This final book in the Old Filth Trilogy gives us the story of Terry Veneering, lover of Betty Feathers, romantic and professional rival of Eddie/Filth. It also fleshes out a few of the secondary characters from the previous two novels, notably Dulcie Willy and Fred Fiscal-Smith. Gardam continues the recurring themes of being orphaned, alienated and lacking love within the context of pre- and post-war England (1930s into the 1950s). Each novel is told from the perspective of old age and end of life, which also happens to be the end of a generation and of the vestiges of the colonial empire.
Last Friends opens with the memorial service for distinguished barrister and judge Eddie Feathers. Among the crowd in attendance are the few survivors of Eddie’s generation, including Dulcie Willy and Fred Fiscal-Smith. Dulcie’s husband had been a judge and godfather to Eddie’s wife Betty. The Willys and Featherses had lived in the East and were “Raj orphans”, and both couples had retired to the Donheads in England. Fiscal-Smith is a retired barrister who had worked with Terry Veneering and had been best man at Eddie’s wedding. Fiscal-Smith is an annoyance to all who know him; he is famous for inviting himself along, taking advantage of others’ hospitality, and being a total bore. No one seems to know much about him and never asks, but as it turns out, he had known Terry Veneering from childhood and it is through Fiscal-Smith that we learn his story.
Veneering was always a bit of an outsider among the Feathers crowd. While he was a brilliant barrister, handsome, successful, well dressed and well spoken, he was from the north and not connected to any important families. He had graduated first in his class at Oxford, tied with Eddie, but hadn’t attended any notable schools before that. What we learn from Fiscal-Smith’s reminiscences, told to no one who wants to hear them, is that Terry Veneering was born Terrence Vanetski, the poor son of an Odessan circus acrobat and an Irish Catholic mother, in a town called Herringfleet. He was an intelligent boy and everyone expected great things from him. The local solicitor, Mr. Parable-Apse, saw his potential and made him his heir, and the private school headmaster Mr. Fondle (!) brought him to his school and later tried to evacuate Terry and the other students to Canada during the war. Terry’s wartime experience in some ways is similar to Eddie’s — tragedy, orphaned, on his own from a young age, eventual military service, then taking law at Oxford. Yet while fortune seems to serendipitously drop a plum job into Eddie’s lap, Terry has to work to make his own good fortune despite being tied for first in their law class. When Fiscal-Smith writes to Veneering in the hopes of being invited to visit him in London, Veneering drunkenly reveals that he is still in search of a position.
I am louche, Fred, louche. Feathers is one of those born to the Establishment….
Feathers is Prometheus. He is thoroughly, wonderfully good. The idea of sharing an honour with him is almost as terrible as that of sharing a woman with him.
Why am I so full of hate for this man Feathers? ‘He hath a certain beauty in his life/That makes mine ugly.’
Veneering is about to throw in the towel and turn to a life of journalism when fate steps in to keep him in law, put him in contact with William Willy, and cross paths with Betty Macintosh for the first time.
While getting more detail about the lives of Veneering, Eddie and Betty, the reader also learns about others of this generation who lived away from England for so long that they feel no great connection to “home” and yet have nowhere else to go. Now that Dulcie and Fred are aging, they each are more alienated from the world than ever. Dulcie and her grown daughter Susan are not close. Susan is a Raj orphan herself and is resentful of it, much to Dulcie’s surprise.
You made a great fuss. I cannot think why. It is such a character-forming thing to be separated from one’s parents. I never saw mine for years. I didn’t miss them at all. Couldn’t remember what they looked like after about a week.
When Susan says that in childhood she missed her mother, Dulcie replies, Susan! How lovely! I had no idea! How kind of you to tell me.
Dulcie occasionally talks to her dead husband Willie and reveals her loneliness to him.
…as a lonely widow in a big empty house and few friends left …there is nobody to discuss anything with any more. That is the sharpness of loss.
While Dulcie does become closer to her younger neighbors, it is her relationship to Fiscal-Smith that gets to her. She resents him inviting himself to her home (aptly called Privilege House) and becomes a bit sharp with him about it. After he leaves, she regrets her words and begins to worry when Fred doesn’t answer her correspondence. His rejection, despite his being an insufferable boob, hurts Dulcie because he is one of the last of her circle, one of “the very, very few last friends.”
Dulcie eventually finds out what happened to Fiscal-Smith and the reader also finds out about Veneering’s last days. But what to make of this trilogy now that it’s done? Gardam’s writing is a delight to read. Her characters are complex and realistic: they can be frustrating, mean, tragic, humorous; they make terrible mistakes and are sometimes victims of their own poor choices as well as the poor choices of others. The loneliness and alienation of the main characters is what stays with me; these three people seemed to have the world by the tail and yet each carried great sadness and pain. Those left behind — neighbors, friends and acquaintances — deal with their deaths and with the changing world in various ways. Some try to cling to the past, but those who fair best are the characters who can see that there is no going back and that it’s better to admit your need for others than to die alone and lonely, as Eddie, Veneering and Betty did. This is a thoughtful and beautifully written series, worthy of better discussion than I’ve given it.