By Jane Gardam — Getting to know intimately one half of a married couple can ill prepare you for meeting the other half, who may fail to live up to their superior advance billing, or, as likely, be so surprisingly normal—even pleasant—that you mistrust your own memory of past marital revelations. Award-winning British writer Jane Gardam’s books Old Filth (from the husband’s point of view) and The Man in the Wooden Hat (the wife’s) apply these different lenses to the same 50-year marriage.
I’ve read only this one, published in 2009, but went back to reviews of Old Filth (2006) and found that many of the animating events in the couple’s life are described in both novels. While the bones of the relationship remain the same, “Little here is as it seemed in ‘Old Filth,’ and both books are the richer for it,” said Louisa Thomas in her New York Times review.
The sobriquet Old Filth—created by and applied to talented barrister Edward Feathers, later Sir Edward—is an acronym for “Failed In London, Try HongKong.” Try there, he does, and succeeds. Also in Hong Kong, his future wife Elisabeth Macintosh debates whether to marry him, decides to, and carries through at rather a slap-dash pace in ancient borrowed finery. Eddie’s preoccupation is that Betty should never leave him, and she promises she won’t. This is a promise Betty learns will be enforced by Edward’s best friend, the card-playing Chinese dwarf Albert Ross (“Albatross”): “If you leave him, I will break you,” Ross threatens, and she is sure he means it.
The wedding ceremony follows by a few hours a one-night affair, in which Betty is deflowered by Eddie’s nemesis, rival barrister Terry Veneering, a secret to which The Albatross, unfortunately, is privy. Trust Charles Dickens to recognize an allusive name when he hears one; like the nouveau riche social climbers in Our Mutual Friend, this Veneering has a charming surface. His attraction for Betty lasts for decades, and he weaves in and out of the story of the couple’s marriage.
While a story of interpersonal relationships, the book takes place after World War II, and is necessarily revelatory about broad social upheavals in Britain. Class and privilege are never the same after the unraveling of Empire, the economic upheavals of the decade before the war, and the war itself. The world into which the three protagonists were born simply disappeared beneath their feet and dissolved out of their arms.
Gardam’s novel follows the couple from youth to old age, with Betty’s death planting tulips in their rural garden. Mostly, though, it focuses on their early relationship, including the tragedy of a miscarriage that leaves Betty unable to have her heart’s desire, children. The closest relationship she maintains with a young person is with Veneering’s precocious son, Harry, whom she meets when he is nine years old and “crunching a lobster” under the table at a banquet. She has numerous lively and colorful friends in Hong Kong and later in London, whose appearance in the narrative is always welcome.
As for the everyday relationship between the spouses, the reader is shown the benefits of accommodation rather than the head-to-head battles that often characterize “relationship books.”
Well plotted and carefully written, full of good humor and getting on with it. A third book in the Old Filth trilogy, Last Friends, was published in 2013. It’s a view of the Feathers’s marriage from Veneering’s point of view. Now that should be interesting!