The British novelist Jane Gardam, whose twelfth novel is the marvelous Old Filth (Europa 2006), has never found a substantial American audience. The usual reason given is that she’s too English. I don’t see that she’s any more English than, say, Anita Brookner who sells well in the US. Brookner writes the same book year in and year out. Gardam ranges more widely. Her best-known novel here – perhaps till now — is The Queen of the Tambourine (Europa 2007). It won the Whitbread prize in 1991. Old Filth, might be the one that catches on. Europa Editions has brought it out in an appealing paperback, modestly priced.
It’s the story of Sir Edward Feathers, known to all as Old Filth, an acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” He’s a legendary figure, returned to the UK, a widower in his eighties, after a career as an advocate and a judge in Hong Kong. Old Filth has retired to Dorset.
This is a novel that can feel astonishingly alive. It has sweep and yet feels intimate - no mean trick. The story is full of incident and character, including a good deal of English drinking. It’s compelling as an imagined biography, but the theme is found, in Old Filth’s words, “From my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me.”
The future Sir Edward’s birth in Malaya caused his mother’s death. The result was that his father loathed him. His early years were spent among brown-skinned children who spoke no English. It was more idyllic than he knew until he was sent back to England for school. He was what the English at that time called a Raj or an Empire orphan.
During World War II (always “the war” in this world) Feathers joins the military and assigned to protect the Queen - that would be the present Queen’s late mother. He becomes her favorite and they both muddle through.
In his old age, alone and getting a little loopy, Old Filth finds himself involved in a friendship with a former Hong Kong rival, now his country neighbor. Mr. Veneering (a nod to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend) becomes a late in life companion, one of many sweet surprises in this deeply humane novel.
by David Freeman