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.
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: