“Old Filth” by Jane Gardam

“Old Filth” by Jane Gardam  (2004) – 290 pages

 In this novel FILTH is an acronym for ‘Failed In London Try Hong Kong’.  “Old Filth” is the nickname for Sir Edward Feathers who was born in Malaya and later spent most of his work career as a respected lawyer and judge in Hong Kong.  One might say that “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam is the last British colonial novel.   This deliberately old-fashioned novel is still quite popular seven years after its publication.  

The novel is Sir Edward’s life story starting with his birth to a mother who dies three days later all the way up to the time he becomes a widower in his eighties living in London.  After serving in Hong Kong, Sir Edward and his wife moved back to London only to find his bitter enemy Veneering moving in next door.  It turns out that Veneering has been the lover of Sir Edward’s wife and has given her an expensive set of pearls.  One of the blurbs on the back cover from The Times says “Jane Gardam’s beautiful, vivid, defiantly funny novel”.  There are parts of the story that are beautiful and vivid, but somehow I mostly failed to catch the humor in this novel.  I expect it is my fault, especially because for me Graham Greene’s colonial novels are laugh riots while others see no humor at all in them.   I’m just not that tuned into colonial British upper class life as it is portrayed in “Old Filth” where most of the characters have a stiff upper lip.   I suppose if I were British I could better appreciate the humor in this novel. 

One feature of this novel that I do appreciate is that it does not attempt to tell the whole story of Sir Edward Feathers; instead it darts backward and forward presenting scenes the author considers important for the story.  Thus all the years in Hong Kong are hardly mentioned at all while his years as a child and young man are examined closely. 

Along the way we meet many quirky characters, not least of all Sir Edward Feathers himself.  Nearly everyone in the novel is odd and either hateful or endearing.

OK, this is the novel that all of the reviews without exception praised lavishly, and it is generally regarded as Jane Gardam’s masterpiece, yet my reaction toward the book was only lukewarm.  I just can’t wax passionate about this book one way or the other. This was bound to happen sooner or later.  Not every book is for every person, and this one apparently wasn’t for me.  Maybe I approached the book with the wrong attitude or read it under the wrong circumstances.  You should not take my words about this novel as a final verdict, because the rest of the world apparently loves the book.


8 responses to this post.

  1. This novel was my first Gardam as well — I approached it having heard the same ecstatic recommendations and figured I was finding an author whose back list I would soon be ordering.

    And I had exactly — and I mean exactly — the same response. It was fine, but hardly hilarious. A decent read, not much more, and certainly not worthy of sending me into the back list

    So I don’t think it was your mood or attitude — I just don’t think the novel is as good as its reputation. Now, both of us can be slagged for our common response.


  2. Hi Kevin,
    It is reassuring to know that someone else reacted similarly. I glanced through many reviews of the novel, and all were extremely positive, including the Complete Review. I was beginning to feel like the Lone Ranger on this one.


  3. Old Filth isn’t my favorite, but don’t give up on Gardam. I especially liked some of the earlier Gardams, God on the Rocks, The Queen of Tambourine and Faith Fox. She must be in her 80s now, and the astonishing thing is that she’s still writing good fiction.


  4. Hi Frisbee,
    Thank you for the recommendations;I believe “The Queen of the Tambourines” was short-listed for the Booker. England is quite amazing in its multitude of fiction writers. They seem to value fiction more than we do.


  5. I’ve read only one I think, The Sidmouth letters, but that would have been 20 or so years ago. I remember liking it, and planning to read more, but I never have. (BTW I do like the FILTH acronym … must say I’d like to read it just for that but I probably never will).


    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      I did read ‘Queen of the Tambourines” about 15 years ago. Somehow Gardam is a novelist that I don’t have a natural affinity for. Apparently many like her novels a lot.


  6. I read the last one in the series, The Man in the Wooden Hat, without reading this one you’ve reviewed – I must get around to it soon. You make it sounds like a worthwhile read


  7. Hi Tom,
    I’ve done that, read the second in a series before the first. I believe I read “Harp in the South” and “Poor Man’s Orange” out of order. Of course, Sometimes the author will write a prequel after the first book. Thanks for stopping by.


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