Old Filth by Jane Gardam
English writer Jane Gardam’s 12th novel–my first–Old Filth, is the story of both an individual man and a character in history. The opening pages introduce us to Sir Edward Feathers, better known by his nickname “Old Filth.” Gardam explains that this seemingly disparaging moniker stands for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong.” Throughout the remainder of the novel the reader learns in disjointed pieces the events of the man’s life that have shaped him.
The chronological sequence is as follows: Old Filth is born in Malay to Alastair Feathers, a colonial administrator and his wife, who dies within a few days of complications from the birth. Traumatized by his WWI experiences, alcoholism and the loss of his wife, Alastair essentially banishes his son live with a local wet nurse and is subsequently cared for by the woman’s daughter Ada. Four and a half years pass, and as is customary for the “Raj orphans” of the time, Eddie is sent Home, to England, to live with foster parents who are to care for him until he is ready for a boarding school. It is here in England, specifically in Wales, that Eddie experiences the greatest trauma of his life. Though we do not learn of it until the end of the novel, Eddie, the two cousins who accompany him and a third foster child are traumatized by life with the foster mother, Ma Didds. After several years, Eddie is sent to a boarding school and flourishes under the care of the headmaster Sir, and his surrogate family, the Ingoldbys. After a brief stint in the War, working essentially as a sentry for Queen Mary in England, Eddie attends Oxford and becomes a successful lawyer alongside an old friend, Albert Loss, in Hong Kong. Life passes unaccounted for, and we are presented we Old Filth in his old age. His wife, Betty–though she is more friend than lover–has died, as well as his last living friend, Veneering. An amusing note on Veneering is that he serves not only as Old Filth’s friend, but as his greatest enemy as well. The man essentially cuckolded him and served as his wife’s passion when he himself could not offer it. Old Filth reflects on his life and decides to return to his true Home, the Far East. Upon his arrival, fittingly, he dies.
As promised, the end of he novel reveals the great traumatic experience of his life. Alongside his two cousins and the fourth foster child, Cumberledge, he essentially commits murder in allowing Ma Didds to fall down the stairs to her death. This experience, along with the trauma of a loveless childhood, leaves Old Filth barren of many emotions for the remainder of his life. While his experience is unique, one understands that it could indeed be very common for a child raised under the time of the “Raj orphan.” I believe this novel does not serve to necessarily teach its readers a lesson, rather, to introduce them to an experience. I believe the author has succeeded triumphantly in this. While I had trouble at times with the chronology (the constant allusion to the Ma Didds experience grew frustrating at times), overall I found the novel very rewarding and will certainly recommend it to readers who enjoy an intelligent, sophisticated and different reading experience.