Thursday, March 29, 2012
A Rainy Day and a Good Book
Is there anything more peaceful and comforting than a rainy day and a good book? On Sunday it rained all day and I found myself sitting by the fire and rereading the wonderful book "Old Filth" by Jane Gardam. It was even better the second time around and I frequently found myself filled with emotion as I read the twists and turns of this poignant story. I had read it a while ago but needed to refresh my memory before my book club had its discussion this week. As I delved back into this book I realized from the very first page what a special book this is. The scene is the Benchers' luncheon room at the Inner Temple in London, present day. Some jurists are commenting that they may have just seen the legendary "Old Filth" walk by. They speculate on his age, "He must be a hundred." "Never put a foot wrong, Old Filth. Very popular." "Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar -- but he's not a bore. Women went mad for him." "But it was good to see the old coelacanth." "Yes, yes, indeed it was. Tell our grandchildren."
As they discuss him in hushed tones, the reader immediately gets a whiff of the mystery attached to this person and the rest of the book is an exploration of who this really was. It is not a linear tale and we learn about the main character through flashbacks, other people's impressions of him, and his experiences in present time. The past and present are interwoven and we travel through the rich tapestry of this book uncovering clues as to what has happened in this man's life. And what a life it was.
Jane Gardam writes in the acknowledgements that one of her inspirations for this book was the Autobiography of Rudyard Kipling who was a Raj Orphan. In fact the book is dedicated to "Raj Orphans and their parents." And I wondered, what was a Raj Orphan? The main character of the book, Sir Edward Feathers aka "Old Filth," was a Raj Orphan. I learned that these were the children of English soldiers and officers who were stationed in the warm colonies of the British Empire, in places like Malaysia. The children were born there and sent back to England to be cared after by relatives, if they were lucky, or strangers as in the case of Feathers. The goal was for these children to be educated in England and to be raised English. This was foster care and much of it was negligent and even abusive. We first meet Old Filth (the main character's nickname, an acronym for "Failed in London Try Hong Kong") when he is an old man and has retired with his wife Betty to the English countryside of Dorset. He has had a long and successful career as a colonial solicitor and judge in Hong Kong, and is admired by everyone in his field and considered a legend. He is rich and handsome, even in old age, and he and Betty have had a long marriage and lived in Hong Kong most of their lives, only returning to England after "the handover" of Hong Kong to the Chinese. They do not have any children.
In the beginning of the book Betty has just died and Feathers is trying to deal with life without her. He is filled with memories of the past. He remembers going to London with her just before her death to tie up details in their wills. She had answered the phone before they departed the house and received a call from a man named Veneering who told her about the death of his son. She is devastated by this news and there is an intimacy in her conversation with Veneering leading us to believe they have had more than a platonic relationship.
And so the story begins. We learn about Old Filth's career in Hong Kong, his marriage to Betty, and his present day retirement in Dorset. But woven throughout these rather mundane stories are the deeper stories of his childhood in Malaysia, his parents and their absence in his life, and his years living in a foster home in Wales where he is sent at age 5. We also learn about the people in his life who came to his rescue, the saviors who appear throughout his very sad story to help him survive. This book has a Dickensian feel to it with its eccentric and unusual characters and its heartbreaking story of unprotected and uncared for children. But it also has the rescuers, the saviors that Dickens always included in his books who exist to help us see that yes, there is some good in the world. In fact many of the characters have theatrical or larger than life characteristics -- one is a card playing, mysterious Chinese dwarf -- that made me think of Dickens and often made me smile. This novel has many excellent qualities but one of my favorites is that it makes the reader experience so many different emotions. And ultimately this book is a powerful story of loneliness and survival.
Before you begin this book, be prepared to take out your dictionary or computer for you will need to look up many words, such as "Queen's Remembrancer" and "Bencher" and other terms from the Inner Temple in London. And what exactly is a "coelacanth"? But I didn't mind the extra work because I learned a lot about the world of the Inner Temple, of English expats living in Hong Kong after World War II, of Raj orphans, of British officers stationed in Malaysia who fathered children and lived there for years. I learned about soldiers whose duty during World War II was to guard Queen Mary at Badminton House in Gloucestershire where she stayed in the English countryside during the course of the war. Feathers was assigned to this detail and he and the Queen become quite close during this period, apparently his height and slight stammer reminded her of her son, King George. I learned a lot about the British Empire when it was at its height and the damage that its policies and attitude of "stiff upper lip" could inflict onto people such as Edward Feathers, the main character in this wonderful book. I was learning about a world that once existed -- "the sun never sets on the British empire" -- but exists no more and I felt enlightened and enriched by what I learned.
I would love to know if you have read this book and what you thought of it. If you haven't read it, I hope you will. It is a beautifully written story about loneliness and one man's search for connection and belonging. As we watch the hero build up his successful career and life, we learn the secrets of his past that up until now he has repressed. But after his wife's death the memories begin to resurface and allow this man to finally come to terms with his real life. The jurists in the Inner Temple on the opening page who are in awe of the legend of "Old Filth" have no idea what it took for this man to get to his level of success. As readers we have the privilege of finding out.