The Golden Child (novel)

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The Golden Child
Golden Child, Penelope Fitzgerald, cover.jpg
Cover to first edition hardback
AuthorPenelope Fitzgerald
CountryUnited Kingdom
Published1977 (Gerald Duckworth and Company)
Media typePrint (Hardback)

The Golden Child is a novel by British author Penelope Fitzgerald. It offers a satirical version of the King Tut exhibition at the British Museum in 1972, and also pokes fun at museum politics, academic scholars, and Cold War spying.


Fitzgerald wrote the novel to amuse her husband, who was terminally ill. She was inspired by her two visits to the King Tut exhibit, and the incredibly poor museum-goer experience she underwent. The original manuscript was much longer, with chapters on the extended cover-up the Museum, with Government connivance, engages in. They were cut by the publisher.[1]

The publisher also wanted Fitzgerald to write more Professor Untermensch novels. She originally started the drafts of two such novels,[2] but in the end thought it best not to be typecast.[3]

Character summary[edit]

The Golden Child
The gold-plated child-king Garamantian mummy, buried circa 500 BC with golden treasures, the heart of the exhibit. There's a Curse associated with him.
Sir William Livingstone Simpkin
He discovered the Golden Child and his crypt full of treasures in 1913, now employed by the Museum in an "undefined" capacity, prepared to leave his fortune to the Museum's Director discretion.
Sir John Allison
The Director of the Museum, a Kenneth Clark-like figure,[4] specialist in French porcelain, silverware, and furniture.
Marcus Hawthorne-Mannering
The Keeper of Funerary Art, and responsible for the Exhibition of the Golden Child.
Warren Smith
A junior Exhibition Officer, he knows some Russian, separated from his wife Haggie.
Professor Heinrich Untermensch
A German expert on the Garamantians.
Doctor Tite-Live Rochegrosse-Bergson
A French expert on something, but it is not clear what. A parody of Barthes, Derrida, and Lévi-Strauss.[4]
Professor Cyril Ivanovitch Semyonov
A Russian expert on the Garamantians, unable to come.
Jones Jones
Museum official, mostly attends to Sir William's needs.
Len Coker
Staff member, Conservation and Technical Services Department.
Miss Dousha Vartarian
Secretary to Sir William.
Miss Rank
Secretary to Sir John.

Plot summary[edit]

In January 1973, London, the Museum is exhibiting, for the first time anywhere, the golden Garamantian treasures, including the Golden Child. Crowds, especially of schoolchildren, queue for hours for a brief sight under poor lighting. Sir William takes no interest in the exhibit.

Running an errand for Sir William late at night — the return of a clay tablet — Smith is strangled, but left alive, by someone using string from the Ball of Golden Twine. When suspicion surfaces concerning the authenticity of some of the exhibits, the Museum dispatches Smith, with the Golden Doll, to Moscow to get Semyonov's opinion. It is expected no one will be suspicious of Smith because of his low position. Untermensch realizes the exact opposite will be true with the Soviets, that they will assume he is of course a spy, so he tags along and shadows Smith. After two days of failing to make contact with Semyonov, Smith learns the truth: there is no Semyonov. The Soviets, thinking to impress upon the British they know what game the British are playing, allow Smith and Untermensch (assumed by the Soviets, as Untermensch intended, to be an internal spy on Smith) to view the real Garamantian treasure.

Smith, demoralized, returns. He is detained briefly and without much explanation by someone from the Ministry of Defence and someone from Special Branch. He invokes Sir William, whom he expects will clarify his trip, only to learn Sir William is dead. His body was found between two shelves in a compact storage unit. During their questioning of staff, Jones turns up dead, fallen from five stories up.

Coker, Smith and Untermensch solve the crime by realizing the clay tablet was also a fake, and decoding the message from Sir William using Garamantian hieroglyphics to give a rebus that reveals he had changed his will in Sir John's disfavour. Confronted and trapped, Sir John commits a bit of mayhem with the exhibit, then suicide. The three hide Sir John's body in a coffin, and quickly prepare a hasty repair job with some new fakes replacing the damaged fakes, in time for the night showing.


A muddle of violence and intrigue that I wouldn't have missed for the world.

— Henri C. Veit, Library Journal[5]

Critical review[edit]

The novel has a chapter of its own in Peter Wolfe Understanding Penelope Fitzgerald[6] and Hermione Lee Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life[7]


  1. ^ Lee 2014, p. 240.
  2. ^ Lee 2014, p. 246.
  3. ^ Fitzgerald, Penelope (September 24, 1994). "Second Thoughts: Art critic without a clue: Penelope Fitzgerald on the brush with crime that made her decide to go straight". The Independent: Books 27.
  4. ^ a b Lee 2014, p. 238.
  5. ^ Veit, Henri C. (1979-04-01). "The Golden Child". Library Journal. 104 (7): 850.
  6. ^ Wolfe 2004, pp. 65–92.
  7. ^ Lee 2014, pp. 235–48.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lee, Hermione (2014). "Enigmas". Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Wolfe, Peter (2004). "The Great Museum Sideshow". Understanding Penelope Fitzgerald. University of South Carolina Press.