I have finished reading Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold for perhaps the tenth time.
Drabble, a brilliant novelist and biographer, has won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize, the James Tait Black Award, he E.M. Forster Award, and the 2011 Golden PEN Award.
How could she not have won the Man Booker prize?
In an interview with the Telegraph in 2011, Drabble said she has not allowed her books to be entered. She added, “The Booker is designed to make people cross with one another. Look what it did to Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. In the mid-eighties, I thought it was getting out of hand and how right I was. That was before my sister won [for Possession in 1990].”
I agree, but I still wish Drabble had won it.
The Realms of Gold is perhaps Drabble’s best book, though I tend to think that about all of her books beginning with The Needle’s Eye in 1972.
The heroine of The Realms of Gold, Frances Wingate, a, beautiful, extroverted, and imaginative archaeologist, travels for her work and doesn’t worry about her four confident children at home with the housekeeper. Frances can be whimsical and reckless, and she makes original connections in her work that others don’t. She discovered the lost city Tizouk when, sitting in an airport, looking at a map, she suddenly knew it was in the Sahara on a Carthaginian trade route. In Drabble’s poetic, beautifully repetitious, long, rolling sentences, she unravels Frances’ thinking processes about Tizouk.
…sitting there, worn out by a two-day dispute with her one-time professor, a man so fixed in his views of classical antiquity that nothing south of Leptis Magna could be taken seriously in his presence, sitting there, idly staring at a map of the Sahara, wondering if there was any possible reason for her sense of certainty about her own arbitrary interpretation of the evidence, wondering if she were not, as her one-time professor had suggested, suffering from womanly intuition, sitting there, gazing at the relief of the mountains, suddenly she knew exactly where to look.”
But at the beginning of this buoyant, ultimately cheerful book, Frances is in her hotel room suffering from depression. The next day she must give a lecture, and, having idly visited the city’s octopus research laboratory, she is thinking about the octopus who lived in a plastic box with holes for its arms. The female octopus is programmed to die after giving birth: what has Frances been programmed for? She wonders. What are middle-aged women supposed to do when they no longer have babies? Her children are fine. She has her work.
Depression passes. It always does. Antidepressants don’t work for Frances. (We learn that this is because she didn’t follow directions, but that is a moot point to her.)
Frances has some non-biological reasons to be depressed. She broke up with her lover, Karel, a professor, adult education teacher, and expert in the history of agriculture of the 18th century. She misses him badly. She even carries a bridge of two of Karel’s false teeth, sometimes in her bosom to “protect her virtue.” He was married, and she was suddenly disturbed by the fact they had only managed to get away for four days away in the years of their relationship. She told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.
Part of this book is almost a romance, because we know that she and Karel will get back together.
But the novel is also a dark exploration of family, heredity, and “the landscape of the soul.” Frances is fascinated by her Ollerenshaw roots, but grateful that her father, a zoologist and college chancellor, got away from Tockley, a flat, ugly city on the outskirts of which his gloomy, uneducated parents ran a produce farm. Frances adored the flat landscape as a child, enjoyed selling her grandparents’ vegetables to people in passing cars, and didn’t mind the unhygienic stinky lavatory. She was especially fascinated by a ditch with newts and weeds. She hopes the ditch inspired her father. But she also sees in the landscape her depression. Even at a generation’s remove, she believed the landscape programmed her brain.
A trip to Tockley, as opposed to her Tizouk (Tockley/Tizouk?), shows her a new, very different landscape. The city, which has new garages and stores and no familiar landmarks, now extends to her grandparents’ farm. The farm has been modernized by a young couple, and is now organic, and the house looks more cheerful. But trash and dirty water fill the ditch. There is a downside to the modernization.
Unbeknownst to Frances, her relative Janet Bird, of whom she has never heard, lives in Tockley. Janet is a miserable housewife, leading a life of emptiness, just as Frances might have predicted of an Ollerenshaw daughter. Janet is the mother of a baby, has no outside interests, is stuck in a housing estate, unable to drive. She took an adult education art class, but was mocked by her teacher basically for the equivalent of coloring inside the lines, and she has not since been interested in anything. Her narrow life with a nasty sarcastic, sexually crippled husband is wretched. She doesn’t know what she’s programmed for.
Janet’s cousin, David Ollerenshaw, who meets Frances at a conference, escaped Tockley. A geologist who travels around the world to find tin, oil, and other earthly riches for corporations, he loves adventure and solitude. He is very like Frances, happy to look down volcanoes, visit earthquake zones, or survive in the desert, and he travels alone in the Sahara for fun. But he is less sociable, needs solitude, and is somehow less healthy than the periodically depressed but outgoing (mildldy manic-depressive?) Frances: he is a product of Tockley, the first generation of his own family to leave.
In the end, sadness, hope, depression, tears, joy, and change commingle as old and new human relationships are redrawn. And the Ollerenshaws come to terms with their history.
There is something profoundly optimistic about Frances, the second generation away from Tockley. And that is probably why we like her so much.