In preparing for a booktalk that a colleague and I will be giving next week at a local women’s group, I reread Jane Gardam’s Old Filth.
Jane Gardam is an author who is still very much under the radar in the United States, even though a 2006 review in The New York Times mused that Old Filth might just garner Gardam the attention she deserves. The same review praised Old Filth for its “typical excellence and compulsive readability,” called it “pitch-perfect” and hailed Gardam’s talent at creating a hero that “eludes sociological or psychological pigeonholing.” With such words of praise, why do I feel as though I am the only person talking about this book and this author?
First off, there’s the title—you’re probably wondering what it means. Well, Old Filth is merely an acronym for a phrase that the main character coined as a young, struggling lawyer that later become his moniker. It stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Sir Edward Feathers was a renowned lawyer and judge in Hong Kong before he and his wife, Betty, returned to Dorset, England to retire. Edward Feathers is a proper, faithful, emotionally distant man whose life in upended when Betty suddenly dies. Edward’s past starts looming up within him in interesting ways, and the way that Gardam writes this character and draws us in to his interior world is fascinating and unforgettable.
Edward and his wife Betty were both what’s called “Empire Orphans.” Their parents were colonials who sent their children back to England to be educated, in many cases never setting eyes on them again. Edward’s mother died after he was born, and his father scarcely acknowledged him his entire life, but he was sent from his home with the servants in Malay to a foster home with his cousins. We learn that Edward’s childhood was a difficult one, marked by one abandonment after another and a dark secret that Gardam reveals only towards the end.
What I love about Jane Gardam is that she reminds me of Iris Murdoch. Gardam is funny, cutting, a keen observer, and so well-attuned to her characters. Another novelist, Maggie Gee, said it better than I can: “The writing crackles with energy, variety, sensuous richness. It is the writing of a 25-year-old with the wisdom and subtlety of a razor-sharp 100-year-old.”
I don’t mean to beg or anything, but I guess when I see the numbers for the readership of this blog, I harbor idealistic visions of book groups across the country tipping the scales for authors like Gardam. Can you trust me, and schedule this book for your book group at some point in the future? You may not love it as I do, but I guarantee a great discussion out of it. And if you like Old Filth, you might also find that Flight of the Maidens and Faith Fox are also wonderful for discussion.