The British Empire was manned by scores of colonial soldiers, civil servants, engineers, architects, pastors, lawyers, and administrators. The children of these far-flung Brits needed to learn to become proper Englishmen and Englishwomen, not to mention have an opportunity to make the right connections and get a little schooling too. This was not something they could learn from their ayahs, the native nannies in whose arms they had been placed at birth and from whose arms they were wrenched at ages 3, 4, 5, and 6 to journey Home to England. Any child who was anyone was shipped away from the Far East. Those who weren’t were derogated as “country born.” Once Home until old enough to enter elite boarding schools, these children of the Empire lived with either distant relatives or were fostered with strangers. They were known as Raj Orphans, one more duty owed to Queen and Country.
The most famous Raj Orphan was Rudyard Kipling, the British Nobel Laureate who is both reviled as an imperialist and racist even as his Jungle Book in one form or another has graced the screen for decades. But writing about the Empire without mentioning Kipling is like taking tea without a teaspoon. Here’s betting that if Kipling were alive today he’d rethink publishing “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling urged that it was the burden of white men to uplift and civilize native populations. He was not sparing in his disparagement. The folks who actually lived in the colonies first were “half devil and half child.” And don’t think for a minute that those you saved from famine and disease were going to show a bit of thanks. What you’d get is the “blame of those you better” and the “hate of those you guard.” Not to mention the likelihood that your efforts would fail altogether as “sloth and heathen Folly/Bring all your hopes to nought.” It’s easy to blame Kipling on the Brits, but what often goes unnoticed is the subtitle that accompanied “The White Man’s Burden’s” first publication: “The United States and the Philippine Islands.” The poem was a plea for the United States to annex the Philippines, just liberated from Spain in the Spanish-American War. American imperialists gave their thumbs up. Theodore Roosevelt regarded the poem as “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansionist stand-point.” Henry Cabot Lodge rejoined, “I like it. I think it is better poetry than you say.”
“The White Man’s Burden” enumerates some of the costs of imperialism. In a later autobiographical story, “Baa, Baa Black Sheep,” Kipling writes about a price that he personally paid, the experience of being a Raj Orphan. Punch, 5, and Judy, 3, journey from India to be fostered in England. Judy, the only girl in the household is adored. Punch is the “extra boy,” abused by the foster mother Aunty Rosa and her son Harry. Driven by religious zeal, Aunty Rosa repeatedly beats Punch for imaginary peccadilloes, labels him a showoff for his love of reading and his incessant questions, and denounces him as “Black Sheep.” Aunty Rosa forbids Punch from reading and attempts to drive a wedge between the siblings. She encourages her son to spy on Punch, and the punishments push Punch into subterfuge so that his imaginary wrongdoing becomes real. He becomes partially blind in a nervous reaction. Five years later, Punch and Judy’s mother returns and showers the children with love. “Punch, no longer Black Sheep, has discovered that he is the veritable owner of a real, live, lovely Mamma, who is also a sister, comforter, and friend, and that he must protect her till the Father comes home. Deception does not suit the part of a protector, and, when one can do anything without question, where is the use of deception?” But even Mama’s love cannot erase the scar of five years of abuse. “O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.”
More than a century after Kipling and inspired by his “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” Jane Gardam wrote the Old Filth trilogy: Old Filth (2004), The Man In the Wooden Hat (2009), and Last Friends (2013).
Jane Gardam dedicated Old Filth to Raj Orphans, and her protagonist is one of them. We meet Filth in old age. Filth is an acronym for “Failed In London, Tried Hong Kong.” Filth hasn’t exactly failed. He has been a respected barrister in international cases and was appointed to a judgeship in Hong Kong, residing in this final imperial outpost until shortly before the handover to China, when he’s disgorged with the other servants of the Empire to England. He’s living in Dorset with his wife Betty when the novel opens, an Englishman whose soul is still in the Far East, who’s still part of the vanished Empire but not quite part of England. We learn that the Filth acronym may really be about a stain that Filth has carried with him since his childhood fostering in Wales. It’s physically manifested in a stammer that Filth has never quite conquered. And emotionally? Well as Filth’s sometime lover Isabel observes, there’s “something missing.” After Betty dies, Filth travels about England, encountering old acquaintances. He reminisces about his early childhood in Malaya, his schooling, his experiences in World War II, a bit about the complex relationship among Betty, himself, and his rival attorney and judge, Terry Veneering, and ultimately shakes loose what really went down in Wales so many years before. Old Filth and its sequels are about loneliness and abandonment, about the indignities of old age, about the distinction between passion and friendship, about the nastiness hidden behind the stiff upper lip, about being whom you think you should be instead of who you are, and about the blight of social snobbery.
In the sequels The Man in the Wooden Hat and Lost Friends, Gardam traces many of the same events described in Old Filth from the vantages of Betty and Veneering. Little is as it first appeared, and as different perspectives are unveiled, our views of the characters constantly shift. At one point, Gardam refers to Filth as a “coelacanth,” a fossil. What Gardam’s done in this trilogy is a reconstruction. And her work is masterful, moving, and absorbing. Gardam examines the thoughts of different players, who shade events differently and supply new revelations. It’s as if the truth is a giant mosaic. Some new tiles are found and the picture changes and the colors alter, and some tiles that were previously shadowed emerge into sunlight. Other tiles appear to be permanently lost. And some tiles may not even be authentic, as rumor becomes gospel and perception reality. Even so, a second chance is in the offing for the Last Friends. The final word of the last volume is Resurrection.
The Old Filth Trilogy deserves a second chance. Certainly Gardam did not hesitate to take her own. On the day her youngest child started school, she sat down at her desk and began to write. Just a couple of months short of 88, she’s now the author of twenty-five books and has won two Whitbread Prizes (now known as the Costa Award) for best novel and been nominated for a Booker Prize. The Old Filth Trilogy is a triumph. And Gardam has had a marvelous second act.