Elisabeth, Betty, Bets, Macintosh, Mrs. Waterproof, Raincoat Feathers has almost as many names as her husband: Edward Feathers, Monkey, Eddie, Teddy, My dear chap, Old Filth, Filth (Filth also being an acronym for Failed in London, try Hong Kong).
Jane Gardam revealed many of Filth’s facets and some of his secrets in Old Filth. She does the same for his wife’s Betty’s multi-sided personality and hidden history in The Man with the Wooden Hat. The two books, as hinged together as their subjects, form a diptych. A third book, Last Friends, recently added more views, more backstory, to their story.
The pair offers a portrait of a marriage across continents during the last century beginning with Filth as a Raj orphan, and Betty as an internee in a Japanese camp in Shanghai, China, during World War II. They marry in Hong Kong where Filth makes a bundle practicing law in construction, bridges, and dams; and then becomes a judge while Betty struggles with her dreams of having a family. They later retire to the Donheads in the quiet Dorset countryside of England.
While the focus of “The Man in the Wooden Hat” is on Betty, whose love stories include lust, dogged faithfulness and unconditional maternal love, it’s the titular man in the hat who orchestrates the intrigue and is, in turn, most intriguing himself. Albert Ross, is the hinge that keeps Elisabeth and Edward, and this diptych hitched.
We learned in Old Filth that the Feathers’ marriage was childless, that Betty and Filth’s nemesis at court, Terry Veenering, had once had an affair, that Betty was deeply moved by the death of Veneering’s son, Harry, and that Albert Loss redirected Filth’s life a couple of times. We learn how and why all these happen in “…Hat.”
More specifically what we learn in “….. Hat” is that Betty is not childless by choice. As a to-be bride she surrounds herself with the children of her best friend and hopes like her to have many – perhaps 10. Instead she only fleetingly serves as substitute mother for Veneering’s Harry. Harry’s the one who recognizes her true caretaker nature – the raincoat, a Macintosh for others, protecting them from life’s storms, a nurturer, a mother. He’s the one who calls her by her true name; he’s the one who observes that her married name, “Mrs. Feathers sounds like a hen.” (The hen like other objects later takes on further significance; it’s the shape of a tree, an indicator of the home in the Donheads.) She, in turn, serves as his benefactor.
Albert Ross serves as Filths.’ In Old Filth, when Edward is 16, Ross intervenes on his behalf, saving him on a sea voyage and ensuring that he is met on return to England. Filth, in turn, gives him his most precious possession, his father’s watch, for the favor. Later Ross is the solicitor who directs Edward’s legal career to Hong Kong, subsequent success and great wealth.
Something of an exotic, Albert Ross is first described as a Chinese dwarf and then said to be “only notionally Chinese,” preferring “to be known as a Hakkar, the ancient red-brown tribe of Oriental Gypsies. Like others he goes by several names. He is sometimes called Albert Loss. It is really Albert Ross but the R was difficult for him to pronounce. He is often referred to as “Albatross,” or “Coleridge” or “Ancient Mariner.” And like the albatross of Coleridge’s most famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he brings both fair winds and favorable circumstances (to Filth) and a curse (to Betty). Part sorcerer, part magician, he wears his top hat, shuffles and reads cards.
He intervenes several times more in “….. Hat,” sometimes by his presence, sometimes by the suggestion of his presence. Awkward, dispassionate Filth proposes to the solid Betty – a woman he describes as “a good sort.” All he asks is that she promises never to leave him. Abandoned so often in his childhood, he cannot bear being left again. Betty discovers passion (and Veneering) “an hour too late,” and rethinks the marriage. It is the dwarf who shows up to ensure she follows through – and he manifests in one form or another – as a dream vision or a wooden doppelganger each time she questions her vows. When Betty sees the later in a museum, she has the urge to see just what it is under the hat. It’s a sneak peek. What’s there will not be revealed until both Betty and Filth are gone, and the last page is turned.
What’s curious is this reader almost missed that the book both ends and begins with Ross. A dwarf is seen at the split driveway that goes to Edward’s house before Veneering buys the adjacent property. He also seems instrumental in steering Betty here years before during a convalescence. Could it be he’s the indirect cause of the kindling of friendship between Feathers and Veneering after Betty’s death? Could be that the two living right next to each other is no mere coincidence the way it seemed in “Old Filth.”
This revisiting previous versions of the story and telling the tale slightly differently is typical of Gardam’s style. We see the locale of the Macintosh-Veneering tryst in two very different lights within pages of each other. Ditto the home in the Donheads though more pages intervene. We see Elizabeth and Teddy’s wedding and a replay of it. In the two books we revisit the retirement and Filth’s view of Betty’s death with different details. Veneering’s arrival next door, their meeting and subsequent conversations reveal more of their affairs and what each knew – or guessed about them.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was evoked on page 1 as the only poet celebrated for visiting a Donhead. In his great work the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the mariner is doomed to wander and retell his tale. He tells the story to a wedding guest. It is in Gardam’s retelling, “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” that we, the readers are guests at the wedding – and listeners to the subsequent tale of marriage of Edward and Elisabeth Feathers, along with their very own albatross.
What a truly great invitation we’ve been given.