7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
This is another wonderful story about the life of fictional judge Edward Feathers and his wife Betty. The first book is titled 'Old Filth' (Filth meaning Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) and the second "The Man in the Wooden Hat". The latter looks at the marriage of Filth and Betty from her point of view and fills in some of the blanks that are hinted at but not expounded upon in the first book.
It is another wonderfully captivating read from Jane Gardam. The characters and places are vividly drawn and the unexpressed emotion in the book is palpable. In her very easy, flowing style we see how Betty and Edward fall in love despite an inauspicious, unpromising start to their marriage. From the outside, Betty and Edward look like a fairly boring, conservative couple, sensible from the start, untroubled by passionate emotions or flights of fancy. But we see how this is really a facade, brilliantly maintained, and how, in spite of deceptions and hidden longings, the two of them manage to hold on to a marriage that is genuine and loving for both of them.
The reason I'm giving this book four rather than five stars is that I was not at all keen on the character of Albert Ross. I'm not sure if I'm not reading him the right way, but for me, he is introduced as someone who will be pivotal to the story and he appears on a number of occasions. I don't, however, think he was necessary at all to the narrative. He was completely unbelievable as a character and I think he could be removed from the story with no damage done! I'm sure other readers will disagree and say that I'm missing the point of him as the conscience or the subconscious of the characters, but for me, he's too contrived to be satisfying!
Otherwise, though, highly recommended!
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
This is a treat for those who have read `Old Filth', Jane Gardam's previous book about Sir Edward Feathers and his wife Betty (see my Amazon review), but also for those who have not read it (and will surely want to read it next), for, though the knowledge of its predecessor will add an additional layer of enjoyment, this book does not assume such knowledge. And anyway, significant though it is, there is only a modicum of overlap between the two novels (and there are even two small discrepancies between the events described).
The focus of `Old Filth' was on Sir Edward; here it is on Betty: we learn much, much more about her than in the first book. Edward we see as the kind of person he already was when they married - a workaholic and unable to give much emotionally; but we would have to go to the earlier novel to see what had made him become like that. The current book begins with their engagement and more or less ends where the earlier book more or less began.
There are more disconcerting elements in the second book than in the first. The dwarf Albert Ross, who is devoted to Edward and knows him better than anyone else does, seems more spooky. His hat is an important part of him, and the title of the book suggests the great influence Jane Gardam attributes to him (though why the hat of the title is wooden we discover in a single image near the end of the book.) She even has him survive Edward, when in the previous book Edward outlived him - one of the two discrepancies noted above. (The other relates to a watch). Betty's behaviour when she has just been engaged (the oddest engagement, to be followed by the oddest wedding) is more upsetting and indeed hard to explain. There is in the first half of the book a note of hysteria. It is hard to believe that this could ever be a successful marriage.
And yet it was - though at a price that will be fully apparent only in the last few pages. Betty does have to go through trials - and very movingly they are described - but her relationship with Edward is not the cause of them.
We move back and forth between a retreat in the depth of the Dorset countryside and the throbbing life of Hong Kong. Again the writing is both funny and touching.
It is, I think, an even better book than `Old Filth' - and I had given five stars to that!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I'd always intended to read Jane Gardam's much-lauded novel Old Filth but somehow never got around to it, and then the The Man in the Wooden Hat was published so I thought I'd start with that. Old Filth told the story of Sir Edward Feathers ("Old Filth" - Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a successful lawyer and later a judge who spent much of his career as a property and construction lawyer in the Far East. The Man in the Wooden Hat runs in parallel and tells the story from his wife Elisabeth's perspective. I was told I didn't need to read Old Filth first and I was certainly not aware of any missing background problems when reading this apparently stand-alone novel.
The book opens with Edward Feathers, then a young barrister, waiting in Heathrow airport with his right-hand man Albert Ross, for a flight to Hong Kong. Edward has proposed to Elisabeth a Scottish girl, born in China of ex-patriate parents who spent the war in Japanese internment camps, and is waiting to hear her answer. Albert Ross is a Chinese dwarf, a solicitor with a formidable reputation as Edward's fixer. Ross wears a trilby hat with a zip compartment containing a pack of cards, which features throughout the story.
The two men are flying to Hong Kong to fight a case against another lawyer, the detested Terry Veneering. Edward Feathers loathes Terry Veneering, for he is everything Edward isn't - "bold, ugly and unstoppable", and "irrepressibly merry" in a way women find irresistible.
