In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.
In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.
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:
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.
Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” was published in 1888, and its origins are, sadly, autobiographical. It tells of young siblings Punch and Judy, who live a happy, near-carefree life in India with their young, loving parents—until it’s time to go Home.
First the idea of going Home must be introduced. Neither Punch nor Judy (several years younger) really understands—and certainly they don’t understand they will be left there. The story is told from Punch’s perspective, and he doesn’t really understand “Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma,” though he promises to do his best on this front. When Papa and Mamma have actually left the two children at Downe Lodge, the foster home where they will spend the next several years, Punch and Judy are bereft.
Claire, who is young and impressionable—and easier to forget Mamma—quickly becomes a favorite of foster mother Aunty Rosa, who frankly despises Punch and makes him into a household scapegoat. The formerly spoiled young Sahib now finds himself caned for no offense at all, berated with Aunty Rosa’s twisted religion, known as “Black Sheep” in the household, and, over time, convinced that even his parents will hate him and punish him when they finally return. After Uncle Harry, his foster father and the fairer of the two guardians, dies, Punch’s despair is complete—even as Judy spends her time with the family of the house, sitting on Auntie Rosa’s lap to have her hair brushed.
When Punch’s mother does arrive years later she sees right away what has happened. When “she drew him to her again…[h]e came awkwardly, with many angles. ‘Not used to petting,’ said the quick Mother-soul. ‘The girl is.’” Later, at bedtime:
But once away from Aunty Rosa, life improves so quickly for Punch and Judy. Punch’s Mamma is right when she writes his father that she “shall win Punch to [her] before long.” But the horror of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” isn’t in the beatings or the exquisite psychological torture practiced on poor Punch. The narrator, at the end of the story, contradicts Punch’s claim that it’s “as if she had never gone.”
This is also the message Gardam has adopted for Filth. Nothing—not even the resolution of the mystery that absolves Filth of a foolish childhood guilty, not the love of a woman who stays with him until death, not the care of a friend who would never let harm come to him—nothing stops Filth’s fear or his dread of being alone.
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.
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.
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.”
Decades on, after “Betty had grown expert in her replies” to those who asked about her and Filth’s childlessness, she would tell people:
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.
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.
The coelocanth that is Sir Edward Feathers does more than just look full and lovely on the page. The fact of his being a coelocanth gives him the ability to reflect back to the reader a wide slice of history—and the reflection is from a surface that many readers will be familiar and comfortable with because it is like a pure Englishness outside of time, a reflection that doesn’t go blurry or wobbly because we know where we stand with coelocanths. They have been around for a long time.
When Feathers dies, basically in the present time, he’s nearly 90 years old. That means his life, and the books about his life, have coincided with a great number of historical events both familiar and unfamiliar. The late Empire in Southeast Asia, the interwar period back Home, WWII in Europe and Asia both, and everything that happens afterward: the slow rebuilding of Europe, with much new rising from the ashes, and the rapid expansion of money and power in the East, where Filth can still make a fortune though everything is already changing. Filth, never changing, is the perfect filter for all this upheaval.
Of course, this is painful for Filth himself. The world he grew up in is long gone, and the world he built an adulthood in is fast crumbling. After his wife’s death, driving across England to visit a long-lost cousin, he has an onrush of the grumpiness of elderly people driving mixed with a much more profound sense of complete loss of his place in the world:
This last, “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.”—how easy to ascribe it only to elderly grumpiness, to say it’s little more than a plea from an octagenarian to “get off my lawn!” It is that, to be sure, but it also carries an awareness that Filth has truly seen the end of a major era of history, an era that created him, set him on an unpleasant path in its own service, and then dumped him back to a “Home” that was never home, that he never understood or felt a part of. His home was wiped off the face of the earth by history, just as his wife—the only other thing he had close to a home—had been wiped off the face of the earth by mortality.
And, the corrolary question: why should anyone care? This question comes because I am a reactionary. So put off by the legions of readers who complain that a given book is bad because its characters unrelated or—worse—personally odious, I hypercorrect against caring for characters at all. Caring for a character is an emotional investment, after all, and hyperrational me tries to ward this off, warning that feelings will not help me think logically or reasonably about a book. But what a strange predicament, to attempt hyperrationality in consideration of a medium designed to produce emotional response. Give over, nicole, and admit that Jane Gardam got you, which is okay because that is just what she was trying to do.
Well, I’ve answered the second question; now back to the first. Filth is most succinctly and most aptly described as a “coelocanth,” but this doesn’t tell you much just yet so I’ll start more basic. Edward Feathers, aka Eddie or Teddy, born to British parents in Malaya, was left by his father in the care of a native servant girl after his mother died in childbirth. Raised among native toddlers, he played in the dirt, spoke Malay, and had almost no contact at all with his father. Reaching the magical age at which Anglo-Imperials sent their children “home” to avoid disease and get education, a missionary lady saw him to a foster mother in Wales. Thus begin his first exile from Asia and the real tragedies of his Raj Orphan childhood, which is worth a post in itself.
He comes out of this childhood ready to enlist and fight in the second World War, only to be thwarted by his father before he reaches the age of majority. At 17, Feathers begins a voyage of the damned: an ocean trip from England to Singapore, with stops in Africa and Sri Lanka. By the time they reach the latter, Singapore has fallen to the Japanese and Feathers must begin the long trip back, very sickly by this time and accompanied by many sick and dying refugees. He ends up spending much of the war studying, setting out in his career as a lawyer just as the peace begins to settle in. Fortunately, for times are undeniably tough, he reconnects with a former shipmate, a mysterious young (and now wealthy) Chinese man who whisks Feathers off to Hong Kong, where his career really takes off. And that’s where the name comes in: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Filth.
