Filth himself engages with history from a conservative, though self-effacing, perspective. “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.” He may be bitter, at times, but he also recognizes he’s an old man now, that his time is past. But the Filth books are far from nostalgic for Empire, just as Filth himself is conflicted about it. The books are, in large part, an elegy for one particular casualty of Empire: the Raj orphans.
As the British sent hundreds and thousands of officers and civil servants to India and the other colonies, so too went wives and families. Marriages contracted, babies born, and eventually they would all reach the magical age at which it was quasi-officially time to send them “Home”—that is, back to Britain, a place they had never been. As babies and toddlers, children would remain in the bosom of the family, if looked after by an ayah or amah. But somewhere around age five they would have to go Home, either to family who agreed to take them in or to foster families, many of which existed semi-professionally for this purpose.
After years spent abroad, with little to no contact with parents, children often became adults with various emotional problems. Old Filth outlines, in several places, several different possibilities. When missionary Auntie May shows up to tell Filth’s father that it’s time to send little Teddy Home, the elder Feathers remembers how he was one such Raj orphan himself, and what it meant for his personal relationships.
“He seems well and happy,” he said. “I have never seen the need for him to go Home. It’s not the law.”
“You know perfectly well that it is the custom. Because of the risk of childhood illnesses out here. You went Home yourself.”
“I did,” said Alistair. “So help me God.”
Auntie May on the whole agreed with him. She’d seen great damage. Some children forgot their parents, clung to their adoptive families who later often forgot them. There were bad tales. Others grew to say they’d had a much better time in England away from their parents, whom they did not care for. There were children who worked hard at growing solid and boring, and made marriages only in order to have roots of their own at last. They never told anything. And Auntie May had never been sure about the ferocity of Eastern childhood diseases. But in this case there was no mother.”
As a teenager, Eddie spends all his holidays with the Ingoldbys, the family of his best school friend. The mother of the family is wonderful, “[c]alm and dreamy, often carrying someone a cup of tea for no reason but love.” When Eddie praises his mother to his friend Pat, he finds she too is a member of a previous generation of Raj orphans, and dealing with it in her own way.
“She’s not bitter at all. Nobody liked her. Her parents sound awful if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“You’ve had Aunt Rose and the footman? They were all barmy, if you ask me. Raj loonies.”
“She seems to feel—well, to like everybody, though.”
“Oh, no, she doesn’t. They were brought up like that. Most of them never learned to like anyone, ever, their whole lives. But they didn’t moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands round the world thinking they own it. It’s vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here, at Home. Every house of our sort you go into, Liverpool to the Isle if Wight—there’s big game on the wall and tiger skins on the floor and tables made of Benares brass trays and a photograph of the Great Durbar. Nowadays you can even fake it, with plenty of servants. It wasn’t like that in my grandfather’s generation. They were better people. Better educated, Bible-readers, not showy. Got on with the job. There was a job for everyone and they did it and often died in it.”
“I think my father will die in his. He thinks of nothing else. Sweats and slogs. Sick with malaria. And lost his family.”
The elder Feathers does, indeed, die in his job, but before this Filth reunites with Babs, his cousin and foster sister. The two of them spent their childhood, along with Babs’s younger sister Claire, at the Welsh home of one Ma Didds, alcoholic and child abuser. And though Filth spent his holidays with the Ingoldbys, his nominal guardians in England in his older years were two maiden aunts, strange and awful women. At a chance meeting in a cafe, Filth tells Babs that “[t]hey are psychologically deaf.”
“They’re just reacting against your pa,” she said. “Don’t forget they were all Raj Orphans themselves. They say it suits some. They come out fizzing and yelling, ‘I didn’t need parents,’ and waving the red, white and blue. Snooty for life. But we’re all touched, one way or another.”
“I don’t think it suited my father,” said Eddie. “He’s gone entirely barmy.”
“Yep. I heard. You know, my lot and Claire’s are still in India, and I never give them a thought. Not after ten years.”
Eddie realized that since the Ma Didds’ horror he had never given a thought to either Babs or Claire. Not a thought.
Decades on, after “Betty had grown expert in her replies” to those who asked about her and Filth’s childlessness, she would tell people:
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think either of us was very child-minded. We knew nothing of children. We’d never had brothers or sisters ourselves. Poor Filth was a Raj orphan, you know. My parents died very young, too. We were ignorant.”
For Betty, this is a sad lie, but for Filth it is the truth. He wanted only Betty, not children, and he spent his life terrified that she, like everyone else, would leave him. He makes it a condition of their engagement that he does not believe in divorce. “I’ve been left all my life,” he tells her. “From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.” It does, but as Filth says, “[i]t did not destroy me but it made me bloody unsure.”
Jane Gardam told the Daily Mail in 2005 that she was very much concerned with the Raj orphan phenomenon when conceiving the novels. She was inspired by another Raj orphan who was a writer himself: Rudyard Kipling.
Jane read his story Baa Baa, Black Sheep, an account of Kipling’s own experiences when he was sent to Britain from his birthplace in India.
“I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as that book; it was horrifying,” says Jane.
“Before that, I’d always thought it was rather smart to be a Raj Orphan. They seemed slightly superior, and very confident; it was only later I realised how terrible it was.
“It was accepted as quite normal to send your children overseas for years, but it was absolutely barmy,” she continues.
“I wanted to show what it does to a child ? and how it shapes the grown-up he or she becomes.
“In many ways, Filth becomes a quintessential Englishman. Savagely separated from everything he loves, he is successful in everything except his own emotional responses.
“In lonely retirement, odd things happen to Filth. He finds himself befriending his neighbour, a rival lawyer, and the lover of his dead wife; and he drives across England to visit the two female cousins with whom he shared his orphan years.
“He is looking for a place where he can belong, and the resolution to a terrible secret that we don’t learn about until the end of the book.”
I’ll take up Kipling’s “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” later this week. I hesitate to diminish the power of that story or the effects of this practice on Kipling’s generation, but at least they did have the “club” mentioned above.” Filth’s tragedy as a Raj orphan is doubled, with him one of the absolute last. Only a matter of time until his kind are forgotten, and cursed to live to see—and see the justice of—the end of everything he and his family had sacrificed a normal life for.