To be honest I have never read anything by Jane Gardam before, and it was only because this was my local reading group choice that I have read this book; but I am so glad I have. Inspired by and partly based on the early years and experiences of Rudyard Kipling, this is a tale of 'Raj Orphans'. In such classes as History you discuss the British Empire, its pros and cons, etc., but what always seems to be forgotten is the story of the children of those who lived in the territories ruled by Empire.
This story centres on Sir Edward Feathers, and his life. Born in Malay his mother dies a few days later, and his father, shell shocked from the First World War, work driven, and a drunkard does what a lot of others did, and sends Edward to England when he is only a few years old. Brought up by natives Edward at a very young age is sent packing, to live with foster parents, and to start boarding school when he is old enough. As we start this book Feathers, or 'Old Filth' is an octogenarian and has just lost his wife, but seamlessly going back and forth through time, we get some glimpses into his life.
This tragicomic tale is something that draws you in also immediately, and keeps you captivated to the end. Feathers, as with many other 'Raj Orphans' are really left with no immediate family and in a strange country, obviously this in itself is a major episode in a child's life, but as we read further into this story we see that this wasn't the only psychological trauma that Feathers has to undergo.
Being now made into an Englishman of course he is taught to a certain extent about doing his duty, keeping a stiff upper lip, and keeping quiet about certain things, all of which cause problems for him. This is really an engrossing novel that is well worth reading, which will have you laughing at one moment, and then pulling on your heart strings at the next, something that is quite rare these days. I can't wait to discuss this at my next reading group meeting, as it is sure to lead to a very thoughtful discussion.
on 18 September 2005
What marvelous characters! This book opens a whole world--the world of the Raj Orphans, those sent back to Britain from the farflung Empire between the two wars--and makes it come alive through the complex character of Edward Feathers, Old Filth. As he moves in and out of time, his experiences bring to the reader not only magically historical moments but characters so beautifully drawn their equals are rarely seen in modern fiction. From his best friend at school to the "Chinese dwarf" with whom he sails back East as a teenager to his mad cousin Babs, the cast of Old Filth's life turns out to be rich and quirky and not at all what many of his admirers might have guessed as they describe him as someone to whom "nothing happened."
Don’t be put off by the horrid title or by the fact that the main character, whose real name is Sir Edward Feathers, is frequently referred to as Filth, even by his loving wife: the nickname of this distinguished lawyer who had made his career in the Far East, stood for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Otherwise no name could be less appropriate for this old man who is described as “spectacularly clean” and whose kaleidoscopic life story, in England and the Far East, this is. It would be a spoiler if I described it or the gaps in the story which the author leaves to our imagination to fill in.
The book and the characters in it are quirky, funny, sad, and touching; the touches of period flavour (ca. 1923 to 2002 - though there seems to be an error on the very last page) are spot-on; and Jane Gardam’ style is idiosyncratic, often staccato, but a pleasure to read. Her similes or descriptions are never hackneyed, never forced, but always fresh and arresting. I found the novel a real treat.
on 6 June 2005
Jane Gardam's novel is very funny, very sad and very clever. Using the style and techniques of a detective thriller the shallowness and sadness of the life of Edward Fevvers -- distinguished advocate, judge and pillar of the Hong Kong Bar but equally 'Raj orphan', unloved youth, unloved husband and unhappy old man -- is laid bare. Through clever but unfussy writing, excellent pacing and narrative timing, the reader is drawn completely into wanting to discover the secret of Fevvers' outlook on his world. Hinted at throughout the story, the dark episode that lies at the heart of the man's conduct and attitudes is only revealed at the conclusion.
Although the final line is devastatingly sad, overall the book is extremely entertaining -- full of sly jokes, clever insights and vivid characters.
There's a lot to like about this novel. The writing is very fresh, and Gardam's ability to get into the heads of her characters in such a way as to give us a sense of their distinctness is impressive. Mainly, the head we're inside is that of Old Filth himself (Sir Edward Feathers, distinguished lawyer and judge), but for short sequences we're given access to the consciousness of his wife Betty and his cousin Claire -- and even more briefly to that of Claire's son and his partner, who represent the younger generation, as opposed to Filth, who is about 80 in the "present" of the novel. We go back and forth in time as Filth remembers aspects of his past. Some readers find the time-shifts confusing, but I have to say that they were perfectly clear to me.
