Book 2 of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy focuses on Elisabeth “Betty” Macintosh, wife of Eddie Feathers (aka Filth). We know very little of Betty from Book 1, which was Eddie’s story. It’s strange because the reader might have expected a man married to one woman for 50 years to have had more to say about her. Yet, when we get Betty’s story, there is not much about Eddie either. What we see is that Eddie and Betty married each other as little more than strangers and remained that way for the rest of their lives. While their marriage might be described as affectionate, it was certainly not passionate. Each of them carries secrets and substantial emotional baggage that remain hidden from the other, and this contributes to the emptiness of their lives.
The novel begins with Eddie jetting his way back to Hong Kong with his friend and business associate Albert Ross. Eddie reveals that he has proposed, in writing, to Betty, an English girl living in HK who once suffered in a Japanese internment camp and later worked in coding and encryption at Bletchley Park. Eddie not only cannot provide any detail about either of these life-changing events, he cannot say how old she is or what color her eyes are or what interests her in life. Albert is concerned about Eddie’s ignorance regarding his potential wife but he is also wondering what, if anything, Eddie has told Betty about himself. Meanwhile, Betty has received Eddie’s proposal and is thrilled, but her roommate Izzie and married friend Amy both caution her against the engagement. Izzie confesses that she knows Eddie and has had a liaison with him. She tells Betty,
He doesn’t understand anyone…. There’s something missing.
Amy, who is married, poor and has several children, is concerned at how little the pair know each other and how quickly Betty is willing to jump into a lifelong relationship. She says,
Don’t do it Bets. Don’t go for a forty-watt bulb because it looks pretty. You’ll get stuck with it when it goes out.
Betty understands that hers will not be a romantic, passionate marriage but she very much wants to have children and believes,
… I’ll grow to love him very much. There’s nothing about him that’s unlovable.
To add to this inauspicious start, when Eddie officially proposes in person to Betty, he tells her,
Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That’s the one condition. I’ve been left all my life. From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people.
Elisabeth agrees to this condition, but within hours, at a party among British legal professionals in HK, she meets Terry Veneering. Veneering is married with a charming boy named Harry, and he is Eddie’s professional rival. A brief fling ensues and Albert Ross, who seems to see and know all, tells Betty that if she ever leaves Eddie, he (Albert) will “break her.”
Betty is true to her word, and her past life at Bletchley Park has prepared her well for a life of keeping secrets. Betty actually believes that secrecy is essential to a good marriage:
… to have an unassailable privacy within my own life equal to his. This must be how to make a marriage work.
Yet, it doesn’t work. Yes, Eddie and Betty remain married for life, and they are very similar — secretive and “missing something.” Their secrecy with each other borders on dishonesty and the sadness that ensues is tragic. Nonetheless, it is difficult to dislike or be angry with Eddie or Betty. They’ve each suffered and tried to do their best with the hand they’ve been dealt. They seem to epitomize a generation of people whose guiding principles involved keeping a stiff upper lip, serving the Empire, and keeping in line with societal norms. Betty sees that she has turned into the type of woman her mother would have wanted her to be — married to a handsome and successful man, involved in charities and tending her garden. But she also feels empty, and on the rare occasion when she considers leaving Eddie, Albert Ross seems to appear from out of nowhere. She is trapped, a “displaced person,” much like the British in the East post-colonialism, she doesn’t seem to belong but has nowhere to go.
Gardam doesn’t provide details about Betty’s past: the internment camp, the deaths of her parents, her schooling or her involvement at Bletchley Park. In some ways, we are as in the dark about Betty as Eddie is. But Betty is representational of that generation, those who suffered through war and economic hardship and never really spoke about it; it just wasn’t done. The frustration of her adult desires, though, is evident on the page — her longing for children, for real love in her life. At the end of Book 2, when Betty has already died and Eddie is living alone at their home in the Donheads, an exchange between Eddie and new neighbor Terry Veneering is quite revelatory about Eddie’s character, and Albert Ross’s final act at Eddie’s funeral also provides a stunning reveal. So many secrets, so much hurt, so much repressed love.