The Man in the Wooden Hat by the author of Old Filth

I just can’t get enough of Jane Gardam.  Her stories have the flavor of a Masterpiece Theater episode while offering an invitation to a world immersed in all the British classes – from barristers and judges to seamy dwarfs and scoundrels – from Hong Kong to London to Dorset.

In Old Filth, I met Edward Feathers, a brilliant British judge who found international success despite his troubled past as a “raj” orphan.  Old Filth, an acronym for “failed in London try Hong Kong” mentions Elizabeth (Betty), the wife who plants tulips in her garden, and buries her “guilty pearls.”  But, her life is only an aside – the perfect wife for the very proper Edward Feathers; Gardam purposely keeps the focus off her, and only drops a few tantalizing hints and inferences.

In The Man in the Wooden Hat, Gardam writes a companion piece to Old Filth; Gardam calls it a prequel.  This is Betty’s story.

Betty (Elizabeth) agrees to marry the reserved Eddie Feathers, convincing herself he offers the security she needs.  Hours after they become engaged, she meets one of his colleagues and career rival, Terry Veneering.  As Feathers is the solid, steady, proper model of a gentleman, so is Veneering the handsome and married rake.  She falls in love at first sight with Veneering, loses her virginity to him, but marries Old Filth (Eddie).

The story chronicles Betty’s life – her expatriate orphan childhood, her career as a decoder at Bletchley Park – her yearnings for more adventure, her settled married life with Old Filth.  Terry Veneering is a constant threat to the steady course of Betty’s marriage – their passion erupts whenever they meet.

Of course, Eddie Feathers is more than he seems (read all about him in Old Filth), and Betty mistakes his insular manner and reticence as being oblivious to how she feels or what she does.  Like most men, he hears and sees just fine.  Gardam offers a realistically romantic scene when Eddie rescues Betty in the rain, after she retreats to be alone to recover mentally and physically from her surgery.  He thinks she has left him forever; she wishes he would come for her.  If only they knew what Gardam tells us.

It’s not necessary to have read Old Filth before you read The Man in the Wooden Hat, but, if you have, you’ll recognize characters and story lines.  Albert Ross, the dwarf who saves Eddie, is a common denominator in both novels –  the man with the hat.

Check Out My Reviews of Other Jane Gardam Novels:

Old FILTH – Not What You Think It Is

Filth is an acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong” and the nickname for revered British judge, Sir Edward Feathers.

Jane Gardam steals a little from Charles Dickens and more from Rudyard Kipling to flashback to the story of a young “Raj orphan” born in Malaya, who weathers a cruel foster home, a debilitating stammer, and the war, to finally become a stalwart of the British bar in Hong Kong before independence.  The story begins with the death of Betty, his wife, the day after they both have missed an appointment to make out their wills.

Old Filth begins his reminiscing right after the funeral when he takes off on a road trip to revisit his past – from a young child in British held Malaya to a young man in wartime England and finally to post 9/11.    As he reconnects with lovers and friends, he reviews his past and takes you on a ride through history, telling a story that is humorous and connected to the right opportunities.

Queen Mary

Queen Mary stars in a segment that is historically accurate.  Her son, George VI, sent his mother to live in the country for her safety during World War II.  In Gardam’s version, Feathers is assigned to the military detail that protects the queen, and easily becomes her friend.  Old Filth’s (Feathers) height and stammer remind the queen of her son, whose own stammer was recently made famous in the movie, “The King’s Speech.”

In the end, Gardham even solves a murder mystery that has been haunting Old Filth since his unfortunate childhood.    Through it all, she delivers a character that you will cheer for, feel sorry for, and laugh with.

My favorite pieces are the old boys’ club conversations – the gentlemen smoking their cigars and drinking their whiskey, discussing Old Filth – especially when Old Filth himself in scrunched down in a huge wing chair, invisible to the gossipers.

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did; I happened on it by accident.  But now I will look for more by this author, who has twice won the Whitbread Prize for novel of the year, and has been short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Old Filth is a gem.