“Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.” Frances Wingate, much-traveled and middle-aged, a famously successful archaeologist and a brisk brusque blithely fragile divorcée, is the heroine of Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold. On first looking into The Realms of Gold, one sees at once that Miss Drabble, deep-browed and middle-browed, has chosen to rule a wide expanse of private and public life. Frances Wingate is more connected than she would like to be to her family relations: her vice-chancellor father and her birth-controlling mother; her hypersensitive suicidal nephew, Stephen; her professionally armored geologist cousin, David, and her very differently armored cousin, Janet, a challenge in her suburban demureness; and even—and this is the true surprise of the book, as it is the true surprise to Frances herself—her aged great-aunt Connie, who dies alone, starving, in her ruined cottage. The past of Aunt Connie and of her cottage moves Frances as nothing else in her family world or her professional world had ever done, and it moves us too. It is the distant relation who comes closest.
But then Frances has found herself to be all too little related to the man with whom she had for seven years been having an intimate and abrupt relationship: Karel Schmidt, a smoldering pedagogue with a fiery wife misnomed Joy. Frances, with her characteristically arbitrary decisiveness, had suddenly broken off relations with Karel. He said that he would always be there for the asking. And now—as the novel opens—she asks. What, we ask, will be the fate of her postcard? And what will be the fate of those good qualities of hers—her sense of the past or rather of the pasts, her nimble responsiveness to the present, her sense of herself, her quick-witted verbalism—which so often plunge her somehow into neurasthenic weeping and wailing?
This neurasthenic yet generous woman has obscurely made of her realms of gold a waste land. So it is not surprising that T. S. Eliot puts in appearances, spectral and substantial. At one point Frances is talking about funeral pyres with her nephew Stephen:
“A brand from the burning. To Carthage then I came,” said Stephen.
“Who said that?”
“T. S. Eliot. Or St. Augustine, as you prefer.”
The novel itself prefers Eliot, who is seen as a kind of archaeologist: he dug up that fragment of St. Augustine. And then again, Eliot’s own words are in the soil, waiting to glint or clink, as when Frances listens to the minister of culture in Adra: “To hear him talk of tradition and the individual talent was to enter into a world where old labels had meanings.” Including, presumably, the old title-label “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—a presumption which means that there is something odd about Frances’s believing that she couldn’t altogether comprehend the minister because she “came from the wrong culture.” Or again, a stratum lower, there is the Eliot-excavated memento after Stephen’s suicide:
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