Filth is a "Raj orphan," one of many children who were sent "home" from the East while their parents continued on there, doing the work of Empire in its dying days. They were sent to relatives or foster homes, with the understanding that at an appropriate age they would begin and continue to be educated at boarding schools (often their fathers' old schools) and eventually Oxford or Cambridge. Filth's mother had died two days after he was born, and his father basically ignores him for the three years he is in Malaya before being sent home. He becomes attached to a young Malayan girl, speaks her language long before he learns English, and so is especially uprooted when his father decides to send him home. Ostensibly his father's two sisters are looking out for his welfare, but in fact they allow him and two girl cousins to be boarded out to a foster family, and his experience with that family is traumatic, until he is rescued by his father's old headmaster, "Sir," and taken away to school, where he befriends a young scion of the Ingoldby family, members of which are important in his growing-up. This growing up takes place in the years between the First and Second World Wars -- so the older generation, like Filth's father and Pat Ingoldby's, is scarred by WW1, meanwhile the prospect of another war looms on the horizon for Filth's generation, and we see how that plays out for Filth and others.
The narrative of these events is not presented in simple chronological sequence -- Filth at 80 ( around 2004?) remembers them as certain events in the "present" suggest themselves. And (without giving too much away) the reader is thus given a chance to consider whether this successful and rather eccentric man has his own demons that stem from his being, in effect, deserted by his family. In addition to that kind of question, Gardam makes us aware of the ravages of age -- Filth is not contemplating his past with serene disregard for his own infirmities and circumstances, and my favorite section of the book is the one in which Filth, three weeks after his wife's sudden death, decides to drive from his home in the south of England to visit his cousin Babs who lives up north, on Teesside. The description of the drive of a very old man who has rarely if ever driven on the motorway and who is still stunned, though he hardly acknowledges it, by his wife's death is full of both humor and pathos. The visit to Babs, who is "losing it," is effective too, and his journey back home is so badly navigated that he ends up dropping in on his other cousin, Claire -- all that for me is the dramatic heart of the novel. The account of Filth's wartime service -- he is detailed to help protect the Queen Mother (then Mary, widow of George V) -- is funny and charming, even if it doesn't involve us to the extent that the great drive north and its aftermath do.
There are some things hanging, though -- unexplained and taken for granted. First, no attention is paid to Filth's intellectual prowess. We're told about it, bit it is never shown, and nothing we see makes it believable. Second, we get a sense of the texture of the later stages of Filth's marriage, but it is not at all clear why it is as sexless as it is or why he dismisses the idea of a couple sharing a bed as "bourgeois." We see nothing of his courtship and early life with Betty, but we see enough to know that prior to that Filth seems to have been interested in sex and perfectly capable, after an initial unfortunate encounter, of initiating a sexual relationship. Also missing, except in allusion, is the whole distinguished legal career that has made him something of a legend in his own time. Are we to believe that all of these things -- his intellectual interests, sex, the Law -- have ceased to matter as his 80-year-old mind homes in on experiences of pain and loss? Are we to see him still as not really grown-up -- a stranger's (and strange) child, even in the 21st Century? Is he looking for a maternal figure -- someone to take the place of the Malay girl who was the first mother he knew? Was Betty more mother than wife -- and why couldn't she be both? The character comes before us vividly in the confusions of his aging, but it's hard to believe that there's not more in his consciousness.
But -- to end on a positive note -- there is not a cliche or stereotype in sight, the writing is fresh, and the dramatic scenes are vividly imagined. The way in which Gardam blends her third-person narration with free indirect access to the interior lives of the characters is masterly.
on 23 January 2014
I very much enjoyed this novel, which described several interesting and amusing characters, including the eponymous main character, Old Filth himself.I like the way in which the author shows Old Filth's personality (and some of the other characters') being influenced by his childhood experiences.
There are some eye-opening descriptions of the life of British ex-pats in the colonies which ring true.(Except that the mother tongue of Hong Kong natives is Cantonese, not Mandarin!)
My only complaint is, that it seems as if a n important part of OF's life story is left out. We see him in old age, and follow him through childhood and early adulthood, but his highly successful career as a barrister and judge in Hong Kong, for which he is famous,is never described in any detail. In old age he is haunted by a mysterious incident which occurred when he was eight and living with foster parents, and seeks resolution for this, but it would have been interesting to see how this incident had affected him throughout his career as a lawyer, which it must have done, and how his own attitude to what happened was changed by later experiences, as it must have been.
I agree with some other reviewers that the title is a little off-putting. I think if I were the author, I'd worry it might deter people from buying the book.