English & EAL

The Golden Age by Joan London

Mark Yin

October 4, 2020

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Contents

1. Summary

2. Historical Context

3. Main Characters

4. Minor Characters

5. Dissecting an A+ Essay using 'The Golden Age'

6. Creative Essay Topic Brainstorm

7. Essay Topics

The Golden Age is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our VCE Text Response Study Guide.

Summary

Even though this hasn’t been one of the more popular choices on the VCE text list, Joan London’s The Golden Age is a personal favourite of mine for a number of reasons. This is a novel about the experiences of children recovering from polio inside a convalescent home in Perth. With a sympathetic and warm approach, London tells the tragic yet brave stories of these children, as well as the stories of their parents and carers.

The novel essentially revolves around Frank Gold, a Hungarian Jew and a war refugee, and London blends his mature voice with the innocence of a coming-of-age narrative, all set against the backdrop of World War II.

As you’re reading the book, watch out for her literary or poetic language, and keep track of the story’s overall mood. These will be important considerations for text study, particularly if you are to write a creative response on this text for your SAC. With this in mind, I’ve included writing exercises throughout this blog post for you to practise writing creatively on this text.

If you are writing analytically on this text, either for your SAC or for your exam, you may still complete the exercises—each one should still be insightful for your writing in some way. Also, feel free to check the video below; it breaks down an analytical prompt for this text.

Historical Context

This novel is set in Perth during the early 1940s, which gives rise to a couple of interesting historical elements all intersecting in the book.

Crucially, the events of the novel take place for the most part while World War II is raging in Europe. This is important for understanding the backstory of the Gold family: they are Hungarian Jews who have escaped their war-torn home of Budapest to seek safety in Australia. In particular, we know that at some stage, Meyer had been taken away to a labour camp, and that Frank had had to hide himself in an attic.

Their Hungarian heritage, however, is something that distances them from other Australians, and they never really get a good chance to settle in, always feeling like they just weren’t on the same wavelength as the locals. In many ways, the story of the Golds is underpinned by tragedy—not only are they war refugees, but young Frank then contracts poliomyelitis (known to us just as polio), which forces the family to reassess all the plans they had for him to settle into an ordinary, Australian life.

However, Frank was far from the only victim of polio at the time—the entire nation was rocked by a wave of polio, with major outbreaks during the 1930s-40s. This was quite a nerve-wracking, and causing great fear for our country and its active, outdoors-y culture. The prospects of death, paralysis and permanent disability were understandably terrifying. About 70,000 people were affected, and almost half of them eventually died as a result. Almost every Australian at the time knew or knew of someone who had polio.

Task: You are Ida, composing a letter to Julia Marai after Frank’s diagnosis. Convey succinctly (in 250 words or less) what you think and how you feel.

Key Themes & Implications

I like to think that a lot of the themes in this book exist in diametric or opposing pairs. For instance, London gives Frank a voice that is wise beyond his years, yet uses it to tell a tender story of first love. She also plays on the paradox that while some characters have become isolated due to the unfortunate events that have befallen them, these very events end up becoming the thing that unite them.

Essentially, London plays with a lot of these thematic tensions, showing us that life isn’t really ever black and white, but there are whole lot of grey areas in every day life.

Central to the novel are ideas of innocence or childhood. These ideas are really explored in the friendship between Frank and Elsa, who are both on the cusp of adolescence. While they are set up as young lovers in the eyes of readers, we know that they are far too young to truly have romantic feelings for each other. In actual fact, their interactions are permeated by a sense of innocence.

However, these interactions are also punctuated by a sense of maturity, a desire for more. This is evident to the extent where nurses are getting hesitant about leaving them alone with each other (even though their parents still trust them entirely). In actual fact, these parents serve as an important point of contrast. Some manage to recapture the magic of youth even as adults—consider Ida reigniting her love for the piano, or Meyer jumping on opportunities to start anew. In this sense, innocence and maturity are a pair of themes that are interestingly not always found where one might expect.

