It is only when his wife Betty has died that Sir Edward Feathers finds he must face the deeply upsetting events that constituted much of the first twenty years of his life. Now a widower living quietly in Dorset, he appears to be a wealthy, elegant man who still commands respect from those who have succeeded him in the legal profession; he is haunted, however, by memories and longings that clamor for recognition and resolution, and that send him on both an inner and outer journey to lay his demons to rest. Visiting old, lost childhood friends, he begins to face the emotional damage endured in his childhood that he has kept secret largely even from himself.
Although Jane Gardam describes Feathers as almost ostentatiously clean and spruce, he is known far and wide as Old Filth, a nickname earned as a result of his being credited with the comical acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong.” Discouraged by a failing career in law in London, Feathers was indeed given a second chance in colonial Hong Kong, where he rose to a distinguished judgeship in the Court of International Justice. The acronym is also a pithy way to indicate the power and range of the British Empire, which dominated not only its foreign subjects but also the English men and women expected to serve its interests. Feathers, or Old Filth, is an example of thishis father and he were both shaped by the power of the Empire, whose imperatives can justly be described as having its filthy aspects. Filth’s nickname also has a psychological aspect, a reference to buried childhood memories that he must dredge up in order to be at peace with himself.
The memories all were formed in the first twenty years of his life, which were marked by neglect, abuse, and loss. His mother died two days after his birth, his father succumbed to alcohol and shellshock; utterly ignored by his father, he was fortunately well looked after by a loving Malay native girl, Ada. This idyll is interrupted by his aunt, who, as was the custom, arranges to send him back to England to be reared there. There is no question of the parents remaining with their children, “Raj Orphans,” who were left to live with strangers in England as their parents were expected to serve the interests of the Empire and their own status within it. For Filth, however, the Far East always remained his true beloved home, where he will enjoy his greatest professional success and where he will eventually want to return to die. Although he seems to incarnate a certain type of Englishman associated with the British Empire in the twentieth century, Filth is, on a deep level, an expatriate who never feels at home on English soil; he and his wife Betty, a Scotswoman who was born in Peking, share a regard for Asian values, and Filth’s own happiest childhood memories belong to his first home in Malaya.
Although sent to be cared for by his aunts Muriel and Hilda, this heartless duo pocket the funds meant for their young charge, devote their lives to their golf game, and board Filth on the cheap in a foster home in Wales run by an abusive woman known as Ma Didds. Although the three years Filth spends with Ma Didds are crucial to his development, he finds it difficult to face the memory of what happened there. It is when he reconnects with his two fellow boarders and distant cousins Babs and Claire that he is given a second chance to come to terms with this tragic time in his life. In order to protect a fourth child, the vulnerable Billy Cumberledge, the three cousins put a magical Malay death curse on Ma Didds; in this way they feel they have all become lifelong partners in crime. This becomes even more the case after Ma Didds does in fact die because Filth has, in trying to prevent further harm to Cumberledge, quite unmagically caused her death by flinging her down the stairs of her house. This guilty secretof which only he and the three other boarders are in possessionhaunts him the rest of his life.
As Filth recalls his neglect by his family and the abuse by his foster mother that results in his own violent retaliation, he comes to understand that, despite all his success, he is not the man he could or should have been. Wary of strong feeling, Filth realizes that his one possible passionate love, Isobel Ingoldsby, failed to develop into a sustained relationship because the emotional risk would have been too difficult for him. Additionally, Filth often finds it difficult to separate Isobel from his memories of the cruel Ma Didds; instead he marries the reliable, undemanding Betty....
(The entire section is 1851 words.)