Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 260 pages; 2009.
First published in 2004 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is one of those novels that is a delight to read from start to finish.
The central subject — a rich old man reflecting on his life in the judiciary — might seem rather staid and dull, but in Gardam’s hands it is a moving and often witty portrait of a complex and hugely interesting character.
The old man is Sir Edward Feathers, who is also known as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Teddy and Old Filth. The latter is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong.
Edward was born in India during the glory days of the British Empire — his father, Captain Feathers, was the District Officer of Kotakinakulu Province in Malaya. Sadly, Edward’s mother dies a few days after giving birth, so he is left in the care of his father, an indifferent, emotionally cold man mired in grief (and later alcohol), who pays him little attention. By the time he is four-and-a-half, Edward is a wild child, speaks fluent Mandalay and has the run of the jungle neighbourhood. But tradition dictates that he must go Home — to England — to be educated and to spare him the risk of childhood diseases.
This sets in motion a pattern that repeats itself throughout the rest of his life: wrenched from the people and places he has come to love, and thrust into new, frightening situations in which he is forever the outsider looking in. Or, as he states later on, “always to be left and forgotten”.
But despite the legacy of what can only be described as a rather cruel childhood — on arrival in England he is placed in a foster home, where the care is dubious, and at school his stammer and close friendship with another boy makes him a target for bullies and gossips — he becomes a successful advocate and judge in Hong Kong.
When the book opens, Edward is nearing eighty and living alone in Dorset, to where he and his recently deceased wife, Betty, had retired. The story interleaves his present existence — ageing rapidly, becoming forgetful and doddery — with stories of his past, including his troubled teenage years, near death on a boat headed to the Far East, and his time protecting Queen Mary during the Second World War.
What becomes apparent as Edward’s story unfolds is that his outward appearance — the distinguished career and privileged lifestyle — hides an emotionally scarred man who believes his life is bereft of meaning. And much of that is to do with the fact that Edward has no children upon which to pass his legacy.
Indeed, there’s a telling scene in which the elderly Edward tells a young woman that he and Betty never wanted children. “It was deliberate,” he says. And then, in a startling confession, he adds:
“Think carefully before you bring children into the world. Betty and I were what is called ‘Empire orphans’. We were handed over to foster parents at four or five and didn’t see our parents for at least four years. We had bad luck. Betty’s forster parents didn’t like her and mine — my father hadn’t taken advice — were chosen because they were cheap. If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge. You can inflict pain through ignorance. I was not loved from the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that.”
While the novel is pervaded by a gentle melancholy, Gardam also throws in highly comic moments to lighten the mood. The humour largely works by having Edward do crazy things — such as driving rather dangerously and capturing the attention of the police — or behaving badly — being rude to his servants — without him quite realising that he is in the wrong.
On the whole Old Filth is a richly textured novel, one that is vivid, funny and strangely moving.