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.”)
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.”
It’s not necessary to read “Old Filth” first to enjoy “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” but the novels definitely offer more when read side by side. Readers will learn the origin of Betty’s strand of “guilty” pearls, why they chose to retire in the Donheads after half a lifetime spent on the other side of the world, and even where Betty bought the tulips she was planting when she died. More important, readers learn why they never had children. In “Old Filth,” avoiding parenthood is presented as almost a relief. In “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” it’s an unspeakable tragedy.
What for the young Betty is less clear is why she married the emotionally closed- off Edward. “There’s nothing about him that’s unlovable,” she reassures herself after realizing, “It won’t be romantic, but who wants that?”
Edward, for his part, has a more starry-eyed view of his fiancée. He calls her “infectiously happy” and says “I would die for her actually.” What most drew him, though, he says, is that “Her soul is right.” When he proposed and gave Betty her famous double-strand of pearls, he asked for one thing: loyalty. “I’ve been left all my life. From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on,” he explained in a rare moment of emotional candor. “Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.”
But despite the contented exterior, their marriage was a near thing. Before the wedding, Betty has a brief fling with Feathers’s nemesis, Terry Veneering, and she keeps waffling. “I have no aim. No certainty. I am a post-war invertebrate. I play mah-jong in my head year after year trying to find something I was born to do,” Betty writes to her best friend, Amy. “I have settled on exactly what my mother would have wanted: a rich, safe, good husband and a pleasant life. All the things she must have thought in the Camp were gone forever. Impossible for me, the scrawny child playing in the sand.... I should be the last woman in the world to recreate the old word of the unswerving English wife. I am trying to please my dead mother. I always am.”
Despite its utter foreignness, she opts to embody the life of an upper-class British matron. Writing about a photo she saw of a “grandee expat,” Betty writes, “She’s going to be my icon. I shall grow old like her, commanding people and being a perfick lady, opening bazaars.”
But what starts almost as play-acting becomes something more real, as Betty and Edward grow closer during their long marriage. He never becomes an easy man to love – he’s a workaholic who could regard a conversation about the weather as overly intimate – but that he loves Betty is never in doubt. As with “Old Filth,” Gardam keeps a few secrets for the final pages.
“The Man in the Wooden Hat” shows the secrets married couples can keep from each other, even after 50 years. With incisive clarity, Gardam plays out a decades-long struggle between married loyalty and thwarted passion – conducted silently and under an ever-so-proper exterior – but no less life and death for all that.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor. She blogs at dogeareddosiers.blogspot.com.