Moscow and back to the museum again. It’s all beautifully observed and tremendous fun.
Fitzgerald is particularly good at capturing the petty jealousies and rivalries that exist within the museum as various Keepers make their respective cases for funding and jostle for position within the hierarchical structure.
The Museum, nominally a place of dignity and order, a great sanctuary in the midst of roaring traffic for the choicest products of the human spirit, was, to those who worked in it, a free-for-all struggle of the crudest kind. Even in total silence one could sense the ferocious efforts of the highly cultured staff trying to ascend the narrow ladder of promotion. There was so little scope and those at the top seemed, like the exhibits themselves, to be preserved so long. The Director himself had been born to succeed, but he now had to have a consultation, at their request, certainly not at his, with two of the Keepers of Department who had been expectant of promotion long before his arrival, and who regarded him with a jealousy crueller than the grave. (p.13)
There are some great elements of satire here giving the reader much to enjoy.
The characterisation is excellent too, from the idiosyncrasies and foibles of Sir William to the brisk manner and efficiency of Sir John’s formidable secretary, Miss Rank. The ever-present Jones also deserves a mention here – he is spot on.
In addition, Fitzgerald is marvellous when it comes to points of detail, those little touches which bring a story to life, even when some of the scenarios presented may seem quite absurd. The camaraderie and sense of solidarity amongst the queuing public; the pretty rules over who has access to certain areas of the museum; Waring’s fear of Haggie’s reaction when he knows he won’t be able to get home on time – I could continue.
All in all, this is a most enjoyable novel, perhaps closest in style to Fitzgerald’s later work, Human Voices which is set in the BBC during the Blitz. (She is so good at nailing these somewhat insular communities, complete with the various eccentrics and misfits one finds within them.) The Golden Child may not be as focused or polished as some of her other books, but it is very, very engaging. All in all, a worthy addition to the 1977 Club.
The Golden Child is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.