The Man in the Wooden Hat
Jane Gardam's sequel to "Old Filth" paints a rich and mature portrait of a decades-long marriage.
One of the more memorably named characters to come along since Dickens stopped naming them is Old Filth, Sir Edward Feathers QC. (His nickname has nothing to do with his morals or standard of personal hygiene. It stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.”)Skip to next paragraph
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British novelist Jane Gardam – the only writer ever to win the Whitbread Prize twice – gave her hero an appropriately Dickensian childhood to go along with that fabulous moniker, as well as a long and apparently reasonably contented marriage to Betty.
Gardam’s earlier novel “Old Filth” looked back at the long life of Edward Feathers, from his neglected childhood in Malaysia and later Wales to his happy youth at boarding school and his illustrious career in Hong Kong. That latter was facilitated by an unlikely benefactor, a biracial dwarf cardsharp named Albert Ross (aka Albatross, aka Coleridge), to whom Edward gave his father’s watch when they were both evacuees during World War II. (Edward, who had desperately wanted to enlist, got his wish when the ship they were on had to turn back after the Japanese captured Singapore.)
Both Edward and Betty were dead by the end of “Old Filth,” so it might be hard to manage a sequel. Instead, Gardam has written a companion book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which fills in Betty’s side of the story – from her childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai to her improbable retirement planting tulips and wearing pearls in the Donheads in Britain. The new novel interlocks with “Old Filth” in ways that bring even more resonance to the first novel. Taken together they provide an unusually rich portrait of a marriage and offer a quality pretty rare in today’s fiction: maturity.
The result brings to mind a British version of Evan Connell’s famous his-and-hers novels, “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge,” but with less bitterness and more silent endurance. Both Edward and Betty suffered unbelievably dark childhoods. But where a modern American couple would hash out every miserable moment and derive years’ worth of psychoanalysis, the Featherses keep the past firmly buried. “She doesn’t speak about it,” Edward tells Ross of Betty’s time in the prison camp, during which both parents died. “One doesn’t intrude.” For Betty’s part, she realizes on her honeymoon that, for her emotional survival, she’ll need “an unassailable privacy with my own life equal to his.”