Thank God for Betty

Tessa Hadley

  • The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
    Chatto, 213 pp, £14.99, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 7011 7798 0

The novel at any given moment has a special relationship with the recent past: worlds contiguous to its own, at the farther reaches of living memory, not yet floated off into history. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and William Trevor’s Love and Summer address themselves with urgency to 1950s Ireland, not out of nostalgia, but because something needs to be understood, for the record, in the relationship between those days and the way we live now. The least detail, captured in the right words, is eloquent: it was real, we could have reached and touched it, now it’s gone. Implicitly, change is these writers’ subject. Jane Gardam has been the recorder of aspects of Englishness for a long time: more than 20 novels over the past 40 years. Her latest, The Man in the Wooden Hat, addresses itself to the presumptions and tensions of postwar late Empire with a present interrogation more explicit – more political perhaps – than either of the two Irish novels.

The Man in the Wooden Hat is the twin of Gardam’s previous novel, Old Filth: both are about the same people, and some of the same stories recur. Edward Feathers, Old Filth, is very clean, and for much of the two novels isn’t old; it’s a Bar joke, an acronym, ‘failed in London try Hong Kong’. He begins his career as a QC specialising in construction law, then becomes a judge, spending most of his professional life in the colony, becoming successful (there’s a lot of construction, postwar) and rich. Old Filth juxtaposes scenes from Feathers’s life in retirement in Dorset, falling to pieces after the death of his wife, Betty, with a narrative of his childhood and youth. The Man in the Wooden Hat is mostly Betty’s story. This repetition ought to be dangerous: the second book could feel hemmed in, too short on surprises. But Gardam persuades us that there’s a plenitude of material hidden, even in lives lived close alongside one another in a long marriage.

The two novels are wound together lightly, and either one reads perfectly well on its own. A few essential scenes are in both books, inflected subtly differently: their repetition feels less like the necessary work of plot construction, more as if these are originary mysteries, revisited because they signify differently in different contexts. There’s Betty’s death, for example, when she keels over planting tulips in the Dorset garden; and there’s the reconciliation of Feathers with his old enemy Veneering, another judge, when Feathers is locked out of his house one snowy Christmas. There are other less momentous, more playful connections between the two books. For instance, when he’s 17, at the beginning of the war, Feathers is evacuated, to his desperate shame (he wants to volunteer). In Old Filth, onboard ship, the officers threaten to make him and his friend cook: ‘You couldn’t do worse than this duff.’ In The Man in the Wooden Hat, he reminisces about the duff they presumably then made, ‘full of black beetles for currants’.

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