Jane Gardam’s Old Filth

During Britain’s most boastful period, when the sun never set on her Empire, many soldiers, diplomats and dignitaries working abroad sent their young children home to England, to be raised by relatives. Rudyard Kipling was one of these “Raj Orphans,” and it was, in part, reading about his life that inspired the British novelist Jane Gardam to write Old Filth, a fictional biography of one of these children. Edward Feathers loses his mother, shortly after his birth, to puerperal fever, and his father, a former soldier of some valour, prefers to drink and shirk his paternal duty, so before he can turn five years old or even learn English, he is shipped from Malaysia, the land of his birth, to a Britain on the brink of World War II.

When we first meet Edward, however, he is not Eddie Feathers, or “Eddie Fevers,” as his boyhood friends call him, but Filth, or Old Filth, a retired judge and former barrister who spent most of his working life “in the Orient.” In truth, “Filth” really should be spelled F.I.L.T.H., as it is an acronym (apparently of his own invention): “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Filth and his wife Betty decide to return to England for their retirement, and there is some suggestion that the end of the British Empire, and the privileged place it afforded them in China, plays a major role in this decision:

Neither Filth nor Betty cared for the unknown and already five years before they left, English was not being spoken much in Hong Kong shops and hotels and, when it was heard, it was being spoken less well. Many familiar English and Chinese had disappeared to London or Seattle or Toronto, and many children had vanished to foreign boarding schools.

And so they retire to a house in the Donheads, on the Dorset-Wiltshire border, until Betty’s sudden death upsets his world: “His life exploded. He became more ponderous. He began, at first slowly, to flick open shutters on the past that he had, as a sensible man with sensible and learned friends (he was a QC and had been a judge), kept clamped down.” Her death destabilizes Filth, and Gardam makes the narrative cleverly reflect that by interweaving memories from the past with the narration of the present. There are a great many things that Filth has repressed, that have been expunged from his mind’s record of his life, and Gardam reveals these memories to us only gradually, even as her present-day narrative drops frequent allusions to them. The result is a complex, layered narrative that cannot simply be understood in one direction.

At the center of this narrative structure is Old Filth himself, whose consciousness dominates the novel. It takes a particularly compelling character to hold a reader’s interest through his entire lifetime, from youth into senescence, and Gardam’s protagonist fits this bill marvellously. As an old man, he’s an anachronism in 21st century Britain, someone who is bothered by the “overfamiliarity” of waiters, but Gardam does not merely play Filth’s fustiness for laughs; very often, the humour conceals a pointed criticism of the modern world. For example, in a conversation with Claire, a cousin he has had little contact with for years, who is attempting to describe her children to Filth, we get this witty example of Gardam’s brilliance with dialogue:

“Oliver is my younger son. Your second cousin twice removed, or something of that sort. He has your eyes, and your height but he’s beginning to run to fat. He’s almost as clever and as handsome as you were.” (And I hope you’ve left him some money, she thought.)
“Oh,” said Filth, unconvincingly. “Yes, yes. Of course. A nice little chap. I remember.”
“You haven’t ever met him. He’s nearly forty.”
“Oh. Yes. I see. Betty and I were hopeless at all that.
“All what?”
“Yes. You were ahead of your time. Genealogy’s over. It’s a wise child now all right that knows its own father. You know, Teddy, the withering of the family tree is one of the saddest things ever. Who else can you turn to when you’re old and sick without having to feel grateful?”

I think, within its context, this little snippet of dialogue demonstrates real mastery on Gardam’s part. There is, of course, Filth’s humiliating obliviousness about his own family – very much in character – and Claire’s own self-interested hope that her children will be written in to Filth’s will, but there’s also that word, “genealogy.” Of course a man without children, who did not know his own parents, would seek to reduce his ignorance of his family to a hopelessness about “genealogy,” the least adequate word possible to encompass the wide range of feelings, positive and negative, that families invoke in us. And Claire, either out of mischievousness or playfulness or a genuine desire to push back against this bleak view of families, turns their personal conversation outward, into a criticism of the contemporary moment and “the withering of the family tree,” but the question she asks – ostensibly of the abstract men and women she conjures – is the vital question for Filth, the one that so shakes him in the wake of his wife’s death: who will take care of me? Where do I belong?

This is a deceptively ambitious book, commenting not only on a Filth’s life but on the history of England in the 20th century, with an equal concern for the future of man and country, and executed with consummate skill and searing sympathy. One of the critics quoted on my jacket rightly describes Filth as a “Dickensian” character, but the unstated corollary deserves to be said: Jane Gardam is a Dickensian writer.