Taken together, Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) and its predecessor and companion Old Filth (2005), provide one of the most indelible portraits of upper middle-class marriage since Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969). Edward Feathers (“Old Filth”), a Raj orphan and successful barrister, marries Betty in Hong Kong after her release from a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai. Gardam’s first book tells the story of their life together from Old Filth’s point of view, the second from Betty’s, each resolving the evasions and gaps in the other and exploring the lies, compromises, frustrations, and stubborn affections inevitable to the long-married.
“I’ll never leave you, Edward,” Betty says on the evening of their engagement, only for something to happen “just one hour too late,” that changes the course of their lives and about which, in true British fashion they never discuss (just as they never discuss the trauma of their childhoods or war experiences). Over the years, they endure the commonplace yet devastating tragedies of everyday life. After Betty finds out she is pregnant, she walks through St. James’s Park and “every duck became a celestial duck and the bridge was made of silver, and diamonds were scattered about on the muddy path.” When she loses the child she carries on stoically with her ‘good works’ although everything is filtered through a scrim of politely-contained grief.
Their passion for the East remains a consistent bond, but it is tempered by a paternalistic racism they recognize but can’t quite shake. “I feel it. Suddenly. I’m melancholy at things changing. So, I’m old,” says Betty in Hong Kong, when Old Filth decides to retire in The Man with the Wooden Hat. “They need to change.” he replies. “It’s a place of changes. Annexing Hong Kong set the scene for change at the start. It will never settle down. Never be contented. But what did we bring but good? Work. Medicine. The English language. The Christian faith. And the Law. With all its shortcomings they don’t want to change the Law.” The Law is Old Filth’s rock, the one thing he can rely on. As he enters his final years passion, jealousies, and even old animosities, simply fall away.
Read both books together. Give them as a gift. Gardem’s next novel God on the Rocks is due out this fall. Praise be…