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London Review of Books: "Thank God for Bettie"

Date: Mar 11 2010

The novel at any given moment has a special relationship with the recent past: worlds contiguous to its own, at the farther reaches of living memory, not yet floated off into history. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and William Trevor’s Love and Summer address themselves with urgency to 1950s Ireland, not out of nostalgia, but because something needs to be understood, for the record, in the relationship between those days and the way we live now. The least detail, captured in the right words, is eloquent: it was real, we could have reached and touched it, now it’s gone. Implicitly, change is these writers’ subject. Jane Gardam has been the recorder of aspects of Englishness for a long time: more than 20 novels over the past 40 years. Her latest, The Man in the Wooden Hat, addresses itself to the presumptions and tensions of postwar late Empire with a present interrogation more explicit – more political perhaps – than either of the two Irish novels.

The Man in the Wooden Hat is the twin of Gardam’s previous novel, Old Filth: both are about the same people, and some of the same stories recur. Edward Feathers, Old Filth, is very clean, and for much of the two novels isn’t old; it’s a Bar joke, an acronym, ‘failed in London try Hong Kong’. He begins his career as a QC specialising in construction law, then becomes a judge, spending most of his professional life in the colony, becoming successful (there’s a lot of construction, postwar) and rich. Old Filth juxtaposes scenes from Feathers’s life in retirement in Dorset, falling to pieces after the death of his wife, Betty, with a narrative of his childhood and youth. The Man in the Wooden Hat is mostly Betty’s story. This repetition ought to be dangerous: the second book could feel hemmed in, too short on surprises. But Gardam persuades us that there’s a plenitude of material hidden, even in lives lived close alongside one another in a long marriage.

The two novels are wound together lightly, and either one reads perfectly well on its own. A few essential scenes are in both books, inflected subtly differently: their repetition feels less like the necessary work of plot construction, more as if these are originary mysteries, revisited because they signify differently in different contexts. There’s Betty’s death, for example, when she keels over planting tulips in the Dorset garden; and there’s the reconciliation of Feathers with his old enemy Veneering, another judge, when Feathers is locked out of his house one snowy Christmas. There are other less momentous, more playful connections between the two books. For instance, when he’s 17, at the beginning of the war, Feathers is evacuated, to his desperate shame (he wants to volunteer). In Old Filth, onboard ship, the officers threaten to make him and his friend cook: ‘You couldn’t do worse than this duff.’ In The Man in the Wooden Hat, he reminisces about the duff they presumably then made, ‘full of black beetles for currants’.

Part of the fun of mixing their stories up together is that Feathers and Betty can know all sorts of things about each other which the other never knows they know. Betty knows that Feathers slept with her friend Lizzie (though not that he did it again, the day Feathers and Betty got engaged); Feathers knows about Betty’s ‘guilty pearls’ from Veneering, which Betty thinks he’s never noticed. And they can have such different views of the same thing. When Betty goes to meet Veneering (on the day of her engagement to Feathers, while he’s with Lizzie), she buys a new dress to wear: ‘sea-green silk, the dress of a lifetime … I’ll never, never own such a beautiful dress again.’ Later, Feathers, newly married to her, asks himself in panic who she really is and what she’s like, and remembers ‘that terrible green dress’. Is it terrible because he guesses that it lay crumpled on the floor while she lay with Veneering beside her? More likely he hasn’t guessed anything yet, he just doesn’t like the dress.

And then there are things the couple don’t know about each other and don’t try to know: Betty resists ever finding out what happened to Feathers as a child in Wales, handed over to a monstrous foster-mother, which is the teasing secret in Old Filth, only revealed at the very end. ‘There was some ghastly hang-up in his childhood. I don’t want to know about it. I guess half the men with his background are the same.’ And Filth seems fairly oblivious to the defining story of Betty’s life, her childlessness, as we learn about it in The Man in the Wooden Hat. She ‘seemed – had always seemed – to have no views on their barrenness’.
Who’s right about the dress, and the barrenness, and everything else? Who gets the last word? Since Betty’s version was written second, it must have been tempting to give it to her, but that isn’t what happens. The method of these novels is to build their story layer by layer, as consciousness constructs memory (‘like filo pastry in the mind’), interleaving actual scenes, recorded in their moment, with letters of reminiscence and retelling, sometimes with the intervention of an authorial voice that knows things the characters can’t see, or have forgotten. Often successive scenes contradict one another: the characters feel something for certain (this was ‘the moment … when I knew I loved him’), then their certainty’s undone, they forget they ever felt it, and feel the opposite. Then they change again.

