If Rudyard Kipling was the laureate of the British Empire, then Jane Gardam is surely the closest thing we have to a laureate of its demise. LAST FRIENDS is the final book in her trilogy about the international lawyer Sir Edward Feathers, known as Old Filth (short for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”), his long and distinguished career at the Far Eastern Bar, and almost equally long marriage to fellow expat Betty. Spanning nearly a century, the three novels offer a compelling, finely nuanced tableau of the end of an era and the passing of the generation that sustained it. Part of the genius of each successive book is that it does not continue the story so much as rework it from a different angle. Executed with the deftest of touches, each new layer throws up fresh insights, according to where the light falls.
OLD FILTH (reviewed in the TLS, November 11, 2004), the first in the series, begins with Filth, nearing eighty and a widower, living in retirement in a Dorset village. Punctilious in his habits, correct in his manners, with his pressed suits, pocket handkerchief and silk socks from Harrods, he belongs to an earlier age, with all this implies in repression and self-control. Betty’s death, however, triggers a loosening: “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”. When the neighbouring house is bought by Sir Terry Veneering, Filth’s loathed rival at the Bar, and Betty’s one-time lover, the shutters fly up with a vengeance, revealing an inner landscape of astonishing complexity and fragility.
In economical prose that darts effortlessly between present and past, Gardam leads us through Feathers’s Edwardian childhood. Born at a colonial station in Malaya, he is shipped off “home” to receive an English upbringing. His foster mother is a sadistic disciplinarian, and he suffers appalling abuse at her hands, an experience that leaves him emotionally blocked. Gardam has taken her basic pattern here from Kipling’s account of his own childhood; the biographical underlay is not obtrusive, but it is there for anyone in the know. Having been rescued by a family friend who runs a prep school for the sons of Empire, Feathers grows up into the sort of hyper-dutiful man celebrated by Kipling, eventually returning to the Far East to build a successful Hong Kong practice in construction litigation before marrying Betty. She longs for children, but when she has a gruelling miscarriage the couple resign themselves to childlessness and settle down to a life as “members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St. Andrew’s Church” – retiring, as Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule, to a similarly unbending routine in England.
Underneath, though, all is chaos. The second book in the series, THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT (TLS, September 18, 2009), tells the story from Betty’s point of view. Her composed exterior also conceals a hinterland of trauma: she was raised in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, where her missionary parents were executed, and later marries Filth in an attempt to make the sort of conservative match of which her mother would have approved. But with Gardam the perspectives are always slightly aslant. Betty’s plan to turn herself into an irreproachable matron goes awry when, just before her wedding, she secretly spends a night with the roguish Veneering. Her feeling for him persists through decades of marriage, one of the trilogy’s many indexes of the often perverse distance between desire and everyday life. The extent to which Filth has come to terms with this relationship is finely calibrated by Gardam. When, in OLD FILTH, the by now aged Veneering moves in next door, Filth is horrified. But one snowbound Christmas they develop a guarded friendship, conducted around games of chess. What a heart-warming resolution, one thinks – except that Gardam doesn’t give us anything so trite. The same scenes are replayed at the end of THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, with subtle but crucial variations. Filth reveals that while married to Betty he had concealed from her that he was infertile; what’s more, he has always known about her night with Veneering – and that the latter was the father of the child she lost. “So that’s fixed him, thought Filth. I’ve won . . . .‘Checkmate,’ he said.” So much for reconciliation and the wisdom that comes with age. Gardam is utterly clear-sighted about how age may creep up on the body but leave the essential self unchastened, still seething with historical passions.
More ancient secrets are uncovered in LAST FRIENDS, which at last provides a full history for Veneering. Named after the nouveau riche social climber in Dickens’s OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, he has so far been one of the least likeable characters in the series: brash, sensual, on the make. Now he is humanized as yet another casualty of the twentieth century. His unlikely surname, it turns out, is an anglicization of Vanetski: he is the son of a Cossack circus performer, marooned in Yorkshire, and a local lass. If this sounds improbable, Gardam nevertheless makes it work, using concise strokes to render Terry’s home town of Herringfleet, “the long, low street of the old fishing village built before the industries came, before the ironstone chimney and the foreign workers and the chemicals and the flames”.
At its best Gardam’s spare prose is loosely constructed, the realism achieved through its weightlessness; the geometry of her plot, on the other hand, is densely wrought. Precociously talented, Terry is befriended by the Dickensian Mr Parable, an enigmatic solicitor with imperial connections, an “insect man in an old suit and a bowler hat”, who engineers the boy’s evacuation to Canada during the Blitz. At the last minute Terry jumps ship and returns home, to find his parents have been killed in a German air raid. Through Parable’s network he is given an education and qualifies in law – discovering, at the end of the war, that his benefactor has left him a set of Chambers in London. Renamed Veneering, he rapidly rises to the rank of QC in the field of international construction litigation, where he crosses swords with Filth. Veneering’s brashness now seems no more than a veneer for his underlying vulnerability; his ebullience an appealing foil to Filth’s stiff upper lip.
It is difficult to achieve this sort of wholesale revision of the reader’s preconceptions, but over the course of the trilogy Gardam manages it many times. Sudden, reckless switches of form – her story is told through flashbacks, letters, even the occasional dramatic script, complete with stage directions – keep us on our toes and add to the dizzying verisimilitude. Filth eventually emerges as both attractively stoical and frustratingly complacent; Betty, as admirably loyal and pitifully self-denying. This three-dimensionality isn’t just true of the protagonists: as the canvas broadens in this final book, previously minor players – the “last friends” who knew Betty, Filth and Veneering when they were young – are brought to startling life. Chief among these is Dulcie, a Dorset neighbour who once appeared as a vapid child-wife and is now redrawn as an octogenarian flirt with a ruthless streak, “sitting up in bed, her hair fallen into extraordinary Napoleonic cork-screws, her eyes immense, and downing a double Famous Grouse”. This gleefully rebarbative picture cocks another snook at sentimental nostrums about how the old should behave. After Dulcie has seen off a potential suitor – a tight-fisted lawyer called Fiscal-Smith – her daughter bemoans the fact that her mother is “not altogether the fool she makes herself out to be: the fool who is very sweet. She’s neither foolish nor sweet, really. She’s manipulative, cunning and works at seeming thick as a brick. And nasty”. The harshness is calculated: Gardam’s portraits are seldom easy on the eye.
In a particularly deft bit of remodelling, Fiscal-Smith, who first appears in OLD FILTH as a shameless freeloader, is rounded out into one of the novel’s most poignant figures. Gardam gives him a shared childhood with Veneering in Herringfleet, and so supplies a neat frame for his frugality. In old age he lives on a country estate but sleeps on an iron camp bed, surrounded by photographs of Filth, Betty and Veneering in their imperial glory days. Seemingly “born to be a background figure”, Fiscal-Smith now emerges as a faithful custodian of the past, and a spokesman for dignity and prudence in more prosaic times. The Empire is no more, and the men and women who once upheld it are tottering up the steps to the local village church for the Easter service as they have always done, whether at home or abroad. “‘Calm, my dear,’ said Fiscal-Smith. ‘Calm.’” It’s a perfectly balanced ending to the trilogy that is Jane Gardam’s masterpiece.