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Penelope Fitzgerald: The Golden Child

The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald

“[Lorna Sage’s] critical sensors were tuned by days and nights and years of continual, voracious, scrupulously fine reading: at her memorial service in April 2001, Victor Sage, her first husband, recalled with dry wit marathon sessions during which Lorna would, for example, ‘do Scott’, that is, read the entire oeuvre of Sir Walter Scott, one book after another, including titles long forgotten.”
from Marina Warner’s introduction to ‘Moments of Truth’ by Lorna Sage

When I decided to read/re-read all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books this year, I truly thought that I could be like Lorna Sage. Well, Lorna Sage, in focus if not sensitivity. Fitzgerald’s oeuvre is relatively small: nine novels, three biographies and a book of short stories, plus her collected letters and a volume of selected writings. Her novels are slim. I thought it would be easy enough to read them one after another. But here we are at the start of May and I have only managed one.

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I had a number of false starts with Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child. I put the blame entirely on myself. Fitzgerald demands an intensity of focus, a concentration, that I seemed unable to give. Her writing is often described as ‘cryptic’; her style is compact, subtle, often comic but always with a hint of the tragic. Hermione Lee writes, in the introduction to her wonderful biography of Fitzgerald, ‘She likes to exercise her wit, and she likes her readers to have their wits about them.’ And so it was — witless reader — that I found myself reading Chapter 1 three times before I’d followed it well enough to go on to Chapter 2.

The Golden Child is a light comic thriller, set in an un-named London museum, instantly recognisable as The British Museum. When the ‘Golden Child’ exhibit arrives from the African country of Garamantia the public queue heroically for hours in the freezing cold to glimpse the Treasure. Meanwhile the staff of the museum manoeuvre through its hierarchical bureaucracy,

“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.”

The plot creaks in places, but intrigue, murder and the question of authenticity lie ahead. The Golden Child was published in 1977, the same year as Fitzgerald’s biography of her father and three uncles, The Knox Brothers. She said that she wrote it as a distraction for her husband, Desmond, while he was dying of cancer. As Hermione Lee astutely points out, it was probably written just as much as a distraction for Penelope herself.

It’s an entertaining book, but not a book that I would particularly recommend on its own strengths. But it’s so interesting, with Hermione Lee’s help, to pick out the themes that will recur in Fitzgerald’s work: the first of her ‘muddled, broke, well-meaning male characters’; her interest, always, in the failures and lost causes of life; the package holiday to Russia that she took in 1975 & uses here and will revisit in The Beginning of Spring.

I’ll leave the last word on The Golden Child to Penelope Fitzgerald herself. Here she is in a letter to Richard Garnett written in September 1977 (as quoted in Lee’s biography):

“I thought quite well of the book at first but now it’s almost unintelligible, it was probably an improvement when the last chapters got lost, but then 4 characters & thousands of words had to be cut to save paper, then the artwork got lost (by the printers this time) so we had to use my roughs and it looks pretty bad, but there you are, it doesn’t matter, no-one will notice, and Colin [her publisher, Colin Haycraft] works so hard, I wouldn’t be surprised to find him, sitting in the Old Piano Factory with a bottle of whisky doing all the packing and dispatch himself…”

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