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The Quarterly Conversation: "To write about real englishness"

Date: Mar 1 2010

For Jane Gardam, the twenty-seventh time was the charm. She has enjoyed respect and renown in literary circles in her native Great Britain for nearly forty years, but it wasn’t until the 2006 American publication of Old Filth—her twenty-seventh book—that she finally garnered significant attention on the other side of the Atlantic. Gardam, born in 1928, has won the Whitbread twice, as well as the Prix Baudelaire, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2009. When an Elegant Variation interviewer asked her to speculate on why it might have taken her so long to win over American readers, Gardam said that she attempts “to write about real Englishness not export Englishness.” Her novels are, indeed, mostly free of stiff upper lips, beefeaters, and butlers in tails.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Americans have been quick to cotton to Sir Edward Feathers, nicknamed “Old Filth,” a character who might easily out-English John Bull, Terrey-Thomas, and Lord Peter Wimsey all at once. Upright, clean-cut, and absurdly formal, Gardam’s titular protagonist meticulously maintains the prim and haughty surface of an old-fashioned gentleman of the British Empire. With her characteristic wit and precision, Gardam describes Feathers as being “ostentatiously” and “spectacularly clean,” a man who “always looked as if he’d stepped out of a five-star hotel shower.” His nickname is in part an ironic comment on the stuffy fastidiousness of his appearance, but it also refers to his long tenure as a commercial lawyer and judge in Asia—”Filth” being a joking abbreviation for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” By the age of eighty, Old Filth has become a legend within his profession, widely known for both his success in the courtroom and his antediluvian comportment. Most of his younger colleagues assume him to be long dead, and thus they take it as a shock when “the old coelacanth” shows up at the club from time to time, gussied up as always in the full regalia of British imperial manhood.

Despite having spent most of his adult life enjoying the splendor and excitement of Hong Kong, Filth becomes in old age a buttoned-down, mildly grumpy, self-satisfied retiree in staid and quiet Dorset. He rarely receives visitors, but dresses for dinner all the same. He inherited this practice from his father, a colonial administrator in British Malaya who took care to preserve the outward appearance of a dignified English gentleman, even while drinking alone in a sweaty hut. Due to his father’s indifference and his mother’s early death, Edward grew up a “Raj orphan,” passed various caretakers and continents with little care or consideration. An abusive Welsh family left a permanent mark on him, and a voluble and decent school headmaster called Sir also made an impression. “Keep off the girls for a while,” Sir advises the adolescent Feathers in a highly amusing scene. “Passion leads to a lower second.” It is advice that Edward will follow throughout his life, even at times when passion might have been in order.

But Edward’s character was shaped first and foremost by his experiences as a small child in Malaya. “His first years,” Gardam writes, “were in the Long House among brown skins, brown eyes, scraps of colored clothes, the Malay language; often sleeping, sometimes making musical singing, dreamily passing the time against the roar of the river and the rain.” Although Gardam’s writing is often punchy and never florid, when she describes Edward’s early childhood her prose becomes infused with an affecting lyricism. If Gardam romanticizes colonial Malaya, it is only because Edward does so himself: he views his birthplace as an Eden from which he was unfairly expelled, a paradise that he longs for obscurely, and barely remembers.

Despite Edward’s reticence, formality, and repression, Old Filth ultimately has less in common with The Remains of the Day than with The Satanic Verses. It is a complex, funny, and thoroughly absorbing postcolonial novel of ideas, in which Gardam links the intimate story of Filth’s life to a much larger narrative about the formation of cultural identity in the wake of the British Empire’s collapse. Gardam’s novel convincingly embodies the grand sweep of history, even as it sticks close to the ordinary lives of its central characters. A few tedious passages set during World War II aside, Old Filth succeeds tremendously.

But the novel also feels curiously incomplete, with a number of intriguing doors left unopened. Although Filth earned his name and fortune in postwar Hong Kong, Gardam only offers the reader fleeting glimpses of his time there. At another point an old acquaintance wistfully tells Filth, “I remember Betty [Filth's wife] with streamers tangled up in her hair and her pearls and gold chains,” but the retired Englishman doesn’t acknowledge the comment, and quickly shows his friend the door. And although Edward’s marriage plays a significant role in Old Filth, Gardam all the same tells us little about his wife. We know that, like Edward, Betty was a Raj orphan, and that she had remained loyal to her husband through long decades of a loveless and passionless marriage. But by the end of the novel, her motivations, feelings, and personal history all remain mysterious—frequently hinted at, but rarely made explicit.

Gardam’s new novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, fills in many of these gaps—and, remarkably, it makes for an even more deeply satisfying read. Although it revisits the characters, settings, and themes of Old Filth, it is all the same not a sequel. Instead, Gardam shifts the primary focus of her narrative from Filth to Betty, devoting the bulk of the book to the story of the couple’s courtship and young adulthood in Hong Kong and London. The Man in the Wooden Hat has all the barbed charm, good humor, and historical sweep of Old Filth, and fans of the first book will find that the Featherses make for equally good company the second time around.

