For some reason, not at all planned, the first three books I’ve read this year have focused on childhood and the traumas that inform adulthood. Old Filth, the first book of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, is dedicated to “Raj Orphans and their parents”; also called “Empire orphans,” these children were born in the far flung reaches of the British Empire and then shipped back to England by the time they were 4 or 5 years old to be raised by foster parents while their biological parents continued serving the British government. Old Filth is told from the point of view of old Filth himself, Eddie Feathers, renowned lawyer and judge who “Failed In London, Tried Hong Kong” and made his name and reputation there serving the British Empire as his father before him had done. Filth is a WWII veteran, widowed with no children, rich, and in his eighties. The death of his wife Betty has caused him to look back on his life and eventually confront a dark event from his childhood as an “Empire orphan.”
The narrative is set up as a series of flashbacks into Eddie’s past. The reader learns of his birth in Malay and his mother’s death, his father’s emotional and physical remoteness, and Eddie’s connection to the native people who raised him until he was sent to England. Eddie alludes to the trouble at his foster mother’s home. Ma Didds did something horrible to Eddie and his cousins Babs and Claire as well as to another boy named Cumberledge, but the details aren’t revealed until the end of the story. After the mysterious business at Ma Didds’, Eddie is separated from his cousins and goes off to boarding school where he becomes friends with a fellow student named Pat Ingoldby. The Ingoldby family takes on Eddie as an unofficial adoptive member, and Eddie’s recollections of this time in his life are fairly pleasant until World War II leaves Eddie alone again. He spends a few uncomfortable weeks with unfriendly spinster aunts until they send him off to his father in the East. On his journey there, he strikes up an unusual friendship with an orphan named Albert Loss which ends abruptly as their ship gets caught up in the war. Eddie becomes gravely ill, Albert leaves, and Eddie nearly dies after spending several more months on a ship back to England. Once recovered, Eddie joins up and serves as a sort of body guard to Queen Mary, then studies law at Cambridge, graduates at the top of his class and leads a dull life in Chambers until a face from his past sets him on the path to fortune and success in the East.
Eddie’s adult life as barrister and judge is essentially left out of the narrative; it seems that everyone already knows, or thinks they know, about old Filth — the distinguished and rich man who was a good judge but didn’t do much of note, and then retired back to England with his wife Betty. His marriage to Betty doesn’t get much attention either. Filth seems oblivious to Betty’s sadness and frustration, not to mention her apparent affair with Eddie’s professional rival and neighbor Veneering. Volumes 2 and 3 of the trilogy give Betty and Veneering their say. The reader does see, however, that in his old age, Eddie is beginning to lose his faculties; he sometimes thinks he sees Betty and talks to her, he tries to drive himself across the countryside to visit his cousins, gets lost and becomes ill. Ultimately, he, with the help of a cousin and priest, confronts his childhood trauma.
I’ve tried hundreds of cases …. Some I still cannot bear to think about. I don’t mean I cannot bear to think about my judgements … I cannot bear to think about the cruelty at the core of this foul world. Or the vengeance dormant even in children. All there, ready, waiting for use. Without love.
Gardam is writing about “the Greatest Generation” of England, and about a class of people always known for showing good manners. But what lurks behind that facade? Like War Brothers, Old Filth challenges readers to consider how people, how children especially, are to survive abuse, desolation and isolation, and not become completely warped by their experiences. Is it a matter of manners, or the stiff upper lip? Eddie supposes that some are given “Grace” while others, such as himself are, not. Eddie sometimes comes across as a comical figure, somewhat out of touch, perhaps a bit arrogant; most people know him only by professional reputation and have no inkling of the dramatic and traumatic experiences of his life. I look forward to reading the next two volumes to see what more we learn about this character and the people who knew him best.