None of these things are Filth; these are the things that happen to Filth—and create him. He is deeply, unmistakably alone. He is quiet and diffident. As a child, he stammered, and though he “overcame” it for the most part, it has a tendency to return (or at least a continual need to be quashed). He is impeccably dressed and brushed, always. He always knows just the right thing to do, if not say. He is completely devoted to his wife Betty, with whom he has not shared a bed in decades. The two of them cry together when, from their retirement in Dorset, they watch on television Hong Kong being handed over to the Chinese. A coelocanth: he should be extinct, but somehow he goes on, noticed every once in a while as an impossible anachronism.
Filth is not a particularly good man, nor particularly bad; he is only full. His fullness is developed and revealed gradually, in both Old Filth and, as I suggested last week, in The Man in the Wooden Hat. Gardam tells a positively ripping story, but I’m beginning to wonder whether her real genius isn’t for character. Or at least in the way she brings the two together; nothing is incidental. The characters who appear, relatively speaking, on the sidelines are also full: we just can’t see parts of them. I don’t pretend to understand even half the motivations of Isobel Ingoldby, who appears throughout both books as a secondary character, but I know there is a fullness to her hidden from Filth and Betty’s story.
If I feel like I still haven’t told you anything about anything here, I will assign that too to Gardam’s genius. The real problem with talking about characters is that if they are really this good, I can’t tell you anything about them. You simply have to read the novel to meet them the same way I did.
I’m going to do everything backwards with Jane Gardam. You’ll have to forgive me as I am a bit out of practice. The Man in the Wooden Hat was published in 2009 as a followup to the 2004 Old Filth, which tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers (aka Old Filth) from his mother’s pregnancy through his own memorial service—roughly speaking, the story of the twentieth century. The Man in the Wooden Hat retells much of that story, filling in gaps, leaving gaps of its own (many of which are filled in Old Filth), and focusing much more of its time and energy on the period of Filth’s marriage to Betty, his companion of many decades.
The earlier novel’s main focus, timewise, is on Filth’s childhood and old age, with many reminiscences about adult and married life, but not much actual time-in-the-novel spent there. The Man in the Wooden Hat takes the converse approach, again, roughly speaking, and it’s likely for that reason that the Washington Post blurb on the Europa Editions cover calls it “[a]n astute, subtle depiction of marriage.” But the more specific billing on the front flap is not, I think, quite right: “Old Filth was Eddie’s story. Here in The Man in the Wooden Hat, the story of his marriage is told from the point of view of Betty, a character as vivid and enchanting as Filth himself.”
This gave the impression, at least to me, that I was in for a bit of a he-said-she-said—with the implication, probably coming just from my own head, that Betty’s would be the “real” story, the second novel a sort of corrective to the first. Not only is it not a corrective, and not presented as such, but I don’t think it’s properly Betty’s story either. Both books are about Filth; both include Betty as the lead actress; the second features her more and lets the reader know who she really is—but in doing so, continues to highlight who Filth is as well.
An example is in order. This one is not at all irrelevant to the novels, or to Filth and Betty’s marriage, but it’s not something I care to write about in particular so I don’t feel it gives much away here. The Feathers’ marriage is childless—not a thing which typically goes unremarked. Not least when Betty’s obituary comes out and notes there were no children of the union. So, why not? Every indication in Old Filth is that they simply did not care to have them. Perhaps they could not conceive and didn’t care. Perhaps they could not conceive, cared for a while, and got over it. In any case, it is presented through Filth’s lens as a point of agreement. We may suspect, and I surely did (knowing, especially, that a whole other book had been written from Betty’s perspective), that Betty might have had a different story here, but there is not much hint what it was, and I wonder whether my suspicion wasn’t based more on gender norms than anything else.
In The Man in the Wooden Hat we get the answer. Betty is pregnant soon into their marriage, but miscarries. Worse, after the miscarriage it becomes clear that her time in a Japanese internment camp has permanently damaged her fertility; she has a hysterectomy before the age of thirty and is emotionally devastated. Betty, you see, not only wanted children—she wanted lots of them, enough to fill up a house in a Victorian novel. Ten, at least! And she was mad for children. Filth is quick to assure her that he is not at all disappointed their life together will be childless—he, in fact, never wanted any to begin with, only her.
So, do we find more of “the real story” in The Man in the Wooden Hat? Yes, undoubtedly. Do we find “Betty’s side” to their marriage, in this particular? Yes, again undoubtedly. But we also find the truth of Filth’s side—which we emphatically did not know in Old Filth. There, the couple’s childlessness is presented as “okay, but probably not really okay, but we don’t know how or for whom.” For all we knew at the time, it could have been Filth who was disappointed at missing the pitter-patter of little feet, even if he did get over it. Instead, we find that he actively did not want them, intentionally withheld information from Betty about his own questionable fertility, and proceeded to practically celebrate their now-enforced child-free lifestyle while she was mourning the dream-life she’d always wanted. And there’s quite a “why” behind Filth’s carelessness of children, which, I think, is ultimately more important than the particular child question here, and which I won’t get to just yet. But the point is that it’s the revelations about Filth that are still more compelling. The True Story of Children is a comment on the Feathers’ marriage and enlightens us as to Betty’s character—but her character is still new. The same True Story of Children also enlightens us about Filth, with whom we’ve already spent a whole book and for whom we now have much more to weave into a coherent tapestry of a life.
All this is a long way of saying that I, at least, felt like for as much as I learned about Betty from the second book, I learned at least as much about Filth, and those revelations were so much more striking because I had more of a feeling that I already knew him.