The Man in the Wooden Hat

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The New York Times called Sir Edward Feathers one of the most memorable characters in modern literature. A lyrical novel that recalls his fully lived life, Old Filth has been acclaimed as Jane Gardam's masterpiece, a book where life and art merge. And now that beautiful, haunting novel has been joined by a companion that also bursts with humor and wisdom: The Man in the Wooden Hat.

Old Filth was Eddie's story. The Man in the Wooden Hat is the history of his marriage told from ...

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The New York Times called Sir Edward Feathers one of the most memorable characters in modern literature. A lyrical novel that recalls his fully lived life, Old Filth has been acclaimed as Jane Gardam's masterpiece, a book where life and art merge. And now that beautiful, haunting novel has been joined by a companion that also bursts with humor and wisdom: The Man in the Wooden Hat.

Old Filth was Eddie's story. The Man in the Wooden Hat is the history of his marriage told from the perspective of his wife, Betty, a character as vivid and enchanting as Filth himself.

They met in Hong Kong after the war. Betty had spent the duration in a Japanese internment camp. Filth was already a successful barrister, handsome, fast becoming rich, in need of a wife but unaccustomed to romance. A perfect English couple of the late 1940s.

As a portrait of a marriage, with all the bittersweet secrets and surprising fulfillment of the 50-year union of two remarkable people, the novel is a triumph. The Man in the Wooden Hat is fiction of a very high order from a great novelist working at the pinnacle of her considerable power. It will be read and loved and recommended by all the many thousands of readers who found its predecessor, Old Filth, so compelling and so thoroughly satisfying.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
Taken together, [Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat] are a British equivalent of Evan S. Connell's classics of Americana, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge…As to Gardam's pair of novels, what the old song says about love and marriage must be said about them: You can't have one without the other. They are a set, his and hers. To my taste, they are absolutely wonderful, and I would find it impossible to choose one over the other. While Old Filth is principally about the man, his dark boyhood at the mercy of a distant, unfeeling father, with the wife a rather shadowy character in the background, The Man in the Wooden Hat fills in her side of the story, in the process revealing itself to be an astute, subtle depiction of marriage, with all its shared experiences and separate secrets.
—The Washington Post
Louisa Thomas
One of the few feats that's harder than doing justice to a complicated marriage is doing justice to it twice. The Man in the Wooden Hat revisits territory covered in Old Filth, but as Betty's story instead of Edward's. It's not necessary to have read the prior book to enjoy this one. If anything, The Man in the Wooden Hat makes the fractured plot and chronology of Old Filth easier to understand. Still, it's worth reading (or rereading) Old Filth. On its own, The Man in the Wooden Hat is funny and affecting, but read alongside Old Filth, it's remarkable. Gardam has attempted to turn a story inside out without damaging the original narrative's integrity—moving from black to white without getting stuck with gray. Little here is as it seemed in Old Filth, and both books are the richer for it.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
Edward Feathers, aka Old Filth (an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong"), Gardam's proper lawyer and judge, is back for a second outing (after Old Filth), this time as seen through the eyes of his wife, Betty. Lately returned from her wartime work at Bletchley Park and now a regular among the expat community of Hong Kong, Betty is cocooned in comfortable gentility with Filth, a loving but distant husband largely preoccupied with his legal life. After a childhood spent in a Japanese labor camp, she is now unable to have children and largely unfocused; her brief premarital fling with Filth's arch enemy, Terry Veneering, creates an enduring bond with him and his young son, Harry, who fills a void in her life. VERDICT Admirers of Old Filth will be delighted to discover the backstory of his marriage and to renew acquaintances with a dear friend. Those meeting him and Mrs. Feathers for the first time will surely want more. An elegant portrait of an old-world marriage. Highly recommended.—Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Sir Edward Feathers, QC, began his existence late in life in Jane Gardam's novel Old Filth, first published in this country in 2006. The title comes from Feathers's sobriquet, an acronym of Failed in London Try Hong Kong. Since then the old servant of Empire has popped up three more times in Gardam's work: in the title story of the collection The People of Privilege Hill and subsequently in the novels The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. If you have not read any or all of these works, you have a literary treat before you.

When we first meet Feathers in Old Filth, he is nearing eighty, has been retired for years after a brilliant career as barrister and judge in Hong Kong, and now lives in the little village of St. Ague in Dorset, alone, his wife having died fairly recently. He finds he has locked himself out of his house in a Christmas snowstorm and is forced to seek shelter in the house of his only neighbor, his fellow ex-colonial, archenemy, and legal nemesis, Sir Terence "Terry" Veneering, QC, a thorough bounder in Feathers's opinion ("jumped-up, arrogant, blustering, loud, cynical and common"), who, most appallingly, has chosen this quiet spot for his own retirement. The two old men form a cautious relationship that serves as a catalyst for the surge of memories that propels the series.

Passing back and forth through the years, Old Filth presents the unfortunate episodes that went into making Feathers the emotionally buttoned-up, tamped-down case that he is. Born in a British colonial station in Malaya to a mother who died days after his birth, he was shunned by his father, cruelly separated from his doting native caretaker at the age of five, and sent to Britain as a "raj orphan." He ended up sharing with two distant cousins the horrors of a grotesquely abusive foster home, a place modeled after that described in Rudyard Kipling's autobiographical short story "Baa Baa, Black Sheep." Freed, after four years, from this "house of desolation" by an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, he is sent to a decent school, then evacuated during the war, bound for Singapore. In the event, the port falls to the Japanese as his ship approaches — and young Feathers is taken back to England, the vessel now laden with desperate British refugees.

