Barbara Pym, Barbara Pym Society, Behaving Badly, Catherine Heath, Green Leaves, Judi Dench, St Hilda's College Oxford
‘I could hardly make a big production of it, you know… when he told me, about how he’d spent the night with some girl called Rebecca, all I could think of was the fact that I’d bought turbot for supper…’
Catherine Heath’s fifth and final novel Behaving Badly gives us one of the most brilliantly-conceived comic heroines ever. Published in 1984, it is somehow perfect escapist reading for today, taking us to a past which feels in retrospect to have been more innocent and less complicated.
‘I was going to do Hollandaise sauce, and I thought, oh dear, our lovely dinner’s going to be quite wasted. So when he told me about this girl I just said, oh, yes, I see. Oh, thank you for telling me. And that was all and we ate the turbot and do you know I quite enjoyed it… So I mean, there’s no point in putting on a tragic act. It stands to reason that nobody, nobody that greedy has much dignity to stand on.’
Fifty-year-old Bridget Mayor has dutifully filled her life with hobbies, television and church-going after her husband dumped her five years earlier to marry a much younger woman. Nothing very unusual about that for women in seventies Britain. But what happens when an Excellent Woman stops being excellent and decides she will start pleasing herself instead of other people? What’s the point in clinging to dignity? To her husband’s horrified discomfiture Bridget insists on moving back into her old home in Hampstead, where her devious ex-mother-in-law Frieda conspires to get rid of the intruder Rebecca. But that’s just the start…
Writing in The Times, Isabel Raphael wrote of Behaving Badly: Here is an exceptional novel, brisk and unsentimental, touching and subtly romantic. It is also very funny. Her style is poised and cool and her dialogue as artfully artless as that of Barbara Pym; and there is no higher praise in novels of this kind.
There are connections between the two novelists Barbara Pym (1913-1980) and Catherine Heath (1924-1991): both studied English Literature at St Hilda’s College Oxford, both seamlessly combine wit, satire and sympathy, and both died of cancer aged sixty-six. But it’s disappointing that Catherine Heath remains relatively unknown. In the Barbara Pym Society’s publication Green Leaves of November 1998 Hazel K. Bell wrote how she hoped that Catherine Heath’s wonderful novels would one day be rescued from obscurity, in the same way as Barbara Pym’s have been.
That hasn’t happened, despite Judi Dench’s superb performance as Bridget in the 1989 British television series of Behaving Badly, now available as a DVD. If only they would show it again!
Behaving Badly clearly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It will seem too dated for some, too much a piece of social history, even too trivial. But for others it’