The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald

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.

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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.

Golden Ch

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.

60 thoughts on “The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. lonesomereadereric

    It’s so good to see you blogging again Jacqui & I hope you’re well!
    Interesting reading about this since I didn’t know anything about Fitzgerald’s first novel although I’ve read a few of her later ones. She seems particularly good at portraying the inner workings of institutions. I’m keen to read this at some point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. It’s nice to be back even if it is just a brief toe in the water at this stage. I feel as though I’ve missed out on a lot over the past 3 or 4 months.

      Fitzgerald’s early novels are great, so well observed. She’s so good when it comes to capturing the dynamics of these somewhat idiosyncratic communities and institutions – it’s a common theme that runs through much of her early work.

      Reply
  2. Jonathan

    It’s good to hear from you Jacqui. I’m yet to read anything by Fitzgerald but most of the reviews I’ve read seem promising. It’s always interesting seeing behind the scenes of an organisation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jonathan. I think you’d like Fitzgerald. In some ways, she’s not a million miles away from authors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym. Definitely worthy of exploration.

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    Lovely to see you back Jacqui, even if it is just for a toe-dipping! I was just thinking of you the other day and wondering when we might hear from you again. I also looked at The Golden Child for the 1977Club, I’ll look out for Human Voices now as you feel it’s similar. Hope all is well with you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, madame b. It’s just a brief reappearance at this stage, but I’ll see how this go over the next few months. Good to hear that someone else has written about The Golden Child for the Club – I’ll definitely take a look at your review when I get a chance. Oh, and I think you’d like Human Voices very much. It has that wonderful London-in-WW2 vibe that we both seem to appreciate.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Lovely to see you popping up in my feed.

    I read this book a few years ago I thought Fitzgerald was excellent at capturing those days to day work arguments and petty jealousies.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. It’s lovely to re-establish contact with some of my favourite bookish friends again!

      Yes, I loved all the internal politics and petty posturing amongst the employees. Fitzgerald is so good at capturing that type of dynamic. As I was saying to Eric a little earlier, it seems to be a common theme that runs through much of her early work. All of her community-based novels have landed very well with me.

      Reply
  5. Lady Fancifull

    It’s lovely to see you back, Jacqui, even if we only see your toe at the moment!

    I loved Human Voices, so am interested that this one has similarities.

    I’m struggling with my own 1977, a re-read of something in my shelves, not as appreciated as when I first read it. And it is 700 pages. Ulp.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. It’s nice to be back, even if it is on a limited basis.

      I think the similarities with Human Voices stem from the type of setting, the idiosyncrasies and internal politics at play in these traditional British institutions. I think you’d enjoy it, especially as you loved Human Voices so much.

      Your 1977 re-read sounds quite challenging. Isn’t it funny how our responses to certain books can change so much over time, possibly as a function of age and experience I guess?

      Reply
  6. A Life in Books

    Lovely to find a post from you in my reader, Jacqui. I wander if Fitzgerald was inspired by all the brouhaha around the Tutankamen exhibition in the early ’70s. It sounds as if she captures the politics of institutions neatly and amusingly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, you’re quite right about the Tutankhamun exhibition in the ’70s. It’s mentioned in the introduction as a clear point of reference for Fitzgerald when she was writing the novel. Apparently she had visited the exhibition a couple of times so I guess she used her experiences as a jumping-off point for this fictional story. Plenty of material there, no doubt.

      Reply
  7. Grass and Vanilla

    Hooray, always wonderful to get a post from you Jacqui! I’ve added The Golden Child to my list of TBR Fitzgeralds thanks to your review – have only read Offshore by her thus far and thought it was excellent. Wishing you all the best.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Lovely to hear that you have added this to your TBR list. It’s well worth considering. I’ve enjoyed all of her books so far, particularly The Bookshop, She seems to capture these slightly awkward, idiosyncratic communities so well.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. It’s been a while. I’ve definitely missed the interaction and camaraderie on here. As for the book – yes, it’s great fun. Almost a romp or caper at times. As is often the case with these things, I could imagine it playing out as a film – a thoroughly British production, of course. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. I’m doing okay, although nothing much has changed since I was in touch with you last. I’ve missed the interaction though, so it’s nice to be back in some capacity. Hope all is well with you.

