Elisabeth 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.
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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