Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is a portrait of successful barrister at the end of his life. To outsiders, Sir Edward Feathers’ journey appears to have been uneventful, charmed even. He attended a boarding school for young gentlemen during the Great Depression, served in a prestigious unit deployed in the English countryside in World War II, read law at Oxford directly after the war, and was admitted to the bar quickly. His legal success was legendary, his marriage was long and happy, his wealth was enviable. Gardam emphasizes this “outsider” view by starting each of the parts of the book with a dramaturgical scene, with acquaintances discussing Feathers in the format of a play: scene setting and character names followed by lines.
Of course, the interior life doesn’t match the exterior, and Gardam reveals the hidden sorrows of Eddie’s life through a present, first-person narrative and disjointed flashbacks in the days after his wife’s sudden death. We slowly learn about his miserable life as a “Raj orphan,” one of the thousands of children sent back at the age of 4 or 5 from the British Empire’s outposts in tropical Asia to be fostered by perfect strangers, who were paid to bring them up in the English way.
We also learn about the preternatural fear of homosexuality that the boarding school culture engendered. “Sir,” Eddie’s headmaster, impresses on the boy from the start that he runs a “clean school.” His friendship with another boy, Pat Ingelsby, is suspect, and it appears that the schools went to great lengths to keep young men from forming close and exclusive friendship, for fear that they signaled something “unsavory.” Not surprisingly, his childhood experiences leave Eddie emotionally distant and distrustful.
Gardam’s use of language is spare and evocative. Eddie’s seemingly serene life winds up packed with adventure, pain, and loss. The subject matter is heavy, but like all lives, there are wry moments, as when we learn why Sir Edward coined his own nickname (“Filth” stands for Failed in London, Try Hongkong). There’s plenty of irony too, as the least “savory” characters he’s met in his life prove to be the closest things he ever has to real friends.
The Raj orphan phenomenon was new to me. I found myself wondering why their parents bothered to have children that they had no intention of raising, but I suppose it made perfect sense at the time. Gardam paints a pretty unflattering portrait of the British Empire bureaucrats, who cannot seem to get far enough away from England, but don’t seem to be able to leave it truly behind and embrace the warm and sensuous cultures in which the find themselves.
The book was very good, but I did have some definite problems with it. The stream of consciousness musings were often disjointed. This may have been particularly pronounced as I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Graeme Malcom. The dramaturgical passages, especially, were read so fast that I felt some of their meaning was lost. Old Filth is a great character, but some of the plot twists rang false, and one or two interesting storylines simply petered out. I waffled between 3 and 4 stars on this book, but in the end it came down to enjoyment – I simply didn’t enjoy listening to it as much as I have other recent audiobooks. Gardam shares a great story, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to read The Man in the Wooden Hat, which recounts the Feathers’ marriage from his wife Betty’s point of view. But I will read it, not listen. I’m not sure Gardam’s complex style is the right fit for an audiobook for me. Her work appears to take more concentration than I can muster at the gym, which is how I generally fit audiobooks in to my schedule.