The point of the method is that there is no last word. Any verdict – whether this was a happy marriage or an unhappy one, whether these lives were disastrous or successful – can only be as perilously simplifying as the judgments Feathers has to pronounce in his public role. In Hong Kong, the night after he has condemned a man to death, ‘Elisabeth wakes to find him in her bed, his head on her breast’ (they have separate beds, the idea of sharing a bed is ‘extraordinary … bourgeois’). Certainly, the condemned man was ‘guilty as hell’. They lie awake together, aware of the gap between necessary outward forms and the inward mess of real life.

Verdicts pronounced in public rarely fit the truth of the case. At Feathers’s memorial service an obligatory mention is made of ‘his bravery in World War Two’. In fact he was cheated of the opportunity for ever displaying any: the high point of his war was in a platoon guarding the queen mother in a big house in the West Country. But Feathers’s type were all brave in the war, weren’t they? For Feathers and for Betty, part of their story is that it is always being written for them, out of a stock of forms that turn out to have more of a hold on them than anything that actually happened.

On the fateful day when Betty puts on her green dress to go to Veneering, she also has her hair done, and a photograph on the wall of the hairdresser’s reminds her of her mother, ‘an English woman of a certain age, her hair sculpted in marcel waves, her ageing manicured hand all rings … Her mouth was dark and sharp with lipstick, her fingernails dark with varnish.’ It’s an extra irony that the hairdresser can’t remember the woman in the photograph (‘the salon will be modernised soon’) and that Betty’s mother’s rigid, painted, hieratic elegance ended in death in a camp in China. Preparing for her (one) episode of unfaithfulness, Betty teeters between paramount form (her mother’s type, her mother’s bridge game, the whole prewar world of fixed markers of class and empire) and the formless freedoms of desire and dreaming, making life up for yourself. Betty and Feathers opt eventually for a marriage that looks just like what her mother would have wanted for her, but they preside nonetheless in their lifetimes over the undoing of the old fixed patterns. The Chinese girls in a jewellery shop, who used to get the best stones for Betty, stop looking up whenever she goes in. Feathers has nightmares that they will execute him after the handover.

In her oldish age, Betty visits a museum in Delft (Feathers has come out of retirement to conduct an arbitration in The Hague). In a few sentences we’re dropped deep inside her subjective awareness of herself in the present, alone with her own footsteps and the alien paintings of fruit and dead game, the shifting patterns of light on the polished floors. She stops to wonder at a wooden carving of a man’s head in a wide-brimmed hat: ‘the wood so black it must have lain untouched for centuries in some bog, the cracked wood perfect for the seamed and ancient face, heavy with all the miseries of the world. But it was the hat that informed the man.’ How can this not be true of the QC, and the judge in his wig; and true of Betty, resisting and then accepting becoming like her mother, presiding over the rosewood dining-table in Hong Kong, running the book club and the church committees in Dorset? The hat stands for the roles they’ve filled with such conviction. ‘I’ll probably put a lot into it,’ Betty had resolved, after the green dress episode, before the wedding. Over time – how could it be otherwise? – the two young passionate people, not knowing what they’ll be, become the types they’ve tried on: they grow stiff and habituated inside the frames of their performance. ‘Had it all been carved from one piece of wood? Was the hat separate? Did it lift off?’

And then Veneering is suddenly, unexpectedly – and quite by accident – in the museum with Betty, looking at the carving, understanding what she sees. Shameless, unafraid of the attendant, he tests the man’s wooden hat, which lifts off easily, and drops it with a clatter. Part of Veneering’s charm for Betty – and why he riles and rouses Feathers – is that his head doesn’t quite so perfectly fit his hat as Feathers’s does. He administers the same law, but handles the insignia of their class more self-consciously, as if he can’t afford to be as casual as Feathers (whose gruff self-forged savoir faire is reminiscent sometimes of Tietjens’s in Ford’s Parade’s End). Veneering’s voice makes Feathers think, damningly, that he’s had elocution lessons; he shows off about sending his (half-Chinese) son to Eton. And he’s imaginative; he thinks Betty’s beautiful, Feathers doesn’t – Feathers says she reminds him of ‘a glass of clear water’.