The scene shifts to Hong Kong, where we meet Elisabeth, a free-spirit, whose background in the camps has left her rootless and adaptable, unconcerned by money or position. She has a group of girl-friends who are equally unbound by the stuffiness of the ex-patriate community in the Colony, and we begin to wonder how she could possibly get on with the highly conventional Edward.
That night, while looking over the bay as the dropped into the sea, Elisabeth accepts Edwards proposal, despite barely knowing him other than being certain that he is upright and reliable and truly loves her. Within an hour Elisabeth meets Terry Veneering and the scene is set for a life-long struggle for Elisabeth's heart between the upright, honourable Edward and the disreputable Terry.
The book follows the course of these characters over the next fifty years. We drop in and out of their lives, sometimes at pivotal moments, often at more routine periods as Edward becomes Sir Edward and Elisabeth transforms into Betty, the creator of an elaborate Dorset garden. We read of a long marriage which seems to exist by virtue of carefully negotiated space, with both partners taking time out for business and personal reasons and not really seeming to mind. Secret compartments are carefully maintained over many years, but perhaps the secrets are those which the other partner allows to be private, choosing not to know too much about things which can never be changed.
Obviously with such a long time period to be spanned in relatively few pages, the book is more like a series of snapshots, but perhaps a better word would be collage, for the episodes are carefully assembled to make a bigger picture which by the end of the book has made a coherent whole, satisfying in its completeness. Jane Gardam's skill is in blending humour and pathos, the eccentricities of the characters seeing them through loss and disappointment with a certain panache which makes for entertaining reading. We see the decisions that people make are those they must make, the outcome of personality, and there is no point sitting in judgement on how people are and what they do, when in reality they have so little choice most of the time. The authors ability to understate, to play down crises and to move on through them is typical of the people she writes about - who were taught in their youth to pay little attention to themselves and to "just soldier on".
But foremost the book is about marriage, particularly long marriages, which survive because people's expectations were never high in the first place and had a sense of the wider context in which their relationship operates. The moment-by-moment thrill of the other person is not something which runs well with the accommodations and compromises which the years bring. Jane Gardam shows with great subtlety the power of a union which somehow survives despite not only external attacks but also those which rise up from within.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2010
Nothing to add to all the reviews - I read Old Filth first and loved it and was also totally absorbed by The Man in the Wooden Hat. However, one thing jarred with me. Betty is said to have been a child in a Japanese Internment camp during the war but we are also led to believe that she was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park. I have mused over this but still can't work out how she could have done both. Also at one point we are told she went back to England to finish her education and attend university. (Before or after Bletchley?) If anyone can throw any light on this puzzle - especially if I have missed something - I would be most grateful.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2009
I read this before I read 'Old Filth', and although this novel unquestionably stands on its own, it consistently gave me the feeling that it was making assumptions about its characters and perhaps unintentionally assuming that they would already be familiar from the earlier book.
One of the positives to be derived from this is that it doesn't hang about, doesn't linger self-indulgently. And one of the negatives to be derived from that in turn is a rather sketchy attitude to some characters and events. Terry Veneering, for instance, the oik rival lawyer to Eddie Feathers, the male protagonist, seemed to me more of a plot device than a real character. And I wasn't at all sure whether Albert Ross (the "Chinese dwarf") was supposed to have some kind of fantastical, mystical element to him, which in a way undermined for me the reality. That sketchiness seemed to me to extend to the narrative technique, which slips into using letters or screenplay, for instance, in ways that might sometimes seem just a bit lazily arbitrary. But they do contribute to the story being told clearly.
Now that I have read "Old Filth", quite a bit becomes quite a lot clearer, so I think that's my recommendation: do read them both but in that order. Maybe they should be combined somehow into one book, with the parallel narratives merged.
One small niggle: it's always annoying and unsettling to come upon factual errors; they always make you wonder whether there aren't perhaps more that you haven't spotted and don't happen to recognise. I don't think it was possible in the time of Attlee's government (i.e. 1951 at the latest) to fly from London to Hong Kong in fourteen hours with just one stopover, and it certainly wouldn't have been with British Airways which wasn't formed until 1974.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2011
Most reviewers seem to have a natural bent towards their subjects, so non-positive reviews on Amazon are not too popular. So my view is that Jane Gardam's work has lost it's subtlety and incisiveness over the years. I found "The man in the wooden hat" over-contrived, too full of wildly improbable "coincidences", and with an over "arch" pattern of apparently predicting the future. I preferred her novels written in the 1970s and 1980s
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 2010
You don't have to have read 'Old Filth' before reading 'The Man in the Wooden Hat,' but I was glad that I had done, even though there was quite a long gap. Reading about the marriage in 'Hat' from Betty's point of view has made me want to return to 'Filth' to get a closer look at how the author has tied up these consecutive viewpoints.
