Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing: Reality vs. Romance in Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold

Drabble, Margaret. The Realms of Gold. New York: Popular Library, 1975.

Margaret Drabble’s novel The Realms of Gold raises the most frustrating questions for my self-actualization study: Can we self-actualize while participating in a long-standing, physical, loving partnership. But is that the same as participating in a romance with all of its fantasy, flirtations, and frivolity? Think Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City. Or must we choose between falling in love and self-actualizing?

Let me briefly review what I consider to be the three characteristics of self-actualizers as gleaned from my reading of Abraham Maslow:

1. self-knowledge and self-acceptance;

2. rebellion against unhealthy acculturation; and

3. committing to something/one beyond one’s self.

Fulfilling these criteria requires balancing the time we devote to living the examined life, rebelling against the unexamined life, and improving our world through relationships. The Realms of Gold explores the tension between loving another—as lover, wife or mother—and loving yourself—as a follower of one’s passions. When we first meet Frances, she projects herself as a woman operating at the height of her career, having divorced her husband, disconnected from her lover, and traveled apart from her five children to attend a conference in some remote African town. Eating voraciously, drinking even more, socializing heartily, and networking skillfully, Frances is aware of exactly how talented yet lucky she is.

From this lofty perch, she quickly begins to sway. As we’d expect, the roles of being an archaeologist, an ex-wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a colleague, and a lover conflict and, in Frances’ case, trying to excel at all of those roles depresses her. She laments: Why, oh why, did she send Karel—the love of her life—away? After all, Karel (though married and intent to remain married) was obsessed with Frances. Frances, though divorced, had relished his obsession to the extent that she voluntarily limited her social and professional associations and interactions. Unlike most romances, which become boring because the people are dull to begin with, their romance flourished—despite Karel’s limited availability. So what went wrong for France and inspire her to reject him? Is she spoiled? Or is she rebelling against an unhealthy relationship as all self-actualizers must do. Mulling over the past six months since the break-up, Frances settles on the latter reason: her self-actualization had suffered because she had abdicated control of her life—refusing friends and career opportunities. Without these venues, she loses too much control over her life and in its place, depression seizes its own control.

But there is more than the failure of romance that contributes to Frances’ depression. According to the novel, all human understanding requires excavating the past. We are all (to some extent) “to the manor born,” products of our landscapes, doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes, and programmed to carry on our family’s temperaments. As an archeologist, Frances returns to the origins of her first marriage. Like Janet Bird, her second cousin, Frances knew she married the wrong man for the wrong reasons. Readers will find no illusions of romance in this novel’s first marriages. These blushing brides have a bad feeling at the altar, stemming from a social compulsion to marry, which leads to a poor choice of mate. Boredom quickly sets in, followed by tension, hostility, and violence. The reality of hostile marriages replaces the typical cinematic view of romance. Even Karel, for all his saintliness, regularly beats his wife, who, according to our narrator provokes him into a physical fight every time. The novel, it seems, approves. At least it does not disapprove. Amidst this violence, wives’ and husbands’ hearts harden. Isolated, raising children, counting coins, tolerating inexpert sex partners, young wives wish that their mothers had warned them before they’d married and reluctantly seek help from their clergymen and doctors, who spew Stoic platitudes. No wonder their thoughts turn violent. Without a husband’s love and support, a wife becomes insecure, bitter, mean-spirited, and grasping. She becomes a type of petty woman, much like those Moliere mocks, like the one Janet Bird is likely to become. Such unloved wives pathetically attempt to salvage control and esteem by competing with other unloved wives in the arena of illusive domestic perfection. Amidst this boredom and violence, the romance fantasy has been replaced with the dream of rejecting the unloved from one’s bed and sleeping alone. Solitude becomes the lure of divorce. Such are the dreams of these unloved wives.