      Reply
  8. M. L. Kappa

    I missed your posts, Jacqui—we seem to have similar tastes, so you either make me remember old favourites, or discover unread treasures. I love Penelope Fitzgerald, and I hadn’t read this book. 💕💕💕

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, that’s lovely to hear. Yes, I think you’d enjoy this one, especially as you have a fondness for Fitzgerald, It is perhaps less well known than some of her others, but most entertaining nonetheless. Worth a look if you fancy returning to PF at some point. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. It’s nice to reconnect with everybody again. I’ve really missed you all. Besides, it seemed like to good an opportunity to miss with your Club running again this week – and you know how much I enjoy a Penelope Fitzgerald. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Nothing much has changed since I was last in touch with you, but I felt it was time to try to re-engage with the wider bookish community. It’s nice to be back even if my presence here might be somewhat sporadic!

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I was wondering if things were looking up . . . It takes time, I guess. I totally agree, it’s good to stay in the loop a bit, even sporadically. And we’re glad to have you. :)

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Bookshop would be a great one to try first. It’s absolutely brilliant and so acutely observed. I think it’s my favourite Fitzgerald so far. Really looking forward to seeing how you fare with her – and with Pym, of course!

      Reply
  9. Cathy746books

    Lovely to see you back Jacqui. I have a few of Fitzgerald’s books, although not this one. I must try and read her over the summer. I had an English teacher once who raved about her writing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy – it’s certainly been a while. Your English teacher clearly knew her stuff when she recommended Fitzgerald. I think she’s one of my favourite writers. Glad to hear you have a few of her books in the 746, hopefully you’ve got some treats in store there.

      Reply
  10. Brian Joseph

    I am glad to see that you have a blog up. Jacqui.

    I have not read Fitzgerald but she sounds very good. Museums make such good settings for fiction. There is something so atmospheric about them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, I think the museum turned out to be a great setting for Fitzgerald. She is such a good observer of people, all the little petty jealousies and posturing amongst the members of staff are captured to a T. It’s a lot of fun.

      Reply
  11. FictionFan

    Good to see you, Jacqui – I was just thinking the other day that it had been a while since you’d popped up in my Reader. Hope you’re well. Between you and Madame Bibi, I feel I’m going to be forced to add this one to my TBR. I love museums as settings for stories – so much potential for atmosphere!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. It’s good to be back, even if this is just a toe in the water at this stage. I think you’d have a lot of fun with this one. The mystery element is kind of secondary here, so it’s best if you approach it with that in mind – the novel’s real strengths stem from Fitzgerald’s observations of the politics, particularly the internal dynamics amongst the museum staff.

      Reply
  12. Bellezza

    Glad to see you again, dear Jacqui! I’ve missed you for the second year in a row on the Man Booker International Prize shadow panel, and I’ve missed your insightful posts. xoxo

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank, Bellezza. It’s nice to be back in some capacity at least – I’ve missed the interactions. Wishing you all the best with you MBIP reading, I hope it’s going well. x

      Reply
  13. Scott W

    Great to see you back at the blog, Jacqui, and returning with such a fine post. This one sounds like a lot of fun, and quite a different direction from the one Fitzgerald I’ve read (The Blue Flower). I love stories about counterfeits, and rather want to know the resolution of the story. I guess I’ll just have to read it to find out. A warm welcome back!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. Nothing much has changed since I was last in touch with you, but I felt it was time to re-establish some connections.

