The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth—wait, that’s all out of order!

I’m going to do everything backwards with Jane Gardam. You’ll have to forgive me as I am a bit out of practice. The Man in the Wooden Hat was published in 2009 as a followup to the 2004 Old Filth, which tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers (aka Old Filth) from his mother’s pregnancy through his own memorial service—roughly speaking, the story of the twentieth century. The Man in the Wooden Hat retells much of that story, filling in gaps, leaving gaps of its own (many of which are filled in Old Filth), and focusing much more of its time and energy on the period of Filth’s marriage to Betty, his companion of many decades.

The earlier novel’s main focus, timewise, is on Filth’s childhood and old age, with many reminiscences about adult and married life, but not much actual time-in-the-novel spent there. The Man in the Wooden Hat takes the converse approach, again, roughly speaking, and it’s likely for that reason that the Washington Post blurb on the Europa Editions cover calls it “[a]n astute, subtle depiction of marriage.” But the more specific billing on the front flap is not, I think, quite right: “Old Filth was Eddie’s story. Here in The Man in the Wooden Hat, the story of his marriage is told from the point of view of Betty, a character as vivid and enchanting as Filth himself.”

This gave the impression, at least to me, that I was in for a bit of a he-said-she-said—with the implication, probably coming just from my own head, that Betty’s would be the “real” story, the second novel a sort of corrective to the first. Not only is it not a corrective, and not presented as such, but I don’t think it’s properly Betty’s story either. Both books are about Filth; both include Betty as the lead actress; the second features her more and lets the reader know who she really is—but in doing so, continues to highlight who Filth is as well.

An example is in order. This one is not at all irrelevant to the novels, or to Filth and Betty’s marriage, but it’s not something I care to write about in particular so I don’t feel it gives much away here. The Feathers’ marriage is childless—not a thing which typically goes unremarked. Not least when Betty’s obituary comes out and notes there were no children of the union. So, why not? Every indication in Old Filth is that they simply did not care to have them. Perhaps they could not conceive and didn’t care. Perhaps they could not conceive, cared for a while, and got over it. In any case, it is presented through Filth’s lens as a point of agreement. We may suspect, and I surely did (knowing, especially, that a whole other book had been written from Betty’s perspective), that Betty might have had a different story here, but there is not much hint what it was, and I wonder whether my suspicion wasn’t based more on gender norms than anything else.

In The Man in the Wooden Hat we get the answer. Betty is pregnant soon into their marriage, but miscarries. Worse, after the miscarriage it becomes clear that her time in a Japanese internment camp has permanently damaged her fertility; she has a hysterectomy before the age of thirty and is emotionally devastated. Betty, you see, not only wanted children—she wanted lots of them, enough to fill up a house in a Victorian novel. Ten, at least! And she was mad for children. Filth is quick to assure her that he is not at all disappointed their life together will be childless—he, in fact, never wanted any to begin with, only her.

So, do we find more of “the real story” in The Man in the Wooden Hat? Yes, undoubtedly. Do we find “Betty’s side” to their marriage, in this particular? Yes, again undoubtedly. But we also find the truth of Filth’s side—which we emphatically did not know in Old Filth. There, the couple’s childlessness is presented as “okay, but probably not really okay, but we don’t know how or for whom.” For all we knew at the time, it could have been Filth who was disappointed at missing the pitter-patter of little feet, even if he did get over it. Instead, we find that he actively did not want them, intentionally withheld information from Betty about his own questionable fertility, and proceeded to practically celebrate their now-enforced child-free lifestyle while she was mourning the dream-life she’d always wanted. And there’s quite a “why” behind Filth’s carelessness of children, which, I think, is ultimately more important than the particular child question here, and which I won’t get to just yet. But the point is that it’s the revelations about Filth that are still more compelling. The True Story of Children is a comment on the Feathers’ marriage and enlightens us as to Betty’s character—but her character is still new. The same True Story of Children also enlightens us about Filth, with whom we’ve already spent a whole book and for whom we now have much more to weave into a coherent tapestry of a life.

All this is a long way of saying that I, at least, felt like for as much as I learned about Betty from the second book, I learned at least as much about Filth, and those revelations were so much more striking because I had more of a feeling that I already knew him.

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