Several years ago I read a highly anticipated novel called Old Filth (Europa Editions, 2006) by Jane Gardam.
Filth, the acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong, is also the nickname of the novel’s protagonist. My memory is bit clouded, and I can’t remember all the details from Old Filth, but I recall finishing the book and wishing it had included more about Filth’s life in Hong Kong.
And now my wish has come true.
This week I read The Man in the Wooden Hat (Europa Editions, 2009), Gardam’s latest in the Filth installment.
Gardam is a beautiful writer and artfully traces Filth’s brief courtship, rocky betrothal, and stable marriage to Betty, a British national born and raised in pre-WWII China. The beginning of the novel reminds me of one of my favorites, The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Betty is 28 and desperate to marry and have children (she wants 10). When Edward Feathers, a dry London barrister (born in Malaya) asks for her hand in marriage, she accepts out of necessity, not love.
And then she goes and spends the night of her engagement with Feathers’s rival, Terry Veneering.
Feathers (whom Betty nicknames Filth) is a workaholic, but keeps secrets of his own. He begs Betty to promise to never leave him. She keeps up her end of the promise, remaining loyal–and faithful–to Filth, although her heart also belongs to another. Even on the eve of major surgery that will render her childless, she helps Veneering with a critical matter, all without mentioning a word to him about her own problems.
The Man in the Wooden Hat is a tragic love story that left me wanting more.
So before I’d dried my last tear, I rushed off to the library to re-read Old Filth.
I guess my memory served me right. Very little of Old Filth takes place in Hong Kong. Instead, it traces Filth’s childhood in Malaya (now Malaysia) and his subsequent years as a Raj orphan, when he’s sent Home to Wales, not knowing anyone.
Some of the details in Old Filth contradict those in The Man in the Wooden Hat, but fiction is fiction. I’d recommend reading The Man in the Wooden Hat first. Then if you’re hankering for more, pick up Old Filth to learn more about Feathers’s childhood.