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:

The Queen of the Tambourine

When does the balance tip from talking too much to babbling like an idiot?  What’s the difference between being eccentric or certifiably disturbed?  Eliza, in Jane Gardam’s Whitbread Award winning Queen of the Tambourine, seems to be just a lonely 50-year-old housewife whose husband has left her – until she sees a man dissolve down a drain.

Organized as letters to a missing neighbor – an epistolary – the story begins with a nosy uptight Eliza, writing to give unsolicited advice to the woman who lives next door at number 34 Rathbone Road.   The letters are never answered and so become more like a diary, chronicling Eliza’s thoughts; as the letters continue, they get longer and more involved, and hardly letters at all.  Gardam is the author of Old Filth, and this earlier novel has all the same British flavor.

the tambourines

Gardam cleverly disguises real incidents with fabulous illusions, and, after a while, you will wonder which is true.  When a well-meaning neighbor says,  “Eliza…We’re all so worried…We’ve been having meetings about you…” – you will think the ruse is up, but then Gardam pulls you right back in with another one of Eliza’s fantastic tales about phantom pregnancies, babies stolen, Hospice patients as art critics –  sprinkled with catty comments that seem real enough…

“There must be something in his head except parish difficulties.  After all it takes six years to become a priest – long as a vet. He must have learned something about sick souls…”

Funny or hysterical?  Observations or delusions?  Eliza’s state of mind goes in and out, from the past to the present and back.  You’re never sure what she is making up and what she imagines, but you know – and so does she – that something is not right.

“Hallucinations are not always produced by drugs you know, or by brain-disease.  They are often wilfully conjured…”

In the end, like Chris Bohjalian’s Double Bind, all is revealed and explained.  You’ll find out the significance of  the house at Number 34, and all the pieces of Eliza’s story – real and imagined – come together.  You will want to read it again to catch the clues.

After reading Old Filth, I became a fan of Gardam.  Luckily, she’s a prolific writer.

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