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New York Times: "Gardam's novel is an anthology of such bittersweet scenes, rendered by a novelist at the very top of her form."

Date: Sep 12 2006

Orphan of the Empire

ALTHOUGH her books attract admiring reviews and literary prizes in her native England, Jane Gardam, who has just turned 78, remains an unfamiliar name to much of the American reading public. Explaining such disparities of national taste — why some imported writers routinely hear brass bands and the roar of the crowd while others, with equal or superior skills, must strain to detect the sound of one cult clapping — is seldom easy. True, Gardam’s fiction draws its material from the intricate web of manners and class peculiar to the inhabitants of her homeland. But the same can be said about the works of Anita Brookner, Gardam’s exact contemporary, who has attracted a wide following in the former colonies and beyond. So the old joke about two nations divided by a common language can’t account for Gardam’s relative obscurity over here. Some bromide about the literary life being as unfair as the normal one may have to do.

Perhaps Gardam’s 12th novel will break the bad spell. Aside from its typical excellence and compulsive readability, the book has two advantages. Its release in the United States by a canny (or wary) publisher as a paperback original makes it a bargain among the piles of new fiction at the stores. And its title provokes both curiosity and an irresistible social opportunity. Imagine being asked at a cocktail party what you are reading and coming up with, “Oh, a new novel called ‘Old Filth.’”

Gardam explains the title on the first page, so nothing will be spoiled for potential readers by recounting it now. An elderly man has just left his table at the Benchers’ luncheon room in London’s Inner Temple. Several jurists discuss the departed figure, who looked familiar. The Common Sergeant knows why: “It was Old Filth. Great advocate, judge and — bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH — Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong.” Some desultory conversation follows before duties call. The Queen’s Remembrancer says, “But it was good to see the old coelacanth.” The Common Sergeant replies: “Yes. Yes, indeed it was. Tell our grandchildren.”

This opening scene, roughly a page long and presented in dialogue, briskly demonstrates what might be called the rubbernecking principle of narrative exposition: a character can be made to seem interesting by showing other characters pointing fingers or making comments. (It could also be called the “Great Gatsby” or “Citizen Kane” principle, among other possibilities.) The mild stir he creates by appearing at the Inner Temple establishes Sir Edward Feathers, a k a Old Filth, as a figure of some mystery, and Gardam then gets down to the business of solving him. To do so, she scrambles chronology, moving from scenes of an old man, retired and living in Dorset, to the events that led to his present condition.
These include his birth in Malaya, to a mother who dies three days later of puerperal fever, and the first four and a half years of his childhood, raised by the daughter of his wet nurse among the indigenous children in the longhouse, shunned by his father, an overworked colonial administrator suffering from war wounds, bereavement, malaria and alcoholism. Eventually, a Baptist missionary persuades Alistair Feathers to send his son home, as is the custom, both to fend off tropical diseases and to educate the next generation of the Empire’s loyal servants. Eddie and two female cousins, also “Raj orphans,” wind up in Wales, at the bleak house of their foster parents, Ma and Pa Didds.

An awful thing happens there, although the full story isn’t revealed until late in the novel. Perhaps the only flaw in this otherwise pitch-perfect book is the repeated foreshadowing of that long-ago event, which the hero thinks of as “the Ma Didds horror.” (Those familiar with Stella Gibbons’s classic burlesque of English rural folkways, “Cold Comfort Farm,” are likely to be reminded of the constant, lugubrious announcements by Great Aunt Ada Doom that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”) When Old Filth finally confesses all to a priest, incorrectly assuming he has suffered a fatal heart attack, the chief effect is to let readers know that his choice of a nickname may not have been the witty, self-deprecating japery others have assumed. At one point, he tells himself, “I feel, truly, filth.”

As past scenes unfold, Old Filth’s old age back in England moves on as well, and not for the better. His wife, Betty, dies of a heart attack while planting tulips. She has been the only steadfast companion he’s ever known, a friend rather than a passion — their marriage was childless — and he is left emotionally adrift by her absence. He receives two letters in which he is congratulated for the rectitude and silence he displayed in the face of Betty’s adulterous affair with Terry Veneering, a British lawyer in Hong Kong and a man Old Filth hated. (Brief, earlier glimpses of Betty’s memories have confirmed this fact, and two identical strands of excellent pearls, gifts to Betty from her husband and her lover, pop in and out of the story to add further amplification.) Old Filth reads these letters but does not evidently register what they say. When, in one of the novel’s many unexpected twists, Veneering moves into a neighboring house, the two old enemies, widowers both, become friends. Old Filth tells his former rival that Betty “was very faithful.”

Emotionally stunted, impeccably tailored in a style at least half a century out of fashion, Sir Edward Feathers might be treated as a figure of fun or as a case history in the costs of the British Empire to its children, who were deprived of their parents and left with a permanent sense of not belonging anywhere, a phenomenon that has been thoroughly documented elsewhere. The novel twice mentions the similarities between Old Filth’s early life and that of Rudyard Kipling, and in her acknowledgments Gardam cites her indebtedness to both Kipling’s autobiography, “Something of Myself,” and his short story “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

Yet the miracle of “Old Filth” is that its hero eludes sociological or psychological pigeonholing. If he is a characteristic Raj orphan, he is also triumphantly his own man, with a life full of unexpected turns and events of high comedy to offset and compensate for his unpromising beginnings. To wit, his experience during World War II assigned to the detail protecting Queen Mary, the mother of King George VI and grandmother of Elizabeth II. His height and slight stammer may remind the queen of her son; in any case, she makes young Feathers her favorite. Thus he becomes the recipient of many pleas from the queen’s beleaguered niece, an unwilling hostess when her aunt, accompanied by a retinue of 55 servants, is evacuated from wartime London: “She’s impossible. I’m the Duchess of Beaufort. I know I look like somebody’s cook, but that’s who I am, and this is my house. She’s only an evacuee.”

Gardam’s novel is an anthology of such bittersweet scenes, rendered by a novelist at the very top of her form. She may have taken the name of her hero’s Hong Kong rival, Veneering, from an unattractive social climber in Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend,” but a reading of her new novel seems convincing proof that the name Old Filth also belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters.

by Paul Gray

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