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Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan - one of the many young children sent 'home' from the East to be fostered and educated in England.
Jane Gardam's novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age. In so doing, she not only encapsulates a whole period from the glory days of British Empire, through the Second World War, to the present and beyond, but also illuminates the complexities of the character known variously as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Filth, Master of the Inner Temple, Teddy and Sir Edward Feathers.
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The Prickly Life and Career of a Raj Orphan
It is a great book, no doubt. Jane Gardam takes us to the final decades of the British Empire with all its snobbery, arrogance and hidden cruelty. The prose is without frills and ornaments, but has its own beauty in the clarity and precision, how characters and situations are dissected. The narrative is not without humor, but it always comes with a touch of acid.
It is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a Hong Kong judge, whose nickname “Filth” (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) provides the title of the book. Towards the end of his life, retired and a widower, he starts to reminisce about his life. While he is a respected figure and could be proud of a spectacular career and financial success, he looks back on a life without love and without any real friends, even his marriage was sexless and cold.
Edward lost his mother at birth and was rejected by his father, a civil servant of the Empire. He was raised by a young native Malaysian girl, who shows real love and affection, the only real love, he will ever get. Like other Raj orphans, he is whisked away at the age of 5 to be raised by foster parents in Wales. His childhood is loveless and bitter and is overshadowed by a dark secret.
Things improve, when he finally settles into school, and is “adopted” by his best friend's family. During world war II, he briefly joins the army and protects the Queen Mother, before he finishes his studies in Oxford. To his surprise, a long forgotten friend offers him a chance to work in Hong Kong and this is the start of his long and successful career.
The story is told in a rambling odd way, so very like the tale of a very old man. It will be interesting to read the second part of the trilogy, where Edward’s wife Betty tells her side of the story.
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