On more than one occasion Jane Gardam's Old Filth has been recommended to me. And one more than one occasion I pulled the book from the library shelf and looked at it and then quietly slid it back into place. Gardam has won or been listed for all sorts of prizes and the New York Times makes note of her "typical excellence and compulsive readability". I've even got a handful of her other books in my reading piles. So, what's the problem you're probably thinking? I'm often a very predictable reader and one facet of my predictability is that I prefer to read about female protagonists. Not always (and nothing personal), but enough so that I will often pass on a book when I question whether the story has enough appeal or that I'll be able to empathize with the main character. And yes, I am trying to break myself of this habit.
Old Filth is Edward Feathers, an eighty-year-old widower who is the subject of this story. And while the reflections on a life begun at the edges of the Empire, the British Raj, sound appealing, what do I know about eighty-year-old men? Lucky for me Old Filth landed on my doorstep one day removing all excuses to pick the book up and discover that yes, some feelings are universal and that it is easy to empathize with a character like Edward Feathers. Old Filth is an ironic nickname for a variety of reasons, though not one bestowed with any sense of irony by his colleagues. Old Filth stands for 'Failed in London Try Hong Kong', which is what he did in his poor days just after the war when he was new to the bar. Despite a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and then judge, Filth feels decidedly dirty, however, thanks to a secret from his childhood he carries with him throughout his lifetime. Outwardly Filth is a modest man, well dressed however, if somewhat outdated in his style. As a matter of fact he's fastidious in all his ways.
Yet his beginnings were none too illustrious. Born in Malay to an overworked colonial administrator father who drinks too much and a mother who succumbs to puerperal fever just days after his birth, he's raised by the daughter of his nursemaid who loves him obsessively. He grows up amongst the natives speaking their language and playing their games and is quite content with his life, though all but ignored by his father. Before his fifth birthday, he's sent back to England to begin his proper education and keep him out of harm's way (harm's way being tropical fevers). Along with two younger cousins he ends up in Wales in the care of foster parents. If Old Filth belongs in the "Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters", Ma Didds deserves a place there as well in the villainess hall of fame. Life is hellish for the children who are known as "Raj orphans". Like his father, Edward arrives with a stutter that is even more pronounced when he leaves Ma Didds' abusive household and enters boarding school. It's with Sir, the headmaster of the school that he's set on the straight and narrow and through his close friendship with another student with whose family he passes the school holidays.
The story moves around in time, Filth looking back on a full life yet feeling an emptiness all the same. His life begins in Malay, and after a successful career in Hong Kong he returns to England with his wife Betty, another Raj orphan, and they settle in Dorset. It's from this vantage point that he reflects on his youth and later marriage to a woman who is more a companion than a lover (in the passionate sense), and who has been harboring secrets of her own. It seems all Filth's best relationships are ended too soon, and those that endure are deficient in some way. He never seems to understand his wife and can never even remember the name of his long standing housekeeper, calling her Mrs.-er. In the end he feels a sense of loneliness and isolation, which is not surprising considering his shaky emotional foundation.
In Old Filth Gardam has created such an interesting character and placed him against the backdrop of the better part of the twentieth century and showing how he has been molded by people and places and events. Our first and last glimpses of him are through the eyes of his contemporaries, or at least his colleagues who think they know Filth, but we know better. He's not as easy a man to pinpoint as might be expected, and the story brings him full circle as he tries to make sense of his life. For all the foot dragging that went into picking up this book, I'm so glad I did as it was a rich reading experience and one I wouldn't mind repeating. I do have Gardam's companion novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which is Betty's story, to pick up soon. Many thanks to Europa Editions for sending this one my way.