The scene of their lovemaking – outside Hong Kong, 40 years before the Delft meeting – has this same quality of not quite belonging anywhere. Veneering sends his car for Betty, and her drive out of the city is described with eerie intensity. At one point the car has to nudge forwards through a mass of people moving in the dark: Chinese, working on the reservoir whose future Feathers and Veneering are busy settling out of court. At this moment of risking herself, Betty isn’t immune from the real jeopardy, and thick mass-life, that lies on the other side of the legal language. Veneering waits for her in a house that’s a kind of nest high up among green trees: ‘an organic growth in the forest, sweet-smelling, held in the arms of branches’. It’s a primal scene, irresponsible and mysterious.

The next day, however, Betty finds out that the tree house is rented by the night – and that she left her passport there (‘It’s disgusting. Vile’). The novel isn’t romantic, it doesn’t suppose that what there is between her and Veneering is true love, sacrificed in the name of convention; Veneering and Feathers aren’t set up as anything so simplifying as poles of freedom and obedience. As they grow old, in fact, the two men turn out to resemble one another more and more, and enjoy playing chess together after Betty’s death. And Betty’s accounts of her honeymoon, her days in Bhutan with Feathers – ‘a rest house high above a valley where a green river thunders’ – sound oddly reminiscent of the tree house, too. (Although she is writing to Lizzie, and knows Lizzie slept with Feathers, so might have an interest in making the sex sound irresponsible and mysterious.) Sex, certainly, doesn’t seem to be the centre of this marriage. There are the separate beds, and in his old age Feathers thinks ‘sexual desire … had been a poor part of his nature always. He had been furtive about the poverty of his sexual past. Dear Betty – she had been very undemanding.’ It’s rather as if each of them has chosen, for their own reasons, and for the success of the marriage, the mate they don’t desire. (Feathers is often angry with the women who do stir him: ‘He watched this one bleakly. Oh, thank God for Betty.’)

The childlessness that’s marginal in Old Filth is at the centre – but not plangent – in Betty’s story. Their infertility is the damage they carry from their past; literally, in Betty’s case, from the years of privation in the camps. Their childlessness confirms and expresses a marriage fixed in reason and decency, and kindness in as far as it’s possible. Betty writes sublimely to Lizzie in early days about ‘a freedom … to have an unassailable privacy within my own life equal to his’; later, at the end, she only thinks, comically: ‘He’s quite potty … It’s too late. I can’t leave him now.’ After her miscarriage and hysterectomy, recuperating in Dorset, the English landscape claims her belatedly (she was born in China and loved that first). It becomes a reference point in her identity, opposed to her appetite for the flavour and danger of the Chinese streets. In her old age, gardening is a passion and a rite, not unconnected somehow with the mystery of the tree house; she drops her ‘guilty pearls’ into a hole in the earth just before she dies, as if they were seeds.

The novels are distinctively Gardam’s, with her usual proliferation of plotlines and headlong, swerving delivery. Her bold sentences are a pleasure, leaping ahead of the reader, who learns not to lumber behind. But the novels also belong to an important tradition of English writers, mostly women – Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor and Rumer Godden and Penelope Fitzgerald among them – whose subject is the old world of class and empire, and the systems of education and intricate cultural codes that supported it. Sharing that world’s know-how, vigilant over its precise local expertise, these writers nonetheless never quite belong with both feet inside it, or quite participate in its whole power; they survey it from a position sanely detached, defined by irony. They find that freedom perhaps because they’re Anglo-Irish, or Anglo-Indian, or penniless, or from the north (a significant marker for Gardam), perhaps simply because they’re women. They relish the framework that the codes give (‘life with the lid on’, in Bowen’s phrase), and do justice to the best that these embodied, but never forget the inequity, or the costs of forcing life into rigid forms. ‘All our parents suffered for an ideology,’ Gardam has Feathers say. ‘They believed it was good for us to be sent Home, while they went on with ruling the Empire. We were all damaged even though we became endurers.’ Writing about that world from her vantage point now, well into the 21st century, Gardam gathers it up with a valedictory authority.

By Tessa Hadley