Motherhood breeds its own set of disappointments and hostilities. We recall from the novel’s beginning that the female octopus invariably dies after giving birth. In the human species, full-term and postpartum mothers are labeled moody at best and hysterical at worst. When the babies arrive, mothers (and fathers like Stephen) become consumed with anxiety over the possibilities of sicknesses, accidents, and arrested developments. Frances’ mother’s solution is planned parenthood. She spews sterile views about sex while flirting with Frances’ beaus. Unable to act her age, her mother suffers her new role of being a great-grandmother as a stigma. Frances speculates that her mother secretly abhors sex and wonders if frigidity and gynecology is not a particularly dangerous combination for a feminist. It’s hard to argue with that. As a young woman Frances parroted her mother’s predatory nature until she saw herself as distorted version of her mother’s coquettishness. Rejecting her mother’s behavior and views, Frances comes to believe in single-parenthood. For her, women can love either a man or their children. But not both. What she seems to assume is that being in love with a man is like having another child: he affords her no reciprocity and assistance. And without a man’s love and support (which this novel illustrates is unlikely), a woman can either serve the role of good wife or good mother. Otherwise, she is a “goodenoughmother.” Frances recalls Bernard Malinowski’s theories of families, which run counter to British practices of her day. Worst of all for Frances is the parent who sacrifices for the children because, ironically, the children will grow independent very fast and disconnect from their needy parents.

With marriage and parenting being so problematic, it’s no wonder that the novel wonders who’s to blame. Focusing so extensively on whether we are merely culturally constructed and/or independently charged, The Realms of Gold wonders if we are only projections of our past patterns and present stereotypes. For Frances, the past imposes family tendencies toward depression and suicides. Considering that, it is interesting that she pursues a career in archeology. Does she hope to restore a more pleasant buried happy family memory? If so, archeology fails her. She finds no restorative for her depression while rediscovering an African city or lecturing about tribal burial rituals. However, Frances has developed some successful coping mechanisms for her depression amidst her family members’ depressions. One of her strategies involves activity. Unlike Janet, who accepts the criticism of her male art teacher and allows her own creativity to be stifled, Frances keeps herself whirlwind busy—traveling, lecturing, digging up stuff, rediscovering cities, eating, drinking, and conversing. Although she claims to have become a self-imposed recluse during her affair with Karel, this is not the Frances we ever see. We witness a Frances, who among her colleagues, is toasting, swimming, joking, and adventuring with the most energetic of the group. She is an accomplished flirt, like her mother, but unlike her mother, knows when to quit, reigning herself in before she’s damaged her professional retribution. Clingy, horny men pose no real threat to her, so adept is she at channeling their unwelcome attention to a more receptive female candidate. Without guilt, she leaves her children with her ex and his wife. Although Karel holds this against her (and likely, others judged her a negligent mother), why shouldn’t she leave the children with their father? (Do we see any of the fathers at this African conference with their children in tow? Do we hear any judgments of them?) In addition to activity, another strategy she uses to ward off depression is to accept its cyclic nature. This is a huge self-awareness and self-acceptance step for Frances’ self-actualization. It will pass, she reassures herself. In addition, Frances has learned to harness her neurosis. For example her vanity, she realizes, will eventually offset her boredom. Participating in existential questioning regarding the order/disorder of the universe with her father and regarding justice issues with Stephen, Frances genuinely struggles with the meaning of life while suspecting that it just human nature to be dissatisfied. But unlike her father—who, after ascending beyond his family’s social class eventually succumbs to depression—and unlike her brother—who dedicates himself to “the end of things,” ultimately committing suicide and infanticide—Frances musters some “acts of faith” and accepts that all human effort is banal. This turns out to be a good thing. For Frances, like all self-actualizers, there must be a balance between on the one hand looking our for yourself—pursuing your happiness, hardening your heart against unhealthy influences and practices, and minding your own business even if, like Karel, that involves disassociating yourself from unhealthy relationships, and on the other hand, being socially responsible and being grateful that you are one of the lucky ones in this world. Frances, despite her wallowing in rejected love, aching tooth, dysfunctional family relationships, and insecure body image, knows that she is both talented and fortunate. She appreciates that she lives more happily than the young wives stifled by their inept husbands and the adults she knows who still compete for their parents’ attention. The stone she feels in her chest, which she finally identifies as her boredom and desire to escape to the past, dissolves as she accepts that every woman needs a man and every man needs a woman.

