What did the book club think of Old Filth? Note that there will be some spoilers, though I wouldn't say we give everything away.
So I walked into Boswell on Tuesday and Jane, no sooner than I arrived at the store, greeted me, and said, “Well, what did they think?” “What did who think?” I replied. “Why the book club, of course!” Is everybody excited to know these things or is it just my fellow lover of book clubs, books, and well, English writers of a certain age?
So what is this book anyway? Jane Gardam’s 15th novel, which came out in 2004 the UK and 2006 stateside, certainly wasn’t her most lauded to date, though it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Woman's Prize). She won the Whitbread Prize (now the Costa Prize) twice, for The Hollow Rocks (1981) and Queen of the Tambourine (1991); the latter also won the Prix Baudelaire. Her 1978 novel God on the Rocks was shortlisted for the Booker (now the Man Booker) Prize. And that’s not even counting the laurels for her short stories.
But it was Old Filth that definitely brought her readership to a new level in the United States, and it’s still her number one book by demand today at Ingram. Old Filth was followed by The Man in the Woman Hat in 2009 and Last Friends in 2013, all part of the Old Filth cycle. I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, viewing several lives from different perspectives in different angles.
Old Filth is Edward Feathers, a retired judge whose nickname came from “Failed in London, try Hong Kong.” He’s settled back in Dorset, newly widowed, rather a loner. As the story progresses, we go back and forth between past and present, learning about his early life as Raj orphan, one of the many British children sent home to be cared for by hired help, half-interested relatives, and boarding schools, while their parents remained at the far-flung outposts of the Empire. We learn a bit right away, but Gardam doles out the secrets with care, leading us to learn a little more about, and care a little more for, our hero.
So like Jane, you’re probably wondering, “What did the book club think?”
I think based on our reactions, we saw Edward “Old Filth” Feathers as the heart of the story, more than plot or theme. Nancy admitted she had trouble with his name, especially the going back and forth between Filth and Feathers.We're going to stick with the former to keep things clear.
Judy S. loved the characters, while Carolyn W. liked it, but didn’t bond with the characters. She noted that Filth’s story was inspired by Rudyard Kipling.
Maureen was fascinated by Old Filth’s resiliency. So was Albert, who likened Filth to a John Malkevich character, but I didn’t get the film reference.
Caroline K. noted that Gardam did a good job writing about old people and liked it enough to read one of the sequels. Marilyn enjoyed it very much and wound up reading both follow-up novels in the cycle.
Judy T. hadn’t read a lot of English writers, so this was yet another opportunity to expand her horizons. Like most of us, she found Filth quite sympathetic, particularly as he’d gone through so much loss.
Sharon wondered whether Filth could be considered successful. He certainly would have been viewed as such by his peers, but should he have happier in his retirement?
Carolyn W. and Sharon contemplated the relationship of Filth and Betty. Were they happy? What were their sexual lives like, together and separately? And what about those pearls? Judy S. thought they were a symbol of chastity. She noted a good deal of Christian symbolism in the story.
Regarding the plotline, Mary didn’t much know about the historical basis of the story.
Roger, who reads a lot of suspense, found that the mystery at the heart of the story was a bit anti-climactic. There was some discussion about whether the crime committed was intentional or not, and how whether or not that was the case, the participants were still affected by the incident for the rest of their lives.
Joyce found it an interesting snapshot of the time period. Sharon found it a bit disjointed, but this was her first time in our group and will find that many titles we read seem to jump around in time. I guess that’s a thing of mine.
What about the humor? We all found the Queen Mary segment, where Filth is assigned to her guard, to be quite funny. She liked Filth because he reminds her of the king. It does turn out to be one of the funnier incidents in the book. While billed as a comedy, it’s got some pretty somber elements, doesn’t it?
We all thought that Filth locking himself out of the house and having to turn to his old arch-enemy Veneering was particularly good bit, funny awkward and also important for character development. Filth’s various attempts at travel were also pretty amusing, considering that this fellow had spent most of his adult life abroad. Similarly the ill-fated trip to Singapore, though heartbreaking, had a good dose of humor as well. One would hardly call it slapstick, but it’s definitely that sort of dry English comedy with dark undertones, with the contemporary scenes being the funniest.
But it wasn’t all funny stories here. Gail was caught up in the child abuse that was at the heart of the novel. We discussed how these Raj Orphans often faced the same perils of children who’ve gotten the short end of the stick in the foster care system, only in most cases, these children were from the completely opposite end of the economic spectrum.
So how were Filth and Betty’s lives affected by his problematic upbringing? Do we think he and Betty avoid having children to break the cycle? And not just the nanny is indicted by the story, but Filth’s aunts as well. They were clearly skimming money that his father was sending them.
Mickie noted how an errant childhood can affect adulthood. And Gail noted that studies show that children aren’t reliant as we’ve thought. For each one who grows a difficult childhood into a stable adulthood, there are others who are broken by the experience.
Claire and Babs, the Raj orphan cousins, clearly have some baggage from their early years. And what of Filth’s father? Was he a victim as well?
And then there is the Ingoldby family. They are clearly the folks Filth turns to for stability, his surrogate family, but they suffer their own losses, and Filth learns that in the end, he is not one of them. On the other hand, he does share a bond with Isobel, though she does turn out to prefer the company of women. That’s ok, as sex sort of gets Filth into trouble. Gardam has said that if there is a fourth Old Filth novel, it will be about Isobel.
Carolyn W. noted that Old Filth, despite being set much in Asia, hardly has any Asian characters. There is Albert Loss, the man he meets on his ill-fated ship journey to Singapore.
This led to a discussion of the British Empire and colonization. Judy S. waxed on about The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, which most of us agreed that while we hadn’t read it, we’d like to. Roger also noted that George Orwell was also a Raj Orphan, his father being a colonial administrator. I'll take his word for it.
One thing Carolyn noted is that in a sense, the Empire is responsible for the children’s problems as Raj orphans. If there parents weren’t living abroad running things, they’d have their kids with them, and the kids wouldn’t have fallen in with manipulating relatives and sadistic nannies.
All in all, a pretty enthusiastic endorsement for Gardam’s Old Filth. I’m probably not going to read the rest of the titles, as I’m not one for series and cycles, but I suspect that several other attendees will.
Here's Roslyn Sulcas's profile of Jane Gardam in The New York Times from last June, which led me to pick Old Filth as our selection.
What’s coming up for the In-Store Book Club? On Monday, November 3, we’re reading Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, which jumps from Hong Kong to Mainland China, following the lives of several Chinese characters who emigrate to Shanghai. And then on December 1, we’re going to read Janice Clark’s The Rathbones, which chronicles the last generation of a family of whalers. Both discussions begin at 7 pm.