Another key thematic element of the novel is tragedy or adversity, which are relevant to a far wider gamut of characters. Considering the story’s geographical and historical setting, it seems evident that these ideas will play a major role in the story. A particularly poignant example lies in Sullivan, who contracts polio right on the cusp of adulthood, and readers can’t help but feel a sense of loss for what might have been.

However, on the other end of this spectrum is the strength required to cope with their suffering. While Sullivan had his indefatigable sense of humour, other characters have developed different mechanisms to stay strong in the face of adversity. In some cases, you might say that they’ve transcended or risen above their tragedies, and become stronger for it.

Finally, London also tackles the idea of isolation, which can be seen as a consequence of tragedy—characters become isolated because they lose their ability to relate to others, and others feel unable to relate to them. Symbolically, the Golden Age hospital is surrounded by four roads and therefore cut off from the world, almost as if quarantined. However, the solidarity and unity of patients inside becomes a great source of strength—I’ll leave it to you to think about what London was trying to say with this!

Task: Selecting one of the above themes, write a poem from the POV of an imaginary spectator in the novel, outlining how you perceive/experience these themes in other characters. Use all five senses(how you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, and touch/feel it)

Major Characters

I haven’t written too extensively about characters for a range of reasons: on one hand, it’s important for you to form your own interpretations about what they’re like and why they do the things they do, but on the other hand, I wanted to leave you with some key points to consider and/or some essential points about their characters to incorporate into your writing. This will allow you to hopefully feel like you’re capturing them accurately when writing your creatives, but without feeling restricted by an extensive set of traits that you have to invoke.

Frank Gold

  • the central character, he is cerebral, intelligent and mature (which we can tell from his narrative voice, or how he ‘sounds’)
  • he is, however, still very young, wide-eyed, inquisitive in spite of the tragedies which have befallen him (consider how he sees his relationship with Elsa)
  • also significant is the motif of his poetry; not only does it highlight his maturity, but it also acts as a way for him to voice or articulate his feelings and experiences in the hospital—you could try incorporating some poetry in your writing (either original poems or quoted from the novel)

Elsa Briggs

  • another central character who becomes quite attached to Frank (they are the two eldest children in the Golden Age)
  • she is warm, caring and selfless, demonstrating an emotional maturity beyond her years (because of having to bear the metaphorical albatross of polio)
  • a lot of what we know about Elsa comes from Frank’s perspective (though we do get some insight from her own, and some from her mother’s)—how does this shape the way we see her? Consider London’s use of imagery, portraying her as an angelic figure.

Ida & Meyer

  • Frank’s parents, Hungarian Jews, and war refugees who come to Australia to cleanse them of their pasts and to have a fresh start; some of this is purely by circumstance, but there are parts of their past that they willingly and actively eschew e.g. Ida’s piano
  • note that Hungary is a landlocked country in the midst of European hustle and bustle with easy access to other nations/cultures/peoples, but Australia is an island on the other side of the world—consider how this affects their sense of isolation
  • on the other hand, they do form new connections with people here and in their own individual ways; Ida by reclaiming her pianist talents and Meyer by taking up a new job
Task: You are Elsa, Ida, or Meyer and you’ve just discovered Frank’s poem book. What are your thoughts and feelings towards his writing? Consider the context of your chosen character’s own experiences

Minor Characters

I’m sure you’ve heard it by now, but any piece of text-based writing (creative or analytical) can be strengthened by diversifying the range of characters that you write about. Even though you’ve already differentiated yourself from most VCE students by even doing this text at all (very few people choose it, so props to you!), some inclusion of more minor characters might help to distinguish yourself further. I’ve picked some that I think are interesting to talk about, but feel free to experiment with others as well!

