On noticing “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam at my public library, I had to pick it up and leaf through it. How could I not, with a title like that? And furthermore, I saw that Europa Editions was the US publisher. I’d read Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” a title which likewise intrigued me, also published by Europa, and decided at that time that any Europa book was likely to be well worth reading.
But at that time “Old Filth” just didn’t appeal to me. I kept returning to it when I’d see it in bookstores, though, and reconsidering reading it—especially since I learned that it’s the story of a lawyer, whose nickname is the book’s title.
Then I saw another book by Gardam at the library, “God On The Rocks.” The plot summary appealed to me, and it didn’t hurt that the cover indicated it had been shortlisted for the 1978 Booker Award. I’d kept “Old Filth” in mind and had noticed that Gardam was highly praised in online reviews. I figured that reading a book of less than 200 pages wouldn’t be too much of a loss if I ended up not liking it.
Readers, I LOVED it. So much that on finishing it, I ran back to the library for more Gardam, including “Old Filth,” which turned out to be at least as good as “God On The Rocks.”
As Gardam tells her story, “Filth” is an acronym: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. The principal character from whose point of view she tells the story is Edward Feathers, a “Raj Orphan” as a child, now, in the 2000s, a highly respected retired lawyer and judge.
To others, “Old Filth” may be legendary for his long life and upright career, but up close, he doesn’t appear too interesting. A young, stylish, up-and-coming London barrister, the partner of the son of one of Feathers’s childhood friends, exemplifies how dismissive the young can be of the old, condescending toward him as she makes some blatantly mistaken assumptions that he’s had a quiet, easy, happy life away from the city and any complexities.
Throughout the novel, Feathers is looking back at his life after the death of his wife, considering his life of loneliness and searching for meaning in his personal history. “All my life,” he says at the book’s end, “from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me. I want to know why.”
Feathers’s complex story, which Gardam unfolds in slow and masterful stages, would shock everyone except the few who knew him as a small child. At the end, the reader can understand why he’s repressed his own story and kept it a secret throughout his life. I wondered how Feathers’s life would have been different and, perhaps, happier, if he had openly acknowledged his story, or at least allowed some to get close enough to him so that he could tell them.
In both “Old Filth” and “God On The Rocks,” Gardam is very, very good at telling stories in which the characters have far more under their surfaces than they display to others. She’s published a companion novel–NOT a sequel–to “Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” in which she tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, who is only a minor character in “Old Filth.” I can’t wait to read it. Note to Man Booker Prize judges: Gardam really, really needs to win sometime soon.
Gardam was partly inspired to write “Old Filth” by reading Rudyard Kipling’s story, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” about his miserable experiences as a “Raj Orphan” when his parents sent him back to England as a small child from India to receive a proper English education. How strange it is, in another time and another place, to think that doing so was once considered a matter of course. I’m putting Kipling’s story on my list.
What stories are you excited about reading these days?