She needs Karel and Karel needs her. And now we’re back to my self-actualization dilemma involving the place of romance. Or are we? Far removed from any “Reader, I married him” ending, Drabble reunites Karel and Frances without any romance—no fantasy, flirtatiousness, or frivolity. Anticipating their reunion from the beginning, readers may be disappointed that Karel can barely walk and talk—so sick is he. He doesn’t look good and probably smells worse. Drabble not only removes all romantic trappings but also, intrudes on the couple’s intimacy after having withstood a long hiatus and a series of misunderstandings as Karel returns with a companion. David, Frances’ second cousin, has escorted the withering Karel back from Africa where he has flown after finally receiving Frances’ vague apology. Unfortunately, she has just departed for home. Someone’s been reading her Dickens. With David in tow and Karel out of commission, readers must become satisfied with an unromantic ending. In this same realistic vein, Karel and Frances see each others’ foibles and their own, more clearly. Karel, for his part, comes to terms with his neediness and attempts to play God—trying to appease everyone, including a wife who once divorced pursues life as a lesbian. Frances, for her part, stops scoffing at the simple life and acknowledges that the simple life brings happiness—a nice home with nice people acting hospitably. Lest that sound banal, Frances suspects that the hostess whom she admires has the power to give sex and get exactly what she wants. She is no June Cleaver.

The novel ends with Karel and his children living with Frances and her children in a simple country cottage inherited by her father after his sister starved to death and bought by France. No romantic acquisition there. Reminding us of Frances’ wisdom tooth decay, Karel’s lost bridge hidden in Frances’ bra, and Janet’s baby’s teething, Karel loses another tooth. Again, no romance. The couple receives the most unassuming of wedding gifts from David—a “pale-yellow [yellow dominates the novel, as the title would suggest] silica glass that he had picked up himself n the dessert; scooped, pitted, smoothly irregular, carved and weathered by the desert wind, apparently translucent but finally opaque.” Our narrator proclaims this to be “an appropriate gift” (348). Again, Drabble goes out of her way to eschew a fantasy ending. In fact, our narrator twice invites us to challenge the ending: “So there you are. Invent a more suitable ending if you can” followed by “[s]he will not care: she is not listening. A happy ending, you may say” (246-247). Not just Frances this time, but both she and Karel minimize their professional responsibilities and cobble their family commitments with their couple commitments. Gone is Frances’ assertion that it’s either marriage or parenting.

What exactly has transformed her conviction that being a wife impairs being a mother? Is it that she’s with a man she loves who loves her? “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing”? Is it that they’ve both lowered their expectations, detouring from romance toward social responsibility and simple living? Have they matured enough to discover that the lucky living owe the dead their attempts to salvage life’s moments? Reflecting upon Stephen’s suicide and infanticide, Frances ponders: “[I]f one can salvage one moment from the sentence of death let us do so, let us catch at it, for we owe it to the dead, to the others, and it is all the living and the lucky can do for the dead, all they can do, given the chance, is to rejoice: overcome with joy she lay there, with joy she lay awake and thought of the gold baroque of Prague, and Kafka the mad Jew, and of those perilous gravestones, gravestones, her profession, her trade, her living, on account of which (account, account) she lay her with Karel in this double bed” (345).

Many years after this epiphany, Frances is gazing into a quartz at David’s apartment and notes that “it was dense and translucent within, streaked by refraction, like a petrified forest.” Lest you miss the novel’s meaning, our narrator explains: “Human nature is truly impenetrable, she said to herself” (348). Seeing David’s pied-à-terre for the first time becomes “one of the biggest surprises of Frances’ life.” Frances is surprised that this is no “shabby neglected hovel or bedsitter” (348). Just as she has misprisioned the field clearers and stereotyped the Janets of this world, Frances misjudges David’s private life. But Karel is not surprised at all, which is the novel’s last line. It seems that in the final analysis, they make a comfortable and complimentary pair. Human nature may be “impenetrable” but that’s all the more reason that we need our soul mates to keep our Othering in check and our minds open to surprises.

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