Elegy(?) on a Not So Sceptered Isle: Jane Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy

Old Filth 03092015Gardam, Jane. Old Filth (Chatto 2004): London: Little Brown-Abacus,   20015.                       

The People Who Live on Privilege Hill. London: Hachette Digital.                               Various dates from 1996-2007.

The Man in the Wooden Hat. London: Little Brown-Hachette Digital, 2009.

 Last Friends. London: Hachette Digital 2015.

It’s actually some weeks now since I finished reading Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. The short version of my review is probably to say I enjoyed it so much that I immediately downloaded the rest of the trilogy (The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends) into my ereader and carried on reading. I also downloaded the short story collection The People on Privilege Hill because there in the title story I once again met Edward Feathers and the rest of the characters who populate the three novels.

Old Filth 03092015Why this intense immersion in one set of characters you might ask, especially, as you will no doubt have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, my academic self has been known to criticise those readers who respond to the created characters of novels as more than intellectual constructs, part of the design of the novel.

Well, my more emotional side responded so strongly to the melancholy humour of the first novel that I needed more. And I was glad that I did have more. Often the sequels to books are something of a let-down, but in this case each novel builds satisfyingly on its predecessor and at the end of trilogy and short story, one has a broader vision and fuller Old Filth 03092015understanding of the events outlined in the first story. As I read, I found myself thinking of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.

The centre of the trilogy is Sir Edward Feathers, Q.C., known to his known to his friends and associates as Eddie, Teddy, Fevvers, or Old Filth (Failed in London Try Hong Kong) now retired to Dorset from an illustrious practice at the bar and on the bench in Hong Kong in the years prior to the end of British rule. The two great presences in his life are his wife Betty, and his arch rival Sir Terence Veneering. The relationship among the three lasts most of their lifetimes. Then there is the subtle influence of Albert Loss, the Hakka Chinese millionaire.

With his birth and the subsequent death of his mother from puerperal fever, Edward Feathers begins his journey towards being one of the icons of the Inner Temple. While the novel is focussed very much on the memories of the retired barrister, it also turns a Old Filth 03092015thoughtful not unsympathetic yet critical examination glass on the fading breadth and influence of what was once the empire on which the sun never set. Old Filth is dedicated to ‘Raj Orphans and their parents”: those families often separated, sometimes for years, because of their belief that their children should be educated “at home” in Britain not where they were born. Separated from their parents for most of their childhoods, they came in those days before the jet from India, Malaya, Hong Kong, the West Indies, Kenya, Rhodesia, and from other places whose names have long gone from the political map to schools of varying excellence and to relatives and surrogate parents of varying levels of empathy. Some were able to make lives in post-colonial Britain; others were not, rootless casualties of change not of their making.

The search for roots, for a home, finding and defining a place for oneself especially in the somewhat shop-soiled Britain of the motorway cafeteria and the paper cup are recurring themes in the novels. So, too, are ambition, loyalty, and truth, but perhaps the real heart of the novels lies in Gardam’s interrogation of memory and desire and of the way in which they construct our lives and our sense of ourselves.Old Filth 03092015

Elegiac but never maudlin, melancholic, their nostalgia invigorated with subtle wit, ultimately life-affirming, these novels are intensely satisfying.

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One Response to Elegy(?) on a Not So Sceptered Isle: Jane Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy

  1. The other M says:

    A good, insightful review and one that prompts me the read the rest of the Old Filth series.

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