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Mostly Fiction Book Review: "Gardam subtly illustrates the complexity of human beings through her characters."

Date: Dec 15 2009

Several years ago, I read my first Jane Gardam novel, Flight of the Maidens, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The last Gardam novel I read was Old Filth, and so I was delighted to learn that Europa Editions recently published The Man in the Wooden Hat. While The Man in the Wooden Hat isn’t a sequel to Old Filth, it is a companion novel. Old Filth, which really should be read first, begins with the death of Betty, the wife of retired judge Sir Edward Feathers. Old Filth, inspired by Gardam’s exposure to the early life of Rudyard Kipling, focuses on Edward, while this novel explores the Feathers’ life together through Betty’s eyes.

This sweeping tale encompasses half a century and moves from post WWII Hong Kong to London and then eventually to the remote cottage the Feathers purchase in retirement. Edward and Betty, who both have a sense of displacement, are “Raj orphans”–children raised in the far-flung corners of the British Empire, shipped off to boarding school in England. Edward was sent from Malaya to England, but this part of the story is covered in Old Filth and only tangentially referred to in The Man with the Wooden Hat.

Betty (Elisabeth McIntosh), the protagonist of The Man in the Wooden Hat was born in China but raised in a Japanese internment camp, and the lasting result of her horrifying experiences seems to be an unspoken desire for a life devoid of trauma, indecisions, and risks. Perhaps this explains why she so wholeheartedly embraces the idea of marriage to the reliable, and eminently respectable Edward Feathers. He is, of course, a highly eligible young man, and with their similar backgrounds, surely Edward and Betty should be destined to lead the happiest of married lives. But do they?

The night that Betty accepts Edward’s marriage proposal is a presentiment of things to come, and as they travel to a party together, Betty finds herself thinking:

“It won’t be romantic but who wants that? It won’t be passion, but better without, probably.”

As the evening wears on, Betty experiences a definite feeling of disappointment even though she expected Edward to act precisely as he did–putting the excitement of their engagement second to work commitments. And so when temptation unexpectedly arrives, it takes Betty by storm:

“Only hours ago she had been all set to become the next reincarnation of a virtuous woman, like the one in the benevolent photograph. She had stood beside her man—and how her parents would have approved of Edward Feathers—watching the stars in the heavens, thinking that she would tell her children about how she said ‘I will’ and had meant it. She saw her mother’s face, imprisoned in the emptiness of Empire and diplomacy.”

As an exploration of the Feathers’ marriage from Betty’s viewpoint, The Man in the Wooden Hat begins with Edward’s proposal to the moment of physical separation that occurs with Betty’s death. Both Betty and Edward are both “endurers” and they approach marriage with the attitude that they will stick with the relationship. The novel charts the years they are together as they progress from newlyweds, to comfortable middle-age, and finally affectionate old age, and yet in spite of the years they spend together, how much does Edward understand about the woman he married? How well does he really know her? While the Feathers’ marriage appears to bear all the trappings of success, underneath the politeness and sacrifice to her husband’s stellar career, Betty remembers one night of illicit passion, and Edward also has his own deeply buried memories.

For those who loved Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat is a welcome return to familiar characters. It takes a great deal of skill to re-tell a story without repeating old information, but Gardam deftly reintroduces her characters and then fills in their pasts once more–offering new information that adds further dimensions to Edward, Betty, Tony Veneering, Albert Ross and Isobel Ingoldby. Betty is seen as a vibrant woman who makes a predictable choice when she married Edward, and that choice isn’t about passion. It is about establishing the home she’d never had. As Betty ages, she has moments when she questions that choice, but disappointments merge into compensations, and her secret inner life is never suspected–at least not by Edward. Gardam subtly illustrates the complexity of human beings through her characters, and if readers gained a certain understanding of Edward and Betty in Old Filth, they will now find that they refine those opinions after reading The Man in the Wooden Hat.

By Guy Savage

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