Jane Gardam completes her finely distilled and addictive “Old Filth” trilogy with “Last Friends,” which unearths the surprising and sordid background of Sir Terence Veneering, the third member of an end-of-Empire romantic love triangle that spans 50 years and shifts from Malaya to the UK to Hong Kong to the Dorset village of St. Ague.
Gardam, awarded the Whitbread (now the Costa) prize twice, has devoted a novel to each of her trio. “Old Filth” (2004) tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a.k.a. Old Filth (an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong). Filth was, like Rudyard Kipling, a Raj orphan. Born on the Black River in Malaysia to an austere Scotsman, he was sent to England at age 5. He endured the horrors of foster care and the death of a beloved boarding school friend in the war. Through a series of nearly haphazard meetings, Old Filth ends up a wealthy man high in the colonial hierarchy as a judge in Hong Kong. Gardam portrays his obsessive work, and his loveless marriage to a woman who has promised never to leave him, with subtlety and flair.
“The Man in the Wooden Hat” (2009) focuses on Filth’s wife, Betty, born in Tiensin to Scottish missionaries who die in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai. Betty is a careful, dutiful wife who seems as pleased as Old Filth is at their separate bedrooms. She has a brief fling with Veneering only hours after becoming engaged to Old Filth and maintains a connection with him throughout her marriage.
“Last Friends” fills out the picture by detailing the background of Veneering, who is not only Betty’s lover but Old Filth’s fierce rival in English and international law in the engineering and construction industry. Feathers and Veneering both retired to Dorset and, in a typically ironic Gardam twist, accidentally ended up as next-door neighbors.
Gardam opens the novel in St. Ague as villagers set out for Temple Church, London, for Sir Edward’s funeral, which comes only months after Veneering’s. (Betty had died several years earlier.) With her three main characters offstage, Gardam is left, for the moment, with a couple of minor ones to carry the action. These “last friends” knew Old Filth and Betty and Veneering well. Dulcie, now a widow, was married to revered Hong Kong Judge Willy Williams, who conducted Old Filth’s wedding to Betty in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. Fred Fiscal-Smith, a barrister Gardam describes as “like a little enigmatic scarecrow . . . born to be a background figure,” had been asked at the last minute to be best man. “The best day of his life,” Gardam writes.
The frame of this third novel is less dramatic than the first two, the emotional impact tending to revolve around retrospective passages when these two survivors reflect upon times past and maneuver suspiciously around the new (and each other). After the funeral in London Fiscal-Smith, a notorious skinflint, sidles up to Dulcie and invites himself to be her houseguest for a couple of weeks. Dulcie sends him packing after breakfast. In one of Gardam’s swiftly sketched asides — sometimes blunt, always on target — Dulcie’s daughter, Susan, reflects, “She’s not altogether the fool she makes herself out to be: the fool who is very sweet. She’s neither foolish nor sweet, really. She’s manipulative, cunning, and works at seeming thick as a brick. And nasty.”
In the lengthy middle section of “Last Friends,” Gardam slides back in time to 1937, when Veneering, at 10, is living in squalor in Herringfleet, on the cold east coast of England. Veneering (named for a social climbing character in Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend”) was born Terry Vanetski. His mother, Florrie, was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she met his father, Anton, a Russian left behind by his circus troupe when he fell during a performance and injured his back. Like Old Filth, Veneering rises far above his roots: “Changed his name and went south,” Gardam writes. He ends up a judge in Hong Kong, unhappily married to a wealthy Chinese woman who drinks too much, and father of a son.
In the final section, Gardam bares secrets Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith have kept to themselves (including his boyhood ties to Veneering), and throws in a final comic version of a love story.
“Last Friends” is evocative, elegiac, and shaded in autumnal tones, as suits the final volume in a trilogy. “She was friendless and alone,” Dulcie reflects at one point. “Like Fiscal-Smith, she had out-stayed her welcome in the place she felt was home.” It’s a read-alone pleasure, but especially rich when consumed with the accompanying novels.
Like Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” (and Julian Fellowes’s television series “Downton Abbey”), Gardam’s “Old Filth” trilogy restores to us an era rich in spectacle and bristling with insinuation and intrigue. Her novels are vivid, spacious, superbly witty, and refreshingly brisk. Yes, hearts were broken (and will be), there will be betrayals, and yes, the story (and the author) will endure.
Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.