      The Golden Child is a lot of fun. Not Fitzgerald’s best by any means, but very entertaining nonetheless. I haven’t read The Blue Flower — historical fiction is not my usual stamping ground! — but I do get the impression that it’s quite different from her early, community-based novels. You really should give one or two of them a try at some point – maybe The Bookshop or Offshore? They’re not a million miles away from some of Elizabeth Taylor’s work if that helps to persuade you. :)

      Reply
  14. Maureen

    Wonderful to have you back, even for a bit, Jacqui and very best wishes to you!

    Oh, I simply LOVE this. There is nothing as cut-throat as institutional infighting. Can’t wait to read the entire Penelope Fitzgerald collection.

    In terms of the writing toolbox, I am really excited about going back after reading the novel the first time for pure pleasure to analyze the way in which Ms. Fitzgerald uses “hearsay” to flesh out what sounds like the terrifying Haggie. It would be great to get a sense for that technique. This reminds me as well as something Evelyn Waugh might right, particularly the perfectly pleasant chap, launched into a surreal situation as a “double agent.”

    P.S. Jacqui, sending you an email as well. Take care,

    Maureen M.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Maureen. It’s nice to reconnect with everyone again, even if my presence on here might be quite sporadic in the future.

      Yes, plenty of institutional infighting and petty jealousies here – Fitzgerald has a real knack for capturing this type as dynamic (see also Human Voices). I think you’d find the portrayal of Haggie rather interesting form from a writerly perspective. It’s possible to get a very clear sense of her personality even though we never ‘meet’ her in the flesh so to speak. Enjoy.

      Reply
  15. Sarah

    Hello! *waves* Lovely review Jacqui, and lovely to see you back even if it’s just to pop your head round the door! :)

    Reply
  16. Simon T

    Lovely to have you back (albeit briefly) for the club! And great to read your thoughts on Fitzgerald – it’s had a mixed response this week. I love her, but haven’t read this one yet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! As I was saying to Karen above, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. It’s definitely not her best book, but even a less-than-stellar Fitzgerald feels like a bit of a treat to me. Like you, I am a big fan of her work. She has such a sharp eye for detail, and the various goings on amongst the museum staff are rather hilarious. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
  17. Caroline

    I still need to read her. I have a collection of three books but this one is not in it. It sounds a little less appealing to me than some of the others. The name Untermensch made me laugh. It’s a bit Nazi Germany. Not that that is funny, obviously but to choose the term as a name.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s definitely worth finding the time to give her a try. If The Bookshop is in your collection then you’re in for a real treat – that’s probably my favourite so far although they’re all very good. Either way, I think you’ll enjoy her work – she strikes me as being right up your street.

      Yes, I wondered about her use of the name Untermensch, especially as this is quite a satirical novel. Barbara Pym always makes me laugh with her character names – they often sound rather absurd!

      Reply
  18. Izzy

    Hi Jacqui ! I read this in August 2015 and went on to read Innocence immediately after. I love PF so much. As I have the same edition as you, I just wanted to say a few words about the introduction which was written by Charles Saumarez-Smith. Wondering who he was, I had looked him up on the net and discovered his wonderful blog, which I’ve been following eversince. It features pictures of London, of his travels abroad, of paintings and sculptures (he is a cultural historian and has worked for the Royal Academy, among other things), the odd political commentary (he is a staunch pro-European)…A very interesting man.
    Sorry for being off-topic !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely no need to apologise at all. It’s far from being off-topic especially given his excellent introduction to the Fitzgerald! All in all he sounds like a fascinating chap, and based on his cultural background I can fully understand why the publisher chose him for this particular book. No doubt this chimes with some of his experiences at the Royal Academy and maybe elsewhere. I can just imagine there being a Hawthorne-Mannering type at virtually every traditional museum, manoeuvring their way around the hierarchy behind the scenes.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think Fitzgerald must have had a lot of fun writing this one as it’s quite a romp. She actually wrote it to amuse her late husband who was terminally ill at the time – what a lovely gift for him.

      Reply

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