This portrayal of a full marriage is written with Jane Gardam's distinctive delicate, quirky irony and compassion as she involves us in the details of her characters' lives. Betty takes seriously her bond to her devoted husband Edward Feathers (Filth), but is passionately drawn to Terry Veneering and to helping his half-Chinese son, Harry. Can she, or should she do anything about her choice? - is a question which hovers within the story. The theme of living the life one has chosen, but occasionally revisiting the one that might have been is very evocative.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 27 September 2009
Sarah Fellingham's review is interesting. Because my memory is so bad and because I was only half listening to Radio 4's serialisation of The Man in the Wooden Hat, I failed for a while to realise that this is a different novel to Old Filth. I thought some features were different and that, somehow, the Old Filth (which I read four years ago) had had its title changed - this struck me as odd.
But if TMitWH is half as good as OF it is a must buy. Sarah suggests reading OF second. She may be right - I am not sure. However, where she is undoubtedly right is in asserting that one should read both.
Any novel that is stretched out over a lifetime has a head start to my mind. And any novel based on people who are entirely credible (OF's characters certainly are and I incline to expect the same result with TMitWH) is also much more likely to succeed.
Incidentally, I checked with an old HK hand and he assures me that when his family made its way out there in the early nineteen fifties there were stops in Rome or Cairo and then Karachi. Two days all told and at the hands of BOAC.
As it happens, I also think Jane Gardam is a top class bird.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I don't think you can review one book with out reviewing the other, just as I don't think you can read one and not the other. "Old Filth" was published in 2006. It is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a noted jurist based in Hong Kong. His nickname - "Old Filth" - was at odds with his precise and personal probity. "Filth" stands for "Failed In London, Try HongKong". Sir Edward's life is written by Jane Gardam in not exactly a timely sequence; she starts when he is an old and distinguished judge, retired back in England, living life alone after the death of his wife, Betty. He meets an new neighbor who turns out to be an old enemy of his, a fellow jurist, also newly retired from duty in Hong Kong.
The main story in "Old Filth" is about Edward Feather's childhood as a "Raj" orphan. He was born to an English doctor and his wife in the British East Indies. His mother dies in childbirth and his father, stricken by his wife's death and becoming an alcoholic, basically turns over baby Edward to the care of a native nurse. Edward is sent back to England at an early age, boarding with first a family near Wales, and then entering boarding schools. World War 2 begins when he's about 17 and is on his way back to the Indies to live with his father. He is forced to return to England, where he is further educated in the law, and, after the war, goes to live in Hong Kong, becoming first a noted lawyer and then a judge. He's met Betty along the way, and she, another orphan, born in China to British parents who are die under Japanese captivity, make a long, mostly happy but childless marriage.
"The Man in the Wooden Hat", published in 2009, is neither the prequel or sequel to "Old Filth". Rather, it is the companion piece. If "Filth" told the story from Sir Edward's point, "Man" focuses on the story from Betty's. Gardam's writing in both books is exquisite, spare yet right to the point. Both main characters are given equal weight, along with the secondary ones, most of whom are drawn as well as Betty and Edward.
Both books are just superb; if I could give six stars to both, I would.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 October 2014
This is a companion novel to Old Filth, published in 2005. As I had not read the first book, this may explain why the overall tenor of the story is difficult to grasp – rather like hearing a conversation between two friends about someone you don’t know, and thus failing to understand much of what is said, or indeed omitted. The plot centres on Edward Feathers QC and his wife Elizabeth/Betty. They marry in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and the somewhat jumpy narrative covers their early married lives and old age. As they are unconventional folk, it is an unusual marriage. At times, it all seems rather farcical, rather like a slightly sobered-up Tom Sharpe novel. However, there are hidden depths as the emotions of the two main characters, Betty in particular, are slowly uncovered – Elizabeth is seduced by Feathers’ great barrister rival, the philanderer Terry Veneering immediately after she agrees to marry Edward, and for the rest of her life she loves Veneering from afar whilst stubbornly sticking to her marriage promises to Edward.
There are three clunky and obvious historical errors which somehow dispersed the integrity of the contract between the author and reader to enter and be absorbed into the fictional world of Edward and Elizabeth Feathers. A mildly entertaining book, but not one that fully engaged me.