In marriage Feathers sought a helpmeet who, above all things, would promise never to leave him, and this he finds with Betty, another colonial whom he met in Hong Kong. The union was long and quiet, but only because the couple never spoke of the fact that she had had a sexual liaison with Veneering, a rather large fly in the ointment that only exemplary English reserve could leave unmentioned. In the Far East, they lived the life of respectable, well-to-do representatives of the British Empire, "members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St. Andrew's Church." But all of that now exists only in memory: Hong Kong has reverted to Chinese rule; Feathers and his ilk have returned Home (as even the colonials who were born in the East call it), back to that "little ragged-edged off-shore island" (as the prickly Veneering would have it).

The second and third novels in the sequence are not so much sequels or "prequels" to the first as augmentations. As the trilogy advances, the supporting characters from Old Filth emerge from the gloaming with their own life histories, altering, and occasionally exploding, our first understanding of what had occurred. Feathers's wife, Betty, a hazy figure in her first outing, takes the central role in The Man in the Wooden Hat. Also playing a larger part than before is the owner of that curious headgear (which is not wooden, in fact, though very strange and possessed of marvelous properties). This is an Asian dwarf called Ross or Loss — he permits both — whom we met earlier on the aborted voyage to Singapore but who seems to have originated in a fairy tale. Indeed, there are aspects to all the novels that have a fairy-tale quality, including that wondrous hat, a hidden silver stream, and two pearl necklaces.

Despite all the sadness and badness, Old Filth and its successors are comedies, though, to be sure, comedies of a melancholy hue. Throughout the series, Gardam summons much piquant satire out of the courteous, well-educated, impeccably dressed Feathers's and his old friends' exposure to the barbarities of modern England: its brutal highways and aggressive drivers, its squalid public amenities, the triumph of self-assertion over reticence, the cultural ignorance of the Oxbridge-educated young, and a general resentment of what used to be considered "good form." ("Filth ate toasted tea-cake at a plastic table.... The waitress looked at his suit and tie with dislike. The man at the next table was wearing denim trousers, with his knees protruding, and a vest. Brassy rings were clipped into all visible orifices. Filth went back to the car for a quick nap but the rhythmic blast of the passing traffic caused the Mercedes to rock at three-second intervals.") Even the little Dorset village in which Feathers has made his home has been taken over by wealthy London professionals. Ancient dwellings stand empty during the week, serving merely as picturesque second (at the least) homes for weekend getaways.

The unlovely (though handsome) Terry Veneering shows what he's really made of in Last Friends. With its precedent in Mr. Veneering of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, his name never seemed to fit especially well (except in that Feathers considers him an abominable parvenu). Now we learn that it was slapped on him by a schoolmaster and that his original name was Venetski and that he was the son of a circus performer from Odessa and a mother from Teesside in the North of England. He, like Feathers, was meant to be evacuated during the war but at the last minute left the ship, the ill-fated City of Benares (torpedoed and sunk by the Germans).

Last Friends also sheds light on the monumental cheapskate and sponger Fred Fiscal-Smith. ("Fiscal-Smith had trouble with the ticket inspector, who was slow to admit that you have a right to a first- class seat with only the return half of a Basic, Fun-day Special to another part of the country.") We also see a good deal more of Dulcie, a dotty ex-colonial widow, "a tiny woman in grey moleskin and a hat made of what could have been the feathers of the village rooks. It was a hat bought forty years ago in Bond Street for the Queen's birthday in Dar-es-Salaam where Dulcie's husband had been an easy-going and contented judge even at a hanging." All these old customers are infirm in body, wandering in mind, and lonely, very lonely, marooned by old age and exiled from the scenes of their vital years. For all that, Gardam treats them with kindness and humor, and the series ends on a splendidly unexpected and entirely satisfying note.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781933372891
  • Publisher: Europa
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 194,274
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam has twice won the Whitbread Award, for The Hollow Land, and Queen of the Tambourine. She is also the author of God on the Rocks, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and most recently, Faith Fox.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 8, 2010


    JANE GARDAM is one of my favorite writers.
    This book, as in all of her books, Gardam's characters are
    charming and conventional, or are they. This story is the wife's
    point of view of a marriage, the declining English empire, and its people, primarily ex-pats. In combination with OLD FILTH, the husband's perspective of the same issues, both books explore the niavIete of youth, the realities of life, and reflections of old age.
    Another companion book to consider is THE PEOPLE of PRIVILEGE HILL, still more about Betty and Edward Feathers. After that read all the books you can find by Jane Gardam, especially, QUEEN OF THE TAMBOURINE, GOD ON THE ROCKS and THE FLIGHT OF THE MAIDENS.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2014


    She waits for some sh

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2013

    2nd in trilogy

    Enjoyed continuation of story of Old Filth

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2013

    Highly recommended as a sequel to OLD FILTH

    As the second in this trilogy following OLD FILTH it tells the story through BETTY , the wife's point of view! Old Filth, (failed-in-London-try-HongKong) is a RAj Orphan sent to Wales for his education and childhood. Wonderful character development in this "coming of age" novel that flows back and forth from his elderly years to his past. Now in THE MAN IN THE WOODED HAT we see Betty's side of the story which brings some surprises into the picture. Very British.....good storyline and well looking forward to the third....from BEtty's lover's point of view.

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  • Posted December 17, 2011

    If you loved "Old Filth" this is a must

    This is Betty's (the wife of Old Filth) story. Wonderfully written, funny and heat warming.

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    Posted April 13, 2011

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    Posted October 29, 2013

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    Posted June 17, 2011

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