Posted by: Jeanie F | December 31, 2015

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filfth

“Old Filth” is a character, and not the kind of character than the title of this engaging novel might suggest. “Filth” is, in fact, an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. This is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a “Raj orphan” who went on to become a successful lawyer and judge in Hong Kong.

The story begins with five-year old “Eddie” being torn from his home in Malaysia where he has been raised by native women and ignored by his father, a British civil servant located in what was then known as “Malay”. Eddie’s mother had died in childbirth. It was the practice at the time for the children of British civil servants stationed in various locations around The Empire to be sent “Home”, as the UK was called by the adults. It was far from “home” for these children, many of whom saw little or nothing of their natal family after being relocated.

In Eddie’s case, he and two female cousins are sent to Wales where they are fostered by an angry and abusive woman. When they are finally removed from her care the three are separated but haunted by memories of the experience. It is, in fact, one of the defining events of Filth’s life, although the extent to which it has affected him isn’t clear until the end of the novel.

Filth is rescued by Sir, an eccentric schoolmaster, and by the family of one of Filth’s school friends, but he lives a life of both personal success and private scars. He marries well, he is venerated professionally, he is wealthy. He is also isolated, insecure, misanthropic.

In spite of his often frustrating surliness, as we learn more about his life, the events that have shaped him, we develop empathy for not only Edward Feathers, but for an entire generation of children who lived an experience that many of us know little about. It has been said of author Jane Gardam that “If Rudyard Kipling was the laureate of the British Empire, then Jane Gardam is surely the closest thing we have to a laureate of its demise” (Elizabeth Lowry, The Times Literary Supplement, 2013).

Old Filth shines a light on a dark corner of British history. It was well worth the read.

Grade: B+


  1. I love Jane Gardam and really enjoyed the dry English wit. Her subsequent books about Feathers, The Man in The Wooden Hat told from Betty’s point of view was even better, I think . And Last Friends, the end of the trilogy from Veneering’s angle, tied it all together. So well done.

  2. After reading Old Filth, I also read the trilogy – but then looked for more by this author. Luckily, she is prolific – even found a children’s book.

    • I found her children’s book, This Hollow Land, lyrical and sweet and eminently readable. I will search out some of her others.

      • You and Rosemary have inspired me to look for more works by her!

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