Jane Gardam’s Old Filth

In preparing for a booktalk that a colleague and I will be giving next week at a local women’s group, I reread Jane Gardam’s Old Filth.

Jane Gardam is an author who is still very much under the radar in the United States, even though a 2006 review in The New York Times mused that Old Filth might just garner Gardam the attention she deserves. The same review praised Old Filth for its “typical excellence and compulsive readability,” called it “pitch-perfect” and hailed Gardam’s talent at creating a hero that “eludes sociological or psychological pigeonholing.” With such words of praise, why do I feel as though I am the only person talking about this book and this author?

First off, there’s the title—you’re probably wondering what it means. Well, Old Filth is merely an acronym for a phrase that the main character coined as a young, struggling lawyer that later become his moniker. It stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Sir Edward Feathers was a renowned lawyer and judge in Hong Kong before he and his wife, Betty, returned to Dorset, England to retire. Edward Feathers is a proper, faithful, emotionally distant man whose life in upended when Betty suddenly dies. Edward’s past starts looming up within him in interesting ways, and the way that Gardam writes this character and draws us in to his interior world is fascinating and unforgettable.

Edward and his wife Betty were both what’s called “Empire Orphans.” Their parents were colonials who sent their children back to England to be educated, in many cases never setting eyes on them again. Edward’s mother died after he was born, and his father scarcely acknowledged him his entire life, but he was sent from his home with the servants in Malay to a foster home with his cousins. We learn that Edward’s childhood was a difficult one, marked by one abandonment after another and a dark secret that Gardam reveals only towards the end.

What I love about Jane Gardam is that she reminds me of Iris Murdoch. Gardam is funny, cutting, a keen observer, and so well-attuned to her characters. Another novelist, Maggie Gee, said it better than I can: “The writing crackles with energy, variety, sensuous richness. It is the writing of a 25-year-old with the wisdom and subtlety of a razor-sharp 100-year-old.”

I don’t mean to beg or anything, but I guess when I see the numbers for the readership of this blog, I harbor idealistic visions of book groups across the country tipping the scales for authors like Gardam. Can you trust me, and schedule this book for your book group at some point in the future? You may not love it as I do, but I guarantee a great discussion out of it. And if you like Old Filth, you might also find that Flight of the Maidens and Faith Fox are also wonderful for discussion.



About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

15 Comments on "Jane Gardam’s Old Filth"

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  1. mquinn@ala.org' Mary Ellen says:

    Jane Gardam’s new book, The Man in the Wooden hat, is a kind of prequel/sequel to Old Filth and features many of the same characters. It’s due to be published in November.

  2. randhward@btinternet.com' Hilly Ward says:

    I heard on a BBC Radio 4 programme a week or so back that Jane Gardam has a new book out in September giving Betty’s story. Is this true? Are you aware of this? I would appreciate any information you can give me.

    Kind regards

    • mquinn@ala.org' Mary Ellen says:

      As it happens, I just finished writing the Booklist review of the new novel, called The Man in the Wooden Hat. It does indeed relate many of the same incidents from Old Filth, but from Betty’s prespective. Pub. date is November. Publisher is Europa.

  3. a1dogzncatz@sympatico.ca' Cate Watson says:

    Just read Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and then God on the Rocks. Now that I have discovered her, are there any other writers (don’t have to be female writers) as witty, funny, clever and who tell such good stories? I am a life-long (over 60 now) mystery fan, but the inevitable has finally happened: I am tired of murder mysteries – and have probably read most of them. I would like to read more books like Ms. Gardam’s. Incidentally, my mother was an “Empire Orphan” – so Old Filth even more interesting to me. Will be buying The Man in the Wooden Hat as soon as I can find a copy. No chance of my starting a book club or joining one,unless there is one in Leslieville in Toronto, Canada, in which case, please get in touch, but internet advice always welcome. Regards to all Gardam lovers! CW

  4. mquinn@ala.org' Mary Ellen says:

    Cate–Other authors you could try in the witty, funny, and clever vein are David Lodge, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Molly Keane, and Elizabeth Jolley. Also John Mortimer, who is best known for his Rumpole series of mysteries, but has written several other novels as well.

  5. nkjensen@atlantic.net' norman jensen says:

    I understand that the character of old Filth appears in another of Gardam’s novels besides Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. Can someone tell me what it is?

  6. Edward Feathers(aka Old Filth)appears in the title story in a collection called The People on Privilege Hill, published in 2008.

  7. jupersdupers@yahoo.com' judy sherrard says:

    Just finished Man in the Wooden Hat (after reading Old Filth as well) and have the same impulse to grab people and made them read these books. They’re the best writing I’ve encountered in a long, long time. They’re very reminiscent of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in that they examine a marriage from many facets.

  8. Our book club will be discussing Old Filth tomorrow. I thoroughly enjoyed this satisfying book and look forward to reading more of Gardam’s work.

  9. alanjamesanderson@gmail.com' Alan Anderson says:

    After turning through the pages of Edward Feathers life, the fascination of every page of the sequel “Man in the Wooden Hat” has made the “Old Filth” a reread. Perhaps one of the best of a long line of UK authors from around the world. These two titles should be published as a set and included on everyone’s top 100 list. One day J. Gardam will receive credit for being the truly quality author that she is.

  10. mesmkrall@aol.com' Elizabeth Krall says:

    We are reading Old Filth for this month’s book club. We have both men and women in our group. I am not sure how everyone will like it but so far so good. I love Jane Gardham and found her by accident and ended up reading many of her books. I try to stay away from typical best sellers and make our group stretch a little. Somehow I have become the benevolent dictator in our group. I love this book. The characters are so well drawn. I hope anyone out there sees this thread and adds it to their must read list.

  11. The title of this masterpiece is so off-putting I would never have selected it. Thank goodness a member of my book group urged us to read it. Almost every page surprised, enlightened, or mesmerized me with a brilliant passage. This is a masterpiece of a novel!

  12. gailhedy@yahoo.com' gail lonseth says:


    I have just read Old Filth and loved it. I want to present it to my book club but am having a hard time coming up with interesting questions that would lead to some great discussions. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you so much
    Gail Lonseth

  13. misha says:

    Hello Gail!
    Thanks for asking. It is so great to see readers and book groups are still discovering Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth.” When my group discussed the book I used the Europa Editions guide questions as a springboard. Here is the link:
    You could also talk about the way Gardam opens and close the book, by using a play-like dialogue between barristers who only knew of Old Filth via his reputation. It is, after all, a novel about perception–of how others see us, how we see ourselves and how certain events can transform or shake our sense of ourselves.
    I hope you have a lively discussion–this is one of those books where still waters run deep!

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