Guilty pearls. Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Abacus, 2018. First published 2009

 This is a sequel to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, about which I posted a couple of years ago (link HERE). The Man in the Wooden Hat tells much the same poignant story, but from a different perspective.

OF was largely an account of the life of Sir Edward Feathers, an undistinguished jobbing London lawyer who moved to Hong Kong and revived his career. He went on to become a respected judge back in England. We learnt about his damaged childhood, and the knocks he endured and which shaped him into the fragile, emotionally scarred man he became.

Jane Gardam The Man in the Wooden Hat cover Wooden Hat gives the story from his wife Betty’s point of view. We don’t get so much information about her childhood, but the formative experiences of her life were her exhilarating war work at Bletchley Park during WWII – she was clearly a brilliant mind, contributing to the breaking of enemy codes – and subsequent horrors in a Japanese prison camp. Like Edward, she’d been a ‘Raj child’ – raised in the far east and shipped home for exiled schooling away from her family.


Both characters then are emotionally unsuited for the rigours of enduring married intimacy. There are fissures in the relationship from the start: Edward’s proposal, their honeymoon, early years of marriage – all lack the spark of romance. There is love, but it’s of a frail and unfulfilling kind. As they grow old together they become accustomed to life of quiet acceptance, creating a genuine bond, but with something missing at the heart of the relationship. Probably because of their respective damaged emotional states, and the problems that fate provides for them.

The awful cad Veneering reappears, too. He’s Edward’s professional (and romantic) rival. There’s a crucially symbolic gift of ‘guilty pearls’ that functions like Chekhov’s gun, with a heartbreaking twist at the novel’s end.

Edward and Betty’s whole adult life is sketched in with unobtrusive compassion and understanding: their mis-steps, regrets and fleeting moments of insight into what might have been.

As in OF, the narrative is carefully crafted. The emphasis is on character and what makes a person feel and suffer. There’s more on the odious colonialism and casual sexism and racism of the times; Jane Gardam presents this unflinchingly but without tub-thumping.

The narrative voice is again poised and assured. This is a writer with whom you feel in safe, caring hands.



16 thoughts on “Guilty pearls. Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat

  1. I’ve had this trilogy for years, have been determined to read it but — have never gotten very far (2 or 3 failed attempts at Old Filth), despite a friend’s glowing recommendation. I love the idea of showing a marriage (or any other intense relationship) from both points of view (didn’t Evan Connell use a similar idea in his novels Mrs. Bridge & Mr. Bridge?), however, so I’ve decided to try these books again, probably late this year or early next.
    Many years ago I did actually read a different Gardam novel, The Flight of the Maidens (I think). I thought it well-done but wasn’t compelled at the time to go on. It’s possible Gardam isn’t for me (I hope this isn’t the case) but I’m definitely going to give the Old Filth books another shot.

    • They’re not my favourites, but worth trying. As a portrait of a marriage they combine well. Some aspects of characterisation left me cold (snobbery, casual cruelty), but they’re well written. I posted on the 2 Bridges novels a while back – they’re superb.

  2. I’ve heard of this author and the book Old Filth but that is about as far as it goes. They sound interesting but with the pile of books staring at me from the corners I probably won’t get to them. Enjoyed your post about them though.

  3. You’ve intrigued me, Simon, but I’m with others — my piles of to-be-read are still too high. Just finished “Golden Gate,” which while somewhat dated, I enjoyed VERY much. Such an interesting idea to write a novel in verse.

    • I have the same situation. Have just picked up a hefty Balzac novel that’s sat patiently on my shelves for some 20 years, unread. Not sure I’ll take the plunge – Mrs TD is urging me to read the last le Carré that she finished recently…

  4. Jane Gardam is a favorite author of mine, I especially appreciate how she pays close attention, and the delineation of the characters and marriage at the center of the trilogy are masterful.

  5. I’ve only just discovered Jane Gardam through her short stories, but really enjoyed them. Quite quirky and assured as you say, Old Filth is next on my list.

  6. Simon, I remember distinctly your piece on “Old Filth” from two years ago and the graceful interweaving of your walk, including Mrs. TD’s leeriness of the alpacas! STILL need to read these both. I had never heard of the author, more is the pity. Wishing you both health, happiness, and serenity in these trying times.

    Maureen M.

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