A companion to the Orange Prize nominee Old Filth (2006).
When Gardam first introduced Sir Edward Feathers, his wife Betty was already dead. This book tells her story, and it’s magnificent. Elisabeth Macintosh is a brave, resourceful and unconventional young woman. Like Eddie, she was born in Asia in the early 20th century, and she spent World War II in a Japanese internment camp. Both Betty and Eddie are orphans when they meet in Hong Kong, and Eddie’s proposal is compelled by a singular mix of love, need and survival instinct. Gardam’s characters—even those who appear for a few lines—are all fully formed and intriguing, and she has an impeccable way with nuance and detail. But her subject is not just a single couple: It is also their way of life. Betty and Eddie are the last representatives of a crumbling empire. Even when they retire to a Wiltshire village, they are “lifetime expats.” They are never at home in England, but they embody an idea of Englishness that is rapidly disappearing. They have lived through war, and they know how to endure. They have been bred to eschew selfishness and self-pity, but Gardam—without making her characters maudlin or pathetic—gives voice to the feelings they would never express aloud. As they walk together through a Hong Kong slum, Betty’s friend—another expat and a missionary—tells her, “You need a cause…We must forget ourselves, Bets. Our Englishness.” Betty’s response is to think, “Amy had not been in the Camps.” With this silent sentence, Gardam speaks volumes about her heroine, and she offers a quiet elegy for an entire generation.
Funny, intelligent and immensely moving.