A writer cannot be blamed for wishing to return to the characters and settings of a particularly beloved work, and The Man in the Wooden Hat no doubt would have been enjoyable—if not particularly necessary—had Gardam only set out to replicate the first novel’s successes. Gardam does not do this; rather, she manages to find room for a series of startling revelations that completely transform the reader’s understanding of the events related in Old Filth. Either book is perfectly enjoyable on its own; together, they represent an impressive literary accomplishment, and a worthy capstone to Gardam’s long career. The two novels complete each other with a beautiful and seamless symmetry, like the halves of a divided Platonic soul.

In The Man in the Wooden Hat, Hong Kong is a sleepy city in the process of coming into its own. Grand new towers rise above streets packed with peasants pulling handcarts, and “street music play[s] against the racket of the mahjong players on every open balcony.” As in Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love, Gardam’s Hong Kong attains a sensual, slightly seamy elegance, and it is rife with both repressed erotic tension and opportunities for adventurous indulgence. But for young Elisabeth, “Betty,” Macintosh, sex and romance are troubling, destabilizing distractions best avoided. When an older friend suggests that she ought to shoot for the moon, instead of contenting herself with a dull “forty-watt light bulb” like Edward Feathers, Betty shrugs off the advice, believing that that with him she will at last be able to attain the kind of stable and predictable life that has eluded her since the tumultuous days of her colonial upbringing.

Alas, life—or perhaps Gardam—has other plans for Betty. Almost immediately after she accepts Edward’s proposal she meets his colleague Terry Veneering—an encounter that will permanently alter the course of her life. “His eyes were bright light blue,” Gardam writes. “Elisabeth thought: And it is just one hour too late.” The Man in the Wooden Hat fleshes out the story of Betty’s relationship with Veneering, and greatly complicates what Gardam selectively revealed in Old Filth about Edward’s professional rivalry with the other man. Unlike Filth, who goes to great lengths to repress any troublesome thoughts, Betty examines her choices carefully and self-consciously, confronting her feelings head-on. When pondering the lovelessness and stability of her marriage, she understands her underlying motivation perfectly: “I should be the last woman in the world to recreate the old world of the unswerving English wife,” she reflects. “I am trying to please my dead mother.” Like her husband, Betty feels the pull of a different life than the one she has chosen, but while Filth rarely pauses to think about the pain of his lost childhood and divided identity, Betty’s tragedy is that she fully understands exactly what she has given up and why.

Betty’s greater self-consciousness permits Gardam to bring her thoughts and feelings right up the surface of the novel, and as a result The Man in the Wooden Hat is much more emotionally involving than its predecessor. Although the reader learns fairly early in Old Filth that Betty and Edward have no children, it is only in the second novel that we learn why, and the revelation is devastating. For Edward, their childlessness means little; for Betty, it puts a sudden and irreversible end to her ability to fulfill her role as the proper English wife of a great man of the Empire. Old Filth is a relic of another era, but he is all the same rich and contented. But Betty—a victim not only of history, but also of biology and ill fortune—discovers that she has received the raw end of the bargain: she gave up her chance at love in order to enter into a marriage that in the end failed to fulfill its promise of predictability, stability, and comfort.

Like Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat is very much a novel imbued with ideas, and Filth and Betty’s childlessness makes an obvious metaphor for the death of the British Empire. However badly Betty and Filth might want to sustain the glory days of their youth, that world has long since disappeared and will soon be forgotten altogether. Unsurprisingly, Betty is keenly aware of this fact: “Filth and I are going to live forever,” she reflects dispiritedly. “Pointlessly, keeping the old flag flying for a country I no longer recognize or love.” In their retirement, Betty and Filth live in an area dotted with Roman ruins, and where the towns are named after forgotten saints, a sharp reminder not only that empires inevitably fall but also that lives are shaped by history—and then history moves on, cruelly, leaving behind people like Filth and Betty, who were made for times and places that no longer exist. “I’ll live in the past and try to improve it,” Betty writes lightly to a friend on her honeymoon. Later on, this kind of youthful jest will not seem nearly so funny.

Gardam, in her eighties herself, succeeds admirably in The Man in the Wooden Hat in conveying the gravity of what is lost with the passing of time. When recovering from an illness at the country home of an older couple who have enjoyed long careers in the theatre, Betty spends time among the old books in their library. Gardam writes:

Sometimes, prising a book out of the damp shelves, she let loose a sheaf of theatre programmes. Some were signed flamboyantly with forgotten names, some smelled of long-dead violets. Once or twice a pressed flower fell out—a gardenia (gone brown) or a rose—and crumpled before her eyes when she tried to pick it up. Some of the books were inscribed To my darling Delilah, the ultimate Desdemona, or To my own Mark Antony from his adoring wife and the date of over half a century ago.

Forgotten names and the faint odor of dead flowers pressed in a book: for Gardam, this is the best that any of us can expect in the end. It is heartbreaking, then, that Betty and Edward cannot escape the influence of their past—a time that has already begun to fade from memory into history, and which matters nothing to anyone at all except themselves.