Sullivan

  • a young man who contracts a severe strand of polio right on the cusp of adulthood, thereby exemplifying the theme of tragedy—however, his sense of humour remains active in spite of his immobility, so perhaps he not only exemplifies this theme but subverts it as well
  • London poses the complex question of whether or not he’s actually unhappy or defeated as a result of polio; there’s no clear answer, since there’s many ways to interpret his humour (is it a sign of strength or is it a front for inner turmoils expressed through poetry?)
  • in addition to his humour and poetry, his relationship with his family could also be an interesting point of discussion to address some of these questions

Ann Lee

  • a young girl in the hospital who is quite close to Elsa (almost in a sisterly way)—how have they developed this relationship, and how does this relate to the theme of unity/companionship/human connection?
  • notably, she wanted to rehabilitate herself after polio took away her ability to feed the brumbies in her desert town—think about how this might represent strength as well

Julia Marai & Hedwiga

  • Ida’s former piano teacher and her flatmate/partner who live at the top of an apartment block in Budapest; they shelter Frank in their attic under no obligation whatsoever, but purely out of the kindness and selflessness of their hearts
  • again, there’s this subversion of what it means to be isolated: on one hand, their apartment is so cut off from the rest of the world below, and they lead a largely self-sufficient life together, but on the other hand, the fact that they’re together means that they’re not entirely isolated consider the power of human connection in this context as well
Task: Pick a minor character from this list and a character from the above list of major characters, and write about them meeting each other for the first time. Pick two that do not already interact closely within the novel e.g. Elsa meeting Sullivan

I hope this gives you some ideas or starting points about writing creatively on this text!

Download the PDF version of The Golden Age study guide here.

Dissecting an A+ Essay using 'The Golden Age'

Picture this: you’re sitting down at your desk, fumbling your fingers, inspecting the new stationary that you convinced yourself you needed for year 12, resisting the urge to check your phone. Your text response SAC is in two weeks. You’re freaking out because you want, no, need an A+. You decide to write a practice essay for your English teacher. Practice makes perfect, right? You stay up for hours, pouring your heart and soul into this essay. The result? B+. Where did I go wrong?

That’s where I come in! Writing an A+ essay can be really tough without examples and specific advice. Before reading on, make sure you've read our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response so you are up to scratch.

I will be explaining some basic dos and don’ts of writing an essay on The Golden Age, providing a model essay as an example.

The following prompt will be referenced throughout the post;

‘The Golden Age’ shows that everyone needs love and recognition. Discuss.

Planning: the silent killer of A+ essays

I’m sure your teachers have emphasised the importance of planning. In case they haven’t, allow me to reiterate that great planning is compulsory for a great essay. However, flimsy arguments aren’t going to get you an A+. The examiners are looking for complex arguments, providing a variety of perspectives of the themes at hand. From the above prompt, the key word is, ‘discuss’. This means that you should be discussing the prompt, not blindly agreeing with it. Make sure you don’t write anything that wouldn’t sit right with London.

DON’T

Don’t plan out basic arguments that are one-dimensional. This may give you a pass in English, but won’t distinguish you as a top-scoring student.

For example:

  • Paragraph 1: The children at TGA need love and recognition.
  • Paragraph 2: Ida and Meyer need love and recognition
  • Paragraph 3: Sister Penny needs love and recognition.

The above paragraphs merely agree with the statement, but don’t delve into the many aspects of the novel that could contribute to a sophisticated essay.

DO

Do create complex arguments, or paragraphs with a twist! If you can justify your argument and it makes sense, include it in your essay. There are many ways that you could answer this question, but my plan looks like this:

  • Paragraph 1: Frank Gold yearns for mature, adult love, not recognition from onlookers or outsiders
  • Paragraph 2: Ida Gold does not seek recognition from Australia, but love and validation from herself
  • Paragraph 3: Albert requires love from a specific kind of relationship – family, and Sullivan may view love from his father as pity which he rebukes

See the difference?

The introduction: how to start your essay off with a BANG!

