When choosing a book I often like to try an author I've never read, just to expand my own personal literary vocabulary. But sometimes I can't help returning to an old favorite, especially when I feel as if I have some unfinished business with a character. It's why I had to keep following Harry Angstrom in the “Rabbit” series until he was six feet under.
This time the character was Sir Edward Feathers, the “Old Filth” of Jane Gardam's book by that name (see my blog The Raj Orphan). More precisely it was Edward's wife Betty who intrigued me. Early in the book, planting tulip bulbs in her Dorset garden, she drops a pearl necklace into one of the holes. Minutes later she dies. The book continues with Edward's reminiscences about the marriage. But I was left with the feeling that there was more to Betty than Edward knew. So I couldn't resist reading The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of the same marriage from Betty's point of view.
Betty, like Edward, is an orphaned British child of the Far East. Born in Tientsin, she grew up in an Japanese internment camp where her parents died, and later worked at Bletchley Park, site of secret British code breaking activities during WWII. And one thing that Betty and Edward have in common is their secrets. They keep things from each other, and throughout the novel Gardam reveals glimpses of their secret selves, hidden under their proper English reserve.
Betty's most powerful secret is the passion she feels for her husband's bitter rival, a man she met only an hour after accepting Edward's marriage proposal. This passion chases her through fifty years of marriage. Edward is seemingly ignorant of his wife's yearnings, but he has his secrets as well.
Gardam presents a witty, poignant, subtle picture of a marriage where loyalty and affection are balanced against desire. In the end, secrets are revealed that make the visions of the marriage presented in these two separate books merge into a larger whole.