Edward spent his early childhood in Malaya, then was shipped off to a miserable existence in English boarding schools and later evacuated back to Asia during the war. Servants were his family and his only friend was a bizarre Chinese dwarf named Albert Ross, sometimes facetiously called “Albertross,” who “preferred to be known as a Hakkar, the ancient red-brown tribe of Oriental Gypsies” and who always wore “a size 10 brown trilby hat.”
Edward went to Oxford, became a barrister — barristers in the British system are hired by solicitors to represent clients in court — and earned his nickname, Old Filth, an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong.
The Edward we meet in “The Man in the Wooden Hat” is anything but filthy: an outstanding pillar of the legal community in England and in colonial Hong Kong, he is tall, handsome, fastidious and “always looked as if he’d stepped out of a five-star hotel shower, … immaculate in body and soul. Well, almost.” He was also successful, thanks to Albert Ross, who served as Eddie’s solicitor and directed him into lucrative postwar bomb damage claims and then into general building disputes around the world.
Miss Gardam opens her delicious new novel as Edward, en route from London to Hong Kong, proposes via letter (written on office stationery) to a young (28-year-old) somewhat free-wheeling English girl. Elisabeth Macintosh, called Betty, was born in Tiensin and lost her parents in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai during World War II. She worked for some time as a civil servant in Britain’s secret service. Now she’s on holiday in Hong Kong. Edward describes her as “very lively. Infectiously happy. Very bright eyes. Strong. Rather — muscular.” “Elisabeth,” he said, “makes me think of a kingfisher. She glitters and shines. Or a glass of water.”
Elisabeth was happiest in Asia. Similarly, Edward’s “competence and his happiness were at their greatest in Far Eastern sunlight and the crash and rattle of monsoon rain, the suck and grind and roar of hot seas on white shores.”
“The Man in the Wooden Hat” is a joy to read. Jane Gardam writes an elegant, witty prose; her narrative is peppered with ironic asides. The story unfolds, then re-folds, evolving into an unexpected conclusion. There are moments of magic that take your breath away, only to be replaced by cynical realism.
While “Old Filth” was Edward’s tale, the new novel tells the same story viewed through Elisabeth’s eyes. It is a story of secrets, some not revealed until the very end of the novel; of passion renounced and loyalty not always rewarded; of marital ties and unraveling. Characters are drawn, sometimes only sketched, with satirical finesse.
Places are vividly described: Donhead, the village where Eddie and Elisabeth spend their senior years is “secluded, deep in miles of luxuriant woodland, its lanes thick with flowers … too narrow for the modern-day agricultural machinery that thunders through more open country.”
In Hong Kong, “voices rose in a screech, like a sunset chorus of raucous birds: Cantonese and half a dozen dialects; the crashing of pots and pans, clattering pandemonium.”
On her honeymoon in Bhutan, Elisabeth describes “a rest-house high above a valley where a green river thunders, foaming along between forests standing in the sky and luminous terraces of rice. At a meeting of waters stands a stupa … its whiteness and purity hurt the eyes.”
Elisabeth accepts Eddie’s proposal because she “can’t think of a reason not to,” realizing she has “settled on exactly what [her] mother would have wanted: a rich, safe, good husband and a pleasant life.” At Edward’s impassioned insistence, she promises never to leave him. Albert Ross threatens to destroy her should she break her promise.
An hour after her promise to Edward, Betty meets Terry Veneering, Eddie’s hated rival in the trial courts. Veneering is the opposite of Edward vulgar, loud, self-confident, and married to a beautiful Chinese woman. A spark flies between Betty and Terry and a night of passion and a life-long connection ensue. (Given Betty’s life-long ambivalence, how amusing to name Veneering after one of Dickens’ characters in “Our Mutual Friend.”)
Betty and Eddie return to London after a long honeymoon in Asia and Malta. Betty, who looked forward to having a family of ten children, was full of joy finding herself pregnant, and devastated when she loses the baby at four months. It is her only pregnancy. Her “children” are Harry, Terry’s son, and Eddie, her husband, whose fear of abandonment created a childlike dependence on her.
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.