Tag Archives: Hermione Lee

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

127 wooden hat coverElisabeth Feathers is the protagonist of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, one of the trilogy that also includes Old Filth and Last Friends. What are we to make of Elisabeth Feathers in old age? Her life, it is suggested was all of a piece, or made up of several interrelated pieces throughout, the differentiating factors is not age but her relationships with other people. We note that she is known by many different diminutives, different identities for different people: Elisabeth Mackintosh, Elisabeth Feathers, Betty, Lizzie, Lizzie-Izz.

In her perceptive essay, How to end it all, Hermione Lee asks a number of questions writing about death in biography in Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing. One of them is pertinent here:

Do you, in the tone you choose, and also in matters of structure and interpretation, try to give the death meaning and derive from it some sense of a resolution of the life? (p200)

The question is relevant to Elisabeth Feathers who dies as she plants out tulips. We should beware of seeing people’s lives as somehow encapsulated by the manner of their death.

This is the eleventh in the series of older women in fiction on this blog (click on the category older women in fiction to view the others).

Why marry Old Filth?

Elisabeth is a competent and intelligent woman, experienced in life in the Far East, fluent in Cantonese and one of the Bletchley war-time code-breakers. The novel explores her life from the point at which she decides to marry Edward Feathers, aka Old Filth. For those not familiar with this trilogy, filth is an acronym for Failed in London try Hong Kong. Feathers is a lawyer, soon to become a QC and then a judge. We wonder why Elisabeth is planning to marry him, since neither of them seem especially enthusiastic or in love. Indeed, Elisabeth spends the night before her wedding with Terry Veneering, beginning a relationship, which, like her marriage lasts the rest of her life. It turns out that this is one of the many compromises she makes, which bring her a comfortable and stimulating life.

Hong Kong Star Ferry by Greg Willis (2005) via WikiCommons

Hong Kong Star Ferry by Greg Willis (2005) via WikiCommons

And in later life?

And here’s a summing up of her later life. She and Filth decide not to retire in Hong Hong, because it will be handed back to the Chinese very soon, but to a renovated cottage in Dorset.

Just as she had rearranged herself into a copy of her dead mother on her marriage, now she began to work on being the wife of a distinguished old man. She took over the church – the vicar was nowhere – and set up committees. She joined a Book Club and found DVDs of glorious old films of their youth. She took up French again and had her finger- and toe-nails done in Salisbury, her hair quite often in London where she became a member of the University Women’s Club. She knew she still looked sexy. She still had disturbing erotic dreams.

She quite enjoyed the new role, and bought very expensive country clothes, and she wore Veneering’s pearls (Edward’s were in the safe) more and more boldly and with less and less guilt. (p216-7)

I like this description of adjustment, of adaptation to the allotted and chosen roles, with its slightly disturbing undertow.

Is her life ‘messed’?

Perhaps Veneering was right when he suggested that they had messed up their lives. In their late middle-age they meet accidentally in a gallery in The Hague, and they share a joke about the figure of the title: the Man in the Wooden Hat.

And he took her hands and said, ‘When did you last laugh like this, Elisabeth? Never – that’s right isn’t it? We’ve messed our lives. Elisabeth, come away with me. You’re bored out of your head. You know it. I know it. And I’m in hell. It’s our last chance. I’ll leave her. It was always only a matter of time.’

But she got up and walked out and down the circular staircase, the water from the canal flashing across the yellow walls. He leaned over the rail above, watching her, and when she was nearly down she stopped and stood still, not looking up.

‘You’re not wearing the pearls.’

She said, ‘Goodbye Terry. I’ll never leave him. I told you.’

‘But I’m still with you. I’ll never leave you. We’ll never forget each other.

On the last step of the staircase she said, ‘Yes I know.’ (p225-6)

She is not unhappy with her choices, her sacrifices. Both she and Terry are better off with the marriages they chose.


She is unhappy about being childless, however. Her friend Amy, a missionary in Hong Kong, has hundreds of babies, is in love and happy. (All the things Elisabeth is not, perhaps). She wanted children, but there were miscarriages and eventually a hysterectomy. Instead she develops an affection for Veneering’s son, and it is his death that provokes her final actions.

