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Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam has been writing novels for a very long time – and I have been reading them for just about as long. Somehow though I had neglected to read the most recent until a few months ago.

The novels Old Filth, published in 2004, and The Man in the Wooden Hat, published in 2009, are not considered sequels by the author, but they do feature the same characters, and much of the story is told from their two, different, perspectives.

Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) is the story of Eddie Feathers, Sir Edward as he later becomes, a lawyer who does indeed thrive in the British colony of Hong Kong. Edward Feathers grew up in the far east, but was sent back to England to attend boarding school as so many children were. Children sent away from their parents, known as  “Raj orphans”, lived among relatives or strangers, in a world where school friendships became life long and parents became ghostly memories.

The novel takes place during the time when British colonialism in Malaysia and the Far East was at its height, through the Second World War, to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and beyond. Eddie Feathers lives through all of this time, as a young child, a schoolboy, a young lawyer, and finally, an old man retired to the English countryside. Eddie’s separation from his parents has a life-long effect, and it is his wife, Betty, who provides him with security and stability throughout his adult life.

There is a witty little opening scene, with a gathering of lawyers who are commenting on “Old Filth”, and we soon learn that Eddie Feathers is now in his 90’s and his wife, Betty, has recently died. The novel then travels back and forth in time and place revealing the long lives of the central characters. But it is really the story of Edward Feathers life, with Betty’s life very much on the periphery – in fact her husband is surprised, as he reads Betty’s lengthy obituary, at her many accomplishments.

Jane Gardam, although she purposely made Elisabeth “Betty” Feathers a secondary character in Old Filth, could not let her go. She found herself becoming more and more interested in this character and brought her back in The Man in the Wooden Hat. Although very much the story of Betty Feathers, this novel fills in much of the story of Eddie Feathers as well.

Betty also grew up in the Far East, but her wartime experiences were far different from those of her future husband. Betty was interned in a Japanese prison camp, and later worked for the British government in Benchley Park. It is a time of change, these last days of the British Empire, and the beginning of a time when women had the choice of not following in the footsteps of their own mothers. As Betty muses, “an English woman of a certain age, her hair sculpted into marcel waves, her ageing manicured hand all rings" is a thing of the past.

Doing a little research about Jane Gardam I discovered a delightful story – an example of how an author will take bits and pieces from real life and weave them into a novel – in this case many, many years later. Jane Gardam revealed to a journalist “a visit she made at the age of 21, in search of material for her thesis. In real life, an eccentric married man had tried to seduce her and offered to buy her better pearls than the Woolworth's ones she was wearing.” These pearls surface as the “guilty pearls” that Betty wears all of her married life.

We learn more about Betty than her husband will ever know – her childhood and days of freedom before her marriage, and her long, long years as the wife of Eddie Feathers. Jane Gardam is such a comfortable writer that the reader falls effortlessly into the world of Eddie and Betty Feathers, simply swept away by the story.

Jane Gardam has written more than 30 novels over the past four decades and fortunately, for her readers, is not planning to slow down.

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