Ann suggested this novel, the story of the life of an international lawyer, Sir Edward Feathers, popularly known as Old Filth. It has received wide praise as a portrayal of the psychologically damaging effects of Empire, and a portrayal of the Empire's demise.
We first see Edward Feathers after his retirement, through the eyes of a group in the dining room of the Inner Temple, discussing him after he's left the room:
Senior Judge: It seemed to be a famous face ...
The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth. Great advocate, Judge... Said to have invented FILTH - Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap...
The Queen's Remembrancer: ...had a soft life. Far Eastern Bar. And made a packet... benevolent old bugger ...
CS: Never put a foot wrong... Very popular... Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar...
After providing this view of him from outside, the novel quickly moves closer in, and we see him in his retirement cottage in Dorset after the death of his wife Betty, oddly troubled by the arrival in the next cottage of a once rival Hong Kong judge, Veneering. From this point the book then goes on to reveal, in a non-linear way that follows the workings of memory, the troubles and stresses behind Feathers' outwardly successful and comfortable if reserved appearance. In particular we are shown the pain of his experience as a Child of the Raj, and its legacy. Initially raised by a poor Malaysian family after his mother's death in childbirth, he is ripped at the age of five from this loving environment by the decision of his austere and distant father - a man himself traumatised by war - to send him back to Britain. He will never hear from his father again, the letters he writes as he grows never eliciting a response. In Britain, alongside two girl cousins and another boy similarly despatched, he is fostered in a Welsh home where they experience hardship and cruelty. The precise nature of the trauma in that place, which ends with the death of their foster mother Ma Didds, is not made clear for a long time into the book, but we are quickly made aware that Edward - Filth in the present - still carries it as a lifetime wound. After the foster home, Edward is whisked away at the age of eight to the relative peace of a fairly pastoral prep school, where he becomes friends with a boy, Jack Ingoldby, whose Yorkshire factory-owning family invite him to keep Jack company in the school holidays at their rural house, a family to which he comes to feel he belongs. However, subsequent rejection by this family, cavalier treatment by the Lancashire aunts who were never in touch before he finished boarding school - although it will turn out that all along they were being paid to look after his welfare - and a searing and abortive attempt to return to the East during the war, all render him a young man very much alone and traumatised in the world, with a clamping down of his emotions the only way to cope.
We learn all of this in flashbacks as memories flood him in the wake of the death of his wife Betty, a comfortable, tweedy woman he met and married in Hong Kong, from where, due to the fading of British influence there, they retired to Dorset. Their marriage was clearly bland, based on domestic order and neatness, and somewhat passionless (separate beds, no children). It gradually becomes clear that their sexual passions were spent elsewhere, Filth's successfully extinguished after their marriage, and Betty's expended in a liaison with Filth's rival Veneering that neither she nor Filth ever acknowledged, Filth even to himself. The reader will come to know - though Filth never does - that in the moments before Betty's fatal heart attack, she had buried a gift from Veneering in the garden. As the novel progresses, it will become clear that the marriage operated for Filth as the balm for a tortured soul, and the effect of her death on him is dramatic. He begins to behave in uncharacteristic ways; all of a sudden he leaves his Dorset isolation, and takes to the road to visit the two female cousins, Babs and Claire, with whom he spent his foster years in Wales, and with whom he has clearly not been much in contact in the intervening years. He is shocked to find Babs living in reduced and slovenly circumstances and clearly unbalanced, presumably suffering lasting psychological damage from the childhood time in Wales. Contact between the cousins now reveals to the reader the truth of what actually happened to end their time in Wales, which Filth has clearly spent his lifetime suppressing, but for which he has nevertheless suffered a lifetime's guilt - misplaced, as it turns out when Claire provides him with new information. The narrative at this point will tell us of the way the experience moulded Filth's legal judgements. We learn too of the way that connections made in Edward's troubled youth reappeared at later times, sometimes unknown to him, to help him on in life and towards his career. Reading Betty's obituary in a hotel dining room, Filth is forced too to confront her true status as a powerful woman of the establishment, acknowledgement of which he has clearly suppressed in his need for a nurturing wife. Finally, back in Dorset, Filth can at last, for the first time in his housekeeper's years of service, remember her name: the protective reserve he once created as a barrier to the outside world is broken.
Ann began our discussion of this book by saying that although she had expected to really like it she hadn't known what to make of it in the end, and I agreed: we were in fact a bit puzzled by the universal praise. Most others - Jenny, Clare, Mark and Doug - expressed great surprise and said they had really liked it. They thought it the great portrait it was praised as being and went on to pick out aspects of the book that had really struck them: in particular the portrayal of the early years in Malaysia - which they thought was beautifully poetically written, perhaps the best written bit of the book; the ultimate cruelty of the apparently welcoming family in Yorkshire - 'This is a family matter', they say in response to Edward's offer to rush there when a tragedy occurs (they had just used him!); and the awful blase but cunning selfishness of the aunts - they had used him, too! It is indeed they who must have arranged the fostering by Ma Didds. These were all things which Ann and I agreed were striking.