Personally, I always struggled with starting an introduction. The examiners will be reading and marking thousands of essays, so if possible, starting your introduction with something other than Joan London’s ‘The Golden Age’… is a great way to make you stand out from the crowd. Having a strong start is essential to pave the way for a clear and concise essay. You could start with a quote/scene from the text! This is not essential, but it’s a great way to mix things up. This is my start:

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the power of love and recognition more than the bond between Albert Sutton and his older sister, Lizzie, in Joan London’s ‘The Golden Age’. Many of London’s characters exhibit suffering that requires compassion and support to heal and grow, to distinguish present from past. However, London explores the perspectives of such characters from different aspects of trauma, and emphasise that love and recognition do not always work to heal and mature. Frank Gold, the novel’s resident “sneaky” boy who adjusts to newfound life in the Golden Age Convalescent Home seeks love as an adult, rather than eliciting sympathy as a supposed victim. Here love and recognition are unsuccessful in amending Frank’s troubles when given from the perspective of an outsider, a judgemental onlooker. In a similar sense, Ida Gold seeks recognition not from Australia, who she views as a ‘backwater’, but validation in herself after having been ousted from her Hungarian identity. London, however, makes sure to emphasise the impact that Sullivan has on Frank Gold’s life. Sullivan, a boy only a few years older than Frank, seems content with his future, with his fate, despite his sacrifice of rugby and conventional life.  There is a lacking sense of urgency for love and recognition in Sullivan’s life, rather, it appears that Sullivan accepts his fate, regardless of his father’s sympathy or support. Thus, London explores a myriad of ways in which love and recognition may or may not heal wounds inflicted upon individuals.

Remember, there are many other ways you could start your essay.

The body paragraphs: To TEEL or not to TEEL?

I’m sure you’ve heard of TEEL countless times since year 7. Topic sentence, evidence, explanation, link. The truth is that these elements are all very important in a body paragraph. However, following a rigid structure will render your essay bland and repetitive. It is also extremely important to note that you should be using evidence from multiple points in the text, and you should be making sure that your paragraphs are directly answering the question. Write what feels natural to you, and most importantly, don’t abuse a thesaurus. If you can’t read your essay without rummaging for a dictionary every second sentence, you should rewrite it.  If vocabulary isn’t your strong point (it definitely isn’t mine!), focus on clean sentence structure and solid arguments. There’s nothing worse than you using a fancy word incorrectly.

DON’T

Don’t overuse your thesaurus in an attempt to sound sophisticated, and don’t use the same structure for every sentence. For example:

Prematurely in the paperback London makes an allusion to Norm White, the denizen horticulturalist of The Golden Age Convalescent Home…

That was an exaggerated example generated by searching for synonyms. As you can see, it sounds silly, and some of the words don’t even make sense. I mean, “denizen horticulturalist”…really?

DO

Do mix up your paragraph structure! If vocabulary is your weak point, focus on clean language.

Here’s mine:

Early in the novel, London makes reference to Norm White, the resident groundskeeper of The Golden Age Convalescent Home. Norm White hands Frank Gold a cigarette, “as if to say a man has the right to smoke in peace”. Here, there is a complete disregard for rule and convention, an idea that London emphasises throughout the text. This feature provides a counter-cultural experience for Frank, pushing him to realise that he is a strong human being rather than a mere victim. This is a clear contrast to the “babyishness” of the home, and is used as evidence of true humanity in an era where society judged upon the unconventional. Frank yearns for a traditional Australian life after his trauma in Hungary; “his own memory…lodged like an attic in the front part of his brain”. Hedwiga and Julia Marai’s caring of him pushed him towards fear and reluctance to trust, yet also pressured him to seek acceptance in a world that ostracises him for his Jewish heritage and polio diagnosis. This here is why Frank desires a mature, adult connection – love that regards him as an equal human being. Frank seeks Elsa’s love and company as she too loathes being reduced to a victim, an object of pity. Frank thereafter uses humour to joke of his wounds; “we Jews have to be on the lookout”. Elsa sees “a look in his eyes that she recognised”, thus their bond enables both characters to heal. London alludes that Frank requires love and recognition not from the perspective of a sorrowful onlooker, rather he longs to be recognised as a mature adult.

To learn more about using the right vocabulary, read 'Why using big words in VCE essays can make you look dumber'.

The conclusion: closing the deal

I firmly believe in short and sharp conclusions. Your body paragraphs should be thoroughly explaining your paragraphs, so don’t include any new information here. A few sentences is enough. Once again, write what feels natural, and what flows well.

