The second book in Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy focuses on Betty, the wife of Edward Feathers—or at least it focuses on their marriage. There are still huge gaps in Betty’s story that I was hoping The Man in the Wooden Hat would fill. The fact that it didn’t made this book a bit of a disappointment, but it’s still a pretty good book overall.
The book begins with Edward’s proposal to Betty via letter to her in Hong Kong. They don’t know each other well, but they like each other, and the marriage seems like a good choice for them both. Before the marriage, however, Edward makes it clear that he’s been abandoned too often by too many people and that Betty must commit absolutely and solemnly to never leaving him. She takes this seriously, although even before the marriage, almost immediately after the engagement, her heart is with someone else.
In Old Filth, it was revealed that Betty had an affair with Terry Veneering, Eddie’s legal rival. Here, we learn the story of that affair. It was both fleeting and constant, consisting of only one night together but revisited in memory and through letters and calls. In fact, the connection is as much about Terry’s son, Harry, as it is about anything else. Betty and Harry form an easy and sweet bond at a party, and that bond persists through their lives.
The story presents a complex picture of love and loyalty. I think that Betty loves all three men—the husband, the lover, and the child—in different ways. There’s loyalty in her relationship with Eddie, passion with Terry, and warmth with Harry. All three are important, and to rank one as greater than the others in Betty’s life seems false. However, this division makes all three relationships feel incomplete, and that is part of the great sadness of Betty’s life. She’s divided, unable to live out the love she feels openly and completely.
Still, I wished there had been more about Betty herself, and not just about her affections for these men. In Old Filth, we got the full man, from childhood to death. In this book, we learn little about Betty’s past. We know that she was born in China, survived an internment camp, and worked at Bletchley Park. Every now and then, there are glimpses of how these experiences might have affected her, but they’re of the “blink and you miss them” variety. I would have liked something more substantive, giving her the complete treatment that her husband got in the previous book.
The final book in the trilogy is about Veneering. He’s not as interesting a character to me, but I may still read it. I certainly enjoyed reading these two books enough to want to read more Gardam. I’d never read her before, so if anyone has recommendations of other books by her to check out, please share!