Home from the Raj
By Jane Gardam
Readers familiar with Jane Gardam’s earlier novels Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat will quickly recognize the cast of characters in her latest, Last Friends, which begins with the clear message that it is the end of an era: “The Titans were gone.” Not only had they “clashed their last,” longtime rivals Sir Edward Feathers (aka Old Filth) and Sir Terence Veneering had also breathed their last, and it is at Filth’s funeral that the remaining “last friends” reencounter each other for what may be the last time.
One of these friends is Dulcie Willy, the widow of a judge who served, alongside Filth, Veneering and many others, in Hong Kong and the Far East in the waning days of the British Empire. Most of the people in their circle were “Raj orphans,” children whose parents formed part of the massive bureaucratic and military apparatus maintaining the British Empire, sent “Home” to a strange country, full of strangers, for their education. Torn from their families somewhere around age five, these Raj orphans (and their parents) each had different experiences of family life and love. Dulcie, for example, tells her daughter Susan in Last Friends that she simply can’t understand why the younger woman cared about it at all.
“You made a great fuss. I can’t think why. It is such a character-forming thing to be separated from one’s parents. I never saw mine for years. I didn’t miss them at all. Couldn’t remember what they looked like after about a week. But then, I’ve never been very interesting and I’m sure they weren’t.”
“I missed mine,” said Susan.
“Your father, I suppose.”
“No. I missed you. Dreadfully.”
“Susan! How lovely! I had no idea! How kind of you to tell me. I did write you thousands of letters—.”
This issue dominates Old Filth. Filth himself was a second-generation Raj orphan whose mother died in childbirth. His own father had had a bad experience going Home, but with only a young Malaysian amah to take care of little Eddie, he had to go to England. In a meeting years later, one of Filth’s foster sisters tells him “it suits some. They come out fizzing and yelling, ‘I didn’t need parents,’ and waving the red, white and blue. Snooty for life.”
The Man in the Wooden Hat rehashes many of the same stories from different angles, with new information and a focus on Filth’s young married life with Betty. Betty had a somewhat different childhood—not a Raj orphan, but a child of the Raj who spent World War II in a Shanghai prison camp, where her parents died. She went Home later, and while the events of her childhood were different, she shared two important traumas with Filth and the rest: she was separated from her parents, albeit through other means, and she suffered the same displacement that would doom her friends to wander the globe, bouncing between and England they belonged to but never felt comfortable in, and an Asia fast becoming a home that didn’t want them anymore.
Last Friends is set much more firmly in England, and even at the memorial service that begins it, the remaining Raj wanderers are now dwarfed in number by acquaintances, neighbors, and admirers who have remained “Home” in Britain all their lives. Dulcie’s reflections on the memorial service and her remaining friends and family lead to an impulsive trip to the North of England—echoing a similar trip Filth made just a few years earlier—where she discovers at least a part of the history that the narrator has been revealing to the reader throughout Last Friends.
This history is anchored at Home, about two members of the group who actually grew up there: Veneering and Frederick Fiscal-Smith. Gardam’s two earlier novels described the childhood and early adulthood of Filth and his wife Betty, going on into their early and late married years together and touching everything between, and Last Friends gives the same treatment to these two. But while Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat illuminated the events of the present by tracing it all back to the Raj orphan psychology of extreme displacement, Last Friends shows the reader a world that never feels fully connected with what comes after. Veneering and Fiscal-Smith weren’t Raj orphans, or any kind of orphans at all; they were two children growing up in only somewhat unconventional circumstances shortly before World War II.
In this way, Veneering’s beginnings remain as mysterious as his ending, portrayed in the earlier novels. His mother, Florence, fell for a Russian circus performer who broke his back in the last show he was ever to give. She took cared for him, married him, and had his son, though the two seem barely to have been able to speak to each other. Terry, the only child of their union, was an independent young man, spending much of his time after school tooling around Teeside on his own:
He was not a rapturous child. The crane-gantry of the Blast Furnaces turned delirious blue at dusk but he was not to be a painter. He noted and considered the paint-brush flicker of flame on the top of each chimney leaning this way and then that but he sat on his pale beach noting them and no more.
He had no idea why he was drawn to the place, the luminous but unfriendly arcs of lacy water running over the sand, the waxy, crunchy black deposits of sea-wrack, slippery and thick, dotted for miles like the droppings of some amphibian, the derelict grey dunes rose up behind him empty except for knives of grey grasses.
“Why he was drawn to the place” is never answered for the reader; why Terry does much of what he does will fall into this category. But he will meet an important person at the beach, someone who will help drive his education and his later entry into the practice of law. To be sure, this is important information about how Veneering got where he ended up and why, but readers may find the history offered in Last Friends superficial compared with the psychological insights offered about other characters in other works. If Gardam means to compare Terry’s own displacement—he was removed from a working-class home when he shows promise as a young student—to that of the other friends, she fails to actually show his experience of this. The reader sees him go to prep school, and again when he’s ready to set up shop as a solicitor, but nothing in between.
Describing Terry’s young life as the son of a coal merchant mother and a crippled foreign father, Gardam seems to be pointing to the class divisions that would later prevent Veneering and Filth (ever the aristocrat) from getting along. Yet her usually deft psychological insights are missing or buried under the grime of Herringfleet. The reader is relegated to the role of a more distant observer, capable of grasping intellectually that Veneering and Fiscal-Smith were never, will never, and can never be like so many of the other “last friends.” Understanding this on an emotional level, however, is difficult. The closest we come is when Fiscal-Smith reveals why neither Filth nor Veneering practiced criminal law.
They were on opposing sides in a case against a mentally handicapped lion-tamer’s assistant, accused of “tickling the private parts of the woman in the [circus] audience with a long straw,” through the slats of the bleachers. Filth, horrified, was prosecuting: “obscene,” “depraved,” “perverted.” Then, Fiscal-Smith says, “Veneering just slammed down the Brief and walked out.”
“Veneering was shouting, ‘Bloody, pompous, fucking toffs.’ Never been in the world—I happened to know that Veneering had a penchant for circuses—and he thundered back into court—no excuses—and put up a great performance about what fools we were making of ourselves. Wastage of court’s time. Harmless prank. Bleak life in the circus. Boy orphaned. Neglected. Confused. Unloved. Half-starved.”
The connection to Veneering’s childhood is clear. The story of the lion-tamer’s boy illustrates the class differences between the two solicitors—and between Veneering and the judge—as well as Veneering’s independent, impetuous nature. But any emotional exploration of this territory, if it is happening, is happening only in Veneering’s mind. Fiscal-Smith touches on it, but never does Veneering actually discuss his feelings about his parents after they are gone. At least not on the page.
For those who haven’t followed the saga of Filth & Co. from the beginning, Last Friends may amount to little more than some brief sketches of the lives of strangers. Is Veneering’s beginning compelling without his middle and end? Dulcie is an interesting woman in her own right, but with the novel’s large focus on her and her thoughts of those she will never meet again, the novel may raise suspicions that all the most interesting things already happened, halfway around the world, at a very different time.
Nicole Perrin is an editor and reader living in Chicago. Her writing on books has appeared at the Seminary Coop’s Front Table, BookRiot, and her own blog, bibliographing.