I said that my problem with the book was the dialogue, which I didn't find realistic but rather stilted, and which consequently never really brought the characters to life for me, and therefore failed to make me interested in their fates and left me feeling that the book was a rather artificial construct. There seemed to me a lot of conveying information to the reader through the mouths of characters, which led to unrealistic speechifying. Sometimes characters would meet for the very first time and seemingly within seconds give an unrealistically uninterrupted speech about themselves, or at least make unrealistically personal announcements about themselves, their backgrounds etc. Mrs Ingoldby talks to the young Edward about her own experience as a Child of the Raj, and the situation in the Punjab at the time, conveying it in one huge lump which feels more like an essay directed to the reader than dialogue with Eddie. When Filth arrives on his visit to his female cousin Babs, she asks him, 'Do you want tea? I make it on my gas-ring...' This doesn't chime true for me. Why would she mention the gas-ring? Since Filth is present he can clearly see how she is living and that she is about to make tea in the living room on a gas-ring (she will draw 'a half-empty milk bottle' from 'an ancient gramophone'), so there is no need for her to convey that information to him; in any case she would be unlikely to do so in such an novelistically illustrative way. Others in our group said they hadn't noticed anything amiss with the dialogue, though they did all concede that the most convincing dialogue in the book was that between Filth and his wife Betty, with which I agreed.
Ann now put her finger on what she had found unsatisfying about the book. Having herself had the experience of being sent back from abroad to boarding school in the UK, she felt that a major thing missing from the book was the culture shock of arriving here - the traditional British food and customs and the climate, which would of course be the prime experience for a small child. Others in the group pointed out that the food at Ma Didds' is mentioned, and it's made very clear that the children were cold and uncomfortable there. I felt however that Ann was right, and pointed out that we may have been told these things about the time at Ma Didds' but the sensual experience of them for the child are never conveyed - which seems a particular lack after the sensuality of the Malaysian section.
For me there was another major gap: in a life history so generally comprehensive and which dramatises in detail Edward's other sexual episodes, there is nothing of the way he meets Betty, or of their initial relationship, beyond a late-on statement (on the belated resurgence of his lust, for a neighbour who calls round) that in the beginning Betty did arouse sexual excitement in him. Jenny said that this was probably because Betty was for him a balm against memories, but it didn't seem realistic to me that in the context he wouldn't remember, in a dramatised way, the beginnings of his relationship with her. This would also provide for the reader a stronger, more visceral sense of their relationship and of what she did ultimately mean to him.
I didn't mention it in the meeting, but I was also alienated by the only occasional but shocking snobbery. Claire is taken to Cambridge by her son Oliver while Filth is staying with her, and as they walk by the Cam 'Fat common people in tight clothes licked ice creams and ate oozing buns and shouted.' This is presumably the author's satirical portrayal of Claire, as the third-person narration here briefly and loosely adopts Clare's point of view, and the authorial intention may be to illustrate the different way that their childhood experience has affected her, leaving her untouched, indeed hardened, in her privilege. The effect for me however was to reduce the poignancy of the plight of all three children. Her later letter to Filth seems posturing and is pretentiously worded:
We three ... were absorbed in the process of handing over responsibility to the powers of darkness we had met as children, and who had met us. We were thoroughly engaged, us three. Still untamed. We were of the jungle ... You, Teddy, were horribly touched by [Ma Didds]. You became no good at love.
which made it hard to be as affected as I felt I was meant to be by its summing up of the effect of the Wales experience on the three cousins, and a significant plot revelation.
Others now began to mention things about the book that they felt didn't quite work. Some said that there were too many coincidences, particularly in the way characters from the past popped up out of the blue. This was a point with which I didn't agree, since the people the book deals with move within the confines of establishment circles. In spite of the fact that everyone had agreed that the section set in Malaysia was the most vivid and affecting, people wondered if the author's knowledge of Malaysia was secondhand. I'm not sure precisely what it was about this section that made them wonder this, and it certainly hadn't struck me - as far as I'm concerned, whether or not an author has actually experienced what they're writing about is irrelevant if it comes off the page as convincing, and to me this section did. However, the phrase 'curtains of light' occurs twice to describe Hong Kong within the brief references to the long time that Filth and Betty spent there, and while the phrase is vivid, its repetition in such a brief space does I think perhaps imply a lack of rich knowledge of the place - and perhaps this is what is behind the lack of any dramatised portrayal of how Betty and Filth got together in Hong Kong.
These comments of the others did seem to imply a sharing of my sense of the book as somewhat artificial, but in conclusion they said that nevertheless they still really liked it. Mark said to the agreement of others that it had been a really compulsive read - 'What more could you want?' - and was amazed that he had never heard of this great author before.
The next meeting will be in September when we'll discuss Pine by Francine Toon (Clare's suggestion).
of books discussed