DON’T

Don’t drag out your conclusion. Short and concise is the key to finishing well.

DO

Do write a sharp finish! Sentence starters such as, “Ultimately…” or “Thus, London…” are great.

Here’s mine:

Although trauma is often treated with love and compassion, London details different perspectives on this idea. Whilst Frank Gold requires a specific kind of recognition, Ida and Meyer seek validation in themselves and their relationship, whilst Sullivan is at ease with his fate and does not yearn sympathy from his father.


To learn more about A+ essays, you should also have a read of 10 easy English points you're missing out on.

I'll finish off by giving you an exercise: brainstorm and write up a plan for the essay topic shown in the video below. I'd recommend you do this before watching Lisa's brainstorm and plan. That way, you can see which of your ideas overlapped, but also potentially see which ideas you may have missed out on. Good luck!

The Golden Age Essay Topic Brainstorm

[Video Transcript]

The takeaway message for this video will be to utilise minor characters here and there to deepen your argument. London has really developed all her characters to feel three-dimensional and real, so it’s important not to just write about Frank and Elsa when there are so many others worth touching on.

Let's head straight into background information:

Joan London’sThe Golden Age is a novel about children recovering from polio in a convalescent home in Perth. She tells the stories of these various children, their families, and their caretakers, focusing on FrankGold and Elsa Briggs, the young protagonists who are just starting to develop romantic feelings for each other. Though they, and many of the other children, have faced much hardship and misfortune, London tells a story of hope and human connection in times of misery.

On that note, today’s essay topic is:

The Golden Age is primarily a tragic tale of isolation. Discuss.

Let’s break this prompt down and define some keywords. The keywords we’ll be looking at first are isolation and tragic. We’ll be defining them quite briefly, but be sure to think about these in terms of how they relate to the novel. In particular, see if any scenes, passages or characters jump to mind.

Isolation is a state of being alone or away from others and can be associated with a sense of powerlessness or insignificance. Tragic can simply just mean sad, depressing and loaded with sorrow or ‘pathos’, but there are also literary implications to this word: you might’ve done a tragic Shakespeare play and learned this before, but in general, a tragic story centres on a hero who encounters misfortune, and treats their demise in a serious or solemn way. Note that a good essay will discuss both these terms, and will address not only isolation but also the question of whether or not it is treated tragically.

The other important word is ‘primarily’. This word in the prompt suggests that The Golden Age is for the most part about these ideas - for you, that means you should ask yourself how central you think they are, and make a call on whether they are the most central.

Well, it’s definitely true that elements of isolation and separation do exist in The Golden Age, but these themes are not primarily tragic ideas in the novel -London explores the way in which hope can shine through in times of hardship. In fact, the novel overall has a message of kinship and hope, and this would be the primary thematic focus, as well as the main treatment of otherwise tragic ideas. So how might this look in paragraphs?

Paragraph 1: Let’s concede that the novel does evoke sadness through its frequently sombre tone and treatment of isolation

We see this through characters such as Ida and Meyer, who have been cut off from the world in their escape from their war-torn home, and forced to transition from their landlocked Hungary to an island on the other side of the globe. Their struggle to adjust is evoked through symbols - for instance, black cockatoos, which represent a “homely, comforting” omen to locals, sound “melancholy [and] harsh” to Ida. In particular, London’s solemn characterisation of Ida as constantly “frowning”, and as having a “bitter little mouth that usually gripped a cigarette ”works to emphasise her ennui or her dissatisfaction with being cut off from the world. Their homesickness is evoked through this constant longing for home, though sometimes much more literally: Meyer feels that “never again on this earth…would, he feel at home as he once had.”

Similarly, the story of Sullivan Backhouse, confined in an “iron lung” and physically isolated from outside contact, is also primarily tragic. London develops this character and gives him a backstory - he has “just turned eighteen” and had been the “prefect [and] captain of the rowing team.” This gives readers an idea of the life he might have had if not for the tragedy of his condition. Even in spite of his “good-humoured nature”, his poetry belies the pessimism within - his book, morbidly entitled “on my last day on earth”, closes with the line “in the end, we are all orphans.” We can thus see how lonely he must have felt when he tragically passed away.

