So who cares about all these Raj orphans anyway? I mean, other than Jane Gardam and Rudyard Kipling?
They make an interesting subject around which to weave a plot and some character psychology, but their real significant, I think, is in their being what I called last week a “casualty of Empire.” They are a breed of tiny, utterly innocent soldier: damaged in service of the state, and therefore somewhat glorious, and in that service entirely by chance and through no fault of their own, like some unfortunate draftee. Filth grows up as the kid version of a Tommy shell-shocked from the trenches—never quite right, and perhaps deserving of a vague kind of respect, especially if he keeps his own stiff upper lip and continues, sideways, now that Empire is over, his own version of service to the Crown. Just as Pat Ingoldby told him:
“[T]hey 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.”
So as Gardam weaves most of the 20th century around the coelocanth that is her special subject, there is always a feeling that he is not just a witness to history, not just a party to it, but his entire life is constructed by the fortunes of his “Home” country. His birth in a place like Malaya completely contingent on Empire. As is his journey Home and dreadful upbringing—and thus nearly his whole psychology. The choice of his wife is similarly contingent, between its relation to his psychology and the fact of Betty’s existence itself depending on Empire. And his whole career is made possible by the fallout from WWII and the dismantling of the Empire. Even his retirement is dictated by it, his function dissolving with Britain’s hold on its colonies.
But is Filth’s suffocating closeness to history really due to his state-fostered orphanhood? Gardam can do this, it seems, with more than just Raj orphans. The protagonist of Crusoe’s Daughter is also a child raised without her parents, first because her ship’s-captain father is away all the time, leaving her with an alcoholic and promiscuous guardian (but who, in this case, is at least for the most part kind) and then when he dies and she passes to the care of her mother’s sisters. Her aunts, like Filth’s, are not exactly adept at caring for a young child but they don’t stint on Polly and do what they can to bring her up well.
So it’s not history writ large that takes Polly from her parents—nothing special or glorious about her sort of orphanhood—and history can’t really be said to affect her any more than it does your average Briton of the time. She writes letters to a young poet who will die in the Great War. She sees the love of her life return from that war traumatized and changed. While Polly has stayed on in the north of England, her girlhood friend cuts her hair and takes to nursing and the rest of London life between the wars. The factories grow, new neighborhoods are built, the empty marsh disappears. She sees German Jews eyed with suspicion, interned, their property forfeit. And that’s just it: Polly has, at most, an average relation to history, but even that is exhausting.
After all, none of this really has anything to do with Polly, who much of the time studiously avoids the outside world in favor of re-reading Robinson Crusoe over and over again. She’s an outside observer—or at least that’s what she wishes she was. History keeps creeping in to hurt her all the same, and her long, slow decline into middle age is a sign that growing up with her aunts (themselves locked in their own particular point in history) did not teach her how to live inside a changing world.