The New York Times: "Couple's Retreat"
Date: Nov 27 2009
Like the great British wits her writing recalls, Jane Gardam has a talent for picking names. “The Man in the Wooden Hat” features the fastidious Sir Edward Feathers, an expatriate judge known as Filth (for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”); a striver called Terry Veneering (whose last name is borrowed from Dickens); a Chinese dwarf, Albert Ross, known suggestively as Albatross; and Betty Feathers, née Elisabeth Macintosh. To those who know her later in life, she’s as sturdy and dependable as a raincoat, the perfect judge’s wife. But Macintosh turns out to be as deceptive a descriptor of Betty as Filth is of the spotless Feathers. Underneath that impervious surface is a woman cut from unusual cloth.
Born in Tientsin (now Tianjin), China, Betty was raised on the periphery of the British Empire. Unlike her parents, she survived the World War II internment camps in Shanghai; later, she thrived at boarding school and Oxford. As the book opens, she’s back in Hong Kong when a letter from a young hotshot barrister, Edward Feathers, arrives, asking for her hand in marriage. The letter, on writing paper from his legal chambers, could almost pass for an official document.
Edward is what was once called a “Raj orphan,” born in a colonial outpost and raised by his schools — and by sometimes-nasty strangers. (His story is brilliantly and hilariously told in Gardam’s previous novel “Old Filth.”) Betty, who misses her parents acutely, wants nothing more than to have children; Edward’s consuming preoccupation is a fear of abandonment. “Never leave me,” he commands her, more than once. Of course, when he says this, he’s usually leaving her himself, rushing off to work on yet another case.
At a party immediately after she accepts Edward’s proposal, Betty meets his professional nemesis, Veneering, who is loud and louche — and married. There is an instant and electric connection between them. “Just one hour too late,” Betty thinks to herself. When she finds Veneering’s unruly 9-year-old son, Harry, sitting underneath a table munching on a lobster, she’s completely unmoored by this combination of troublesome, charming child and troublesome, charming father.
At times during their long marriage, Betty regards her promise to Edward as a curse. “Never leave me” is more or less what “marry me” means (in theory, at least), but in this case the words have the edge of a threat. “If you leave him, I will break you,” Edward’s best friend, Albert, tells her. Whenever she weakens, he materializes to remind her of her obligations.
But if Betty is bound by fear and guilt, she’s also bound by love. In Gardam’s hands, marriage can be the stuff of comedy, especially farce. One minute Betty is despairing, still feeling trapped in her marriage, and the next she’s pressing her face against her husband’s shirt, thinking how much she loves him. Over the course of their 50 years together, the complexity of their relationship only intensifies. They keep some secrets and confess others; they act generously but also with passive aggression, sometimes in the span of a single moment. British expatriates living in Hong Kong, they are the elite of an empire that will soon cease to exist. If they have only each other — and hardly even that — it will have to do. Against the odds, they persevere.
One of the few feats that’s harder than doing justice to a complicated marriage is doing justice to it twice. “The Man in the Wooden Hat” revisits territory covered in “Old Filth,” but as Betty’s story instead of Edward’s. It’s not necessary to have read the prior book to enjoy this one. If anything, “The Man in the Wooden Hat” makes the fractured plot and chronology of “Old Filth” easier to understand. Still, it’s worth reading (or rereading) “Old Filth.” On its own, “The Man in the Wooden Hat” is funny and affecting, but read alongside “Old Filth,” it’s remarkable. Gardam has attempted to turn a story inside out without damaging the original narrative’s integrity — moving from black to white without getting stuck with gray. Little here is as it seemed in “Old Filth,” and both books are the richer for it.
In “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” when Sir Edward and his wife are old, and she thinks, yet again, about leaving, she spots him watching the rooks in the garden as she plants tulip bulbs. He picks up his walking stick and “like a child, pointed it up at the rookery and shouted, ‘Bang, bang, bang.’ . . . He’s quite potty, she thought. It’s too late. I can’t leave him now.” She’s resigned, but also tender. What divided them, after all, was never Terry Veneering. It was his son, Harry. Betty had known her marriage would lack passion, but she believed children would be her consolation. At the end of her life, though, she looks at Filth and knows that someone “like a child,” if not actually one, has depended on her all along.
In “Old Filth,” a parallel scene is mostly the same, but the sentiment is different. There, Edward has a large gin in hand instead of a walking stick. She looks at him angrily. “I won’t get any nearer to him now, she thought. . . . Too late now.” It’s too late to leave him; it’s too late to love him. In a long marriage, both can be true.
Louisa Thomas is a contributing editor for Newsweek.