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Book Review

A boisterous tale of surviving the British Raj

Old Filth, By Jane Gardam, Europa, 289 pp., $14.95

Jane Gardam's "Old Filth" is finding a new life on the "must read" underground. Long prized in England as a writer of wit and discipline, she has found new fans with this startling ride back into the singular childhood of Sir Edward Feathers. To her talents as a sure-handed stylist, add the power to bring pathos and humor to the unimaginable, and the range to venture far from the English countryside. She gives us Sir Edward -- a surviving "Raj orphan" and a world-class character -- then propels him through a final, quixotic round of goodbyes.

"Filth" here is a wry acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong" that Sir Edward coined -- then was tagged with -- early in his career. When we first meet Sir Edward he is "nearing 80," dressed in slippers and a thin cardigan. He has locked himself out of his Dorset farmhouse during a snowstorm. He is "Old Filth" now, recently widowed, childless, fussy, irascible, and three years into retirement after a storied half-century career in Hong Kong as a lawyer and judge. He can freeze to death, or struggle through the drifts to his only neighbor, Veneering -- a detested Hong Kong rival -- who has further infuriated Feathers by retiring to an adjacent estate. It is a difficult decision: certain death versus certain humiliation. Sir Edward takes his chances on humiliation and is surprised and transformed by the outcome. In this marvelous, quirky, meticulous novel it is this moment that inspires Sir Edward to "flick open shutters on the past that he had, as a sensible man, with sensible and learned friends, clamped down."

It was a British custom to take children from the corners of the Empire and send them home to England to begin their education while the parents remained abroad. Sir Edward, called Teddy as a child, was 4. Rudyard Kipling -- the most famous of the Raj children -- was 6. The children were fed into a cottage industry of foster homes until they were old enough to attend boarding school. They left a storybook world of amahs and punkah-wallahs, exotic fruits, and village adventures. They were separated from parents -- physically and emotionally -- and learned to survive in an often mean little world of strangers until they reached adulthood. Teddy set out from British Malaya in steerage with Auntie May, a sensible Baptist missionary, while his cousins Babs and Claire were slightly better off two decks above. Teddy was doubly cursed: His mother had died when he was only days old, and his father -- a district officer irrevocably broken by the Great War -- had gone "native." The three children would spend the next four years together in the hellish Dibbs home in Wales, creating a web "too tight-knit for jealousy or taunts." It is to seek out Babs and Claire and the ghosts of his childhood that fuels Old Filth's final odyssey.

Sir Edward arrives at Babs's cottage and is knocked into a hedge by a 14-year-boy flying out her door in terror. Once inside, he is troubled by the darkness, the smell, and Babs weeping at the piano. Babs asks quietly if he remembers "First Flush." Gardam writes, "For a dreadful moment Filth thought that Babs was referring to the menopause . . . or maybe it was something to do with Bridge? . . . or the domestic plumbing?"

"Tea, Teddy . . . First Flush is tea. From Darjeeling . . . Don't you remember?" Babs is beaming. They are -- for just a moment -- children of privilege again.

It is no coincidence that Gardam has Sir Edward "nearing 80." So is she. There is something of Gardam in Sir Edward. Old Filth has no time to waste on his comfortable public persona: What he became is finally less important than how he survived. Gardam, with a twinkle, has challenged her own comfortable reputation. Like Old Filth, the artist in Gardam is less concerned with what is expected of her. She has reached a new audience by heading out on a boisterous journey of her own. It is a wonderful ride.

Peter Kneisel can be reached at pjkneisel@comcast.net

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