Don’t you think it’s magnificent? A kind of splendid behavior really. A trusting of the future, a daring kind of love. Isn’t it, in a way, splendid? – Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath is a novelist I stumbled upon through my wife Lea’s interest in and admiration for the actress Judi Dench. In looking around for a present for her (anniversary, Christmas, I forget), I came across a British miniseries called Behaving Badly starring the aformentioned Ms. Dench.
As we watched the miniseries I became interested in finding out more about the author, a British novelist of the 1970’s and 80’s who only developed her career as a novelist in early middle age and who died relatively young (66) of cancer. So I found and bought a copy of the novel Behaving Badly, the work upon which the television show was based.
Having read Heath’s novel, I can offer a couple of observations about which I will elaborate later. The first is that Heath, like most British writers, is deft, witty, and thoughtful. The second is that like any number of fine British writers she may be ignored for long periods. The second of these may actually be a hidden boon to her long term literary reputation.
Behaving Badly tells the story of Bridget Mayor, a 50ish woman whose husband Mark has divorced her for a younger woman, a journalist named Rebecca. Mayor spends the first few years after her divorce trying to reconcile herself to her new, unexpected and unwanted, life. She tries various hobbies and devotes herself for a while to church matters. Then she begins, as the novel’s title suggests, to “behave badly.” She moves back into the family home (her husband bought her a flat in another part of London – an area she hates – as part of the divorce settlement), takes over housekeeping duties (a role Rebecca gladly cedes to her), and sometimes conspires with, sometimes mollifies, Mark’s half-mad mother Frieda who lives in an attic apartment in the house. Mark tries desperately to get her to return to the “old Bridget,” she who accepted her dumping and divorce graciously and who devoted herself to “staying active” by trying pottery, teaching literature part-time, and attending church functions. But Bridget has had an epiphany: she is on her own for the first time in many years. She wants to find out what life has to offer. As she tells her ex-husband in one conversation:
I was dying in the Waddon flat. I might as well die as go back to it. …in the end, it’s a risk worth taking.
Mark and Bridget have a daughter, Phyllida, who shares a large flat with a group of twenty-somethings – the flashy, mercurial Giles, the too clever, too posh Jonathan, and the terribly mixed up and unhappy Serafina. While she both tries to help and avoid her parents, Phyllida finds herself moving back to the family home when Bridget suddenly decides to move in with the young people. Bridget is seeking a youth she felt she threw away married to a man who did not appreciate her; Phyllida is searching for the home life she never really had. Both mother and daughter have love affairs: Bridget eventually takes up with Giles; Phyllida tries and fails to win the heart of a black minister from America she has met through her mother. All the while, Frieda plans the murder of Rebecca whom she sees as the main stumbling block to Mark’s and Bridget’s reconcilitation. Giles in the meantime is saddled with his eighty-something grandfather after his irresponsible father dumps him there and runs away to Italy with his girlfriend.
This whole stew of relationships, careers, and life changes (Rebecca becomes pregnant so Mark will be a new father again in his fifties) has to be resolved somehow, of course. Giles’s grandfather is accidentally killed by Serafina when she mixes up his medications and gives him an overdose of sleeping pills. Frieda accidentally kills herself when she trips over some strands of yarn she has placed across the stairs of the family home in hopes of tripping and killing both Rebecca and her unborn child. Phyllida’s minister turns her away and returns to the United States. But Bridget outdoes them all. She and Giles begin a love affair and after the grandfather’s death they are free to take the money Bridget receives from selling her flat and go to San Francisco. Neither she nor Giles believe that their relationship will last. As they are boarding the plane to take them to America, Bridget ponders her situation:
I am a ridiculous woman embarked on an absurd and disastrous adventure, she thought, but she did not mind.
As I mentioned above, Heath’s prose is witty, deft, and at times drips with irony, especially in her depictions of Mark Mayor, Bridget’s ex-husband:
Until this moment it had not occurred to him that for years he had half assumed, sadly but complacently, that while Rebecca loved him and he loved her, he was also the centre of his ex-wife’s thoughts and longings. He felt a momentary sense of total loss, as if the divorce of years before were only now made absolute.
Behaving Badly is filled with these sorts of pithy insights that reveal Heath as writer of skill. But there is another matter which I think works against her, at least in the near term.
The issues that the novel confronts – aging parents, unsettled children, divorces after long marriages, the plight of “first wives” – were, to use a good British term, spot on at the time of the novel (1984). Now? They have a kind of datedness about them, and they seem to be more the concerns of Silent Generation members and Boomers rather than of Millenials or even Xers. It will take some time before these issues (Heath’s reputation as a social historian novelist notwithstanding) become of interest again to thoughtful readers – and by then the novelist may be seen as a successor to Gaskill or Trollope or Maugham in her examination of the social and cultural milieu of her time.
Still, that’s excellent company to keep. One hopes that Catherine Heath will find her place in English literary history. She is a worthy writer.