I wanted her to be happy, perhaps because she came from a generation that had to rely upon men for their material wellbeing. It is Jane Gardam’s skill to present a flawed and privileged woman, who has also suffered during her life (not just her own childlessness, but the death of her parents in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp), with a great deal of affection. She was a survivor, one that gave a great deal to the two men in her life, and to her friends, and who may not have achieved her intellectual potential, but nevertheless offers a version of integrity. Integrity is something to aim for throughout life, I guess. And in both senses of the word: honesty and integration.

Here’s a link to another blog review by A Common Reader. He suggests that a long-lasting marriage requires secret compartments, a little like the mysterious Ross’s hat. And he sheds light on the title.

Have you read this trilogy? What do you make of Elisabeth Feathers? Is her later life a good model for older women?


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is being rediscovered yet again. She was acknowledged in her own time when this novel won the Booker Prize in 1979. Now her reputation is being revived by Hermione Lee’s biography, and enthusiastic articles by Julian Barnes. 4th Estate is reissuing her backlist. Great! But it’s a puzzle why Penelope Fitzgerald ever loses popularity. Successful novels by women seem to be forgettable. Something similar happened to Barbara Pym’s novels and to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Even the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is not widely regarded as an accomplished novelist.

Two years before she published Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald’s publisher informed her she was ‘only an amateur writer’. People refer to hobby writers with the same sneer. Her response was, ‘I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before your lose amateur status?’

Thankfully she was not put off and Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979. Everyone had assumed VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River would win. According to Jenny Turner in the LRB the BBC’s Book Programme suggested the judges had selected the wrong book. Sexism and ageism were at work, especially as Penelope Fitzgerald did not dress in the expected way.

A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

74 PF

(Who else remembers what the Times said about Eleanor Catton when she won the Man Booker Prize in October last year? ‘She’s a chick, a slight pale (unassisted) blonde, … an unashamed nerd … but with pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness.’ Plus ca …)

74 OffshoreOffshore is a quirky tale about quirky people, who live on the shoreline of the Thames at Battersea Reach.

Between the Lord Jim, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like othe people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt. (p2-3)

This gentle, generous humour and insight is typical of Offshore. The characters are all in one way or another losers in conventional terms. And yet they all have spirit and resourcefulness and an enviable sense of community. A charming aspect of this short novel is that the characters are revealed through the state of disrepair of their boats.

Nenna lives on Grace with her two children and is estranged from her husband. Much of the novels tension and drive arises from her feeble efforts to resolve her relationship with him. As a resident of a certain area of NE London for nearly 30 years I was amused by Nenna’s reaction to hearing his address in Stoke Newington:

 ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (p40)

The other characters also live in something of a nether world. Richard, an ex-navy man, whose converted minesweeper Lord Jim is the smartest and most well maintained of the boats, cannot see that he may lose his wife who does not share his pleasure at living aboard. Maurice carriers on his trade as a male prostitute aboard his boat and is always about to make a better life for himself. His kindness extends to permitting Harry to store stolen goods on his boat. Willis is an old painter who lives on Dreadnought, a boat so poorly maintained it sinks even while he celebrates her sale. Hopeless. And Woodie lives separately from his wife during the summer, and then amicably in Purley in the winter, and is generous to all the inhabitants of the Reach.

Although they are quirky, the characters in Offshore are also comfortable because they are so flawed and so like all the people I know. We all occupy a shoreline between conventional mores and our own aspirations, expectations, obligations and ambitions. Re-reading this novel also reminded me of when I worked with troubled adolescents. The unexpected was always happening, events were always dramatic, rarely final.

The River Thames suffuses this novel, is almost another character with its moods, tides, mud and swells. Penelope Fitzgerald was drawing on her own experience of living on the river. And she knew a thing or two about sinking boats.

The only awkwardness was the daily life of the Nenna’s two children. Martha and Tilda seem as precocious as the kids in the tv comedy series Outnumbered. In 1961 these children were allowed to miss school and wander with little supervision – unbelievable in our times of compulsory schooling and testing and fears of paedophilia, let alone drowning.

74 PF noveld

If you have never read this novel, I hope I have kindled your interest. And if you have, I hope you may want to re-read it. Her other works are also enjoyable: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, Innocence (recommended in Julian Barnes’s piece in the Guardian which you can read here).


Hermione Lee’s biography was enthusiastically reviewed by Philip Hensher in November 2013: here.

I note that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel aged 61.

Next Readalong will be Stoner by John Williams, enthusiastically described as the novel of 2013 on Radio 4 and a must-read novel of 2013 by Julian Barnes. Time for me to catch up. Join me in March.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews