As anticipated, Edward’s career blossomed, rising to Queen’s Council and then judge. He became rich. The Feathers lived in London and in Hong Kong, where Betty performed as the proper, well-to-do Colonial wife, but always with a husband who was consumed with his work, a man unable to express his feelings. Whenever she thought of leaving him, her promise and the sudden, mysterious appearance of loyal Albert Ross prevented her.
The man in the wooden hat was not Albert Ross. On a trip with Edward to the Netherlands well into their 50-year marriage, Betty saw a wooden carving of the head and shoulders of a man on a plinth in a museum, “the wood so black it must have lain untouched for centuries in some bog.” On the head was a hat with “a tight crown and a cartwheel of an oak brim, biscuit thin, spread out much wider than the stooped shoulders.” While she was looking at the sculpture, Veneering appeared and amused her by whispering in the wooden ear “Albertross.”
The meeting was their last: Veneering asked Elisabeth to come away with him, but she refused, reiterating “I’ll never leave him. I told you.” When Veneering tells her that they will never forget each other she replies simply “Yes, I know.”
And they don’t. As in any marriage, relationships are complicated. Betty truly loves Edward, feels great tenderness for him, and is bound to him and the secure life he gave her. Yet her sensuality and sense of freedom rises to the fore from time to time. When she finally decides to leave Edward, she finds she cannot, that it is too late.
It enriches “The Man in the Wooden Hat” to have read “Old Filth” first, but it is by no means necessary. Miss Gardam’s literary tour de force stands on its own. It will, however, make readers want to read everything she has written.
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.