In this paragraph, we’ve considered three different characters, whereas a lot of people writing on this text might just do a character per paragraph, so this is a good way to really show the examiners that you’ve considered the full extent of what the book offers. Let’s continue this as we move onto…

Paragraph 2: We disagree, however, since the novel includes various other moods and thematic material - in particular, London explores notions of resolve and hope in times of hardship 

Now, the first character that comes to mind would have to be Elsa - London uses particularly powerful imagery, such as her “translucent”, “golden wave” of hair or even her “profile, outlined in light”, to portray her as angelic or elysian. For the children, Elsa evidently represents hope - even in her state of isolation, her “graceful and dignified” demeanour and her quiet acceptance that polio “was part of her” is courageous and worthy of admiration.

Moving onto a minor character who was perhaps inspired by Elsa - the young Ann Lee, who was quite close to Elsa, also has a story which is more inspiring than tragic. When polio first crippled her, she found herself unable to give water to the brumbies in her desert town. As a result, she perseveres, “step after painstaking step” so as to be able to return home and “give a drink to thirsty creatures.” Her compassion and determination to work against her isolation become the focus of her tale.

Paragraph 3: In fact, the novel’s focus is on hope rather than tragedy

A range of other characters demonstrate the power of love and human connection in the face of adversity, and London seems to be focusing on these ideas instead. Plus, it’s not just the children who are brave in the face of tragedy, but ordinary people prove themselves to have the potential for strength and courage. Take Julia Marai and Hedwiga, who hide Frank in their attic during the Nazi invasion of Hungary. Even though their apartment is “on the top” of the block, and isolated in its height, suspended from the world, they become “provider[s]” for Frank. London writes that in difficult times, “kindness and unselfishness were as unexpected, as exhilarating, as genius,” and it’s easy to see how these qualities form a counterpoint to the tragedies that permeate the novel, allowing hope to shine through. 

And that’s the end of the essay! Being able to explore minor characters like we did here is a really good way to show examiners that you have a deeper understanding of a text, that you’ve considered it beyond just the main characters on the surface. The Golden Age is a really great one for this because London has done so much with her cast.

Essay topics

1. “Being close made them stronger.” In The Golden Age, adversities are tempered by camaraderie. Do you agree?

2. Despite the grim context, The Golden Age highlights and celebrates the potential of life. Discuss.

3. Memories of past successes and failures have significant lingering effects on characters in The Golden Age. Is this an accurate assessment?

4. “[I would be] a fox, following a Palomino.” How do animals such as these contribute symbolically to The Golden Age?

5. It is largely loneliness which defines the struggles of the children in The Golden Age. Discuss.

6. In what ways is The Golden Age a novel of displacement?

7. Fear of the unknown is something which permeates The Golden Age. Is this true?

8. What is the role of family in Joan London’s The Golden Age?

9. Isolation in The Golden Age exists in many oppressive forms. Discuss.

10. Throughout The Golden Age, London draws attention to beauty rather than to suffering. Discuss.

11. In spite of their youth, it is the children of The Golden Age who understand best what it means to be an individual in the world. Do you agree?

12. How do characters from The Golden Age learn, grow and mature as the novel takes its course?

13. Due to the range of different onset stories, each of the children and their families in The Golden Age face a different struggle with their identity. Discuss.

14. “Home. She hadn’t called Hungary that for years.” In spite of all their struggle, the Golds never truly feel any sense of belonging in Australia. To what extent do you agree?

15. Explore the factors which drive Joan London’s characters to persevere.

Resources

The Ultimate guide to VCE Text Response

How To Write A Killer Text Response Study Guide

How to embed quotes in your essay like a boss

How to turn your Text Response essays from average to A+

5 Tips for a mic drop worthy essay conclusion


Download the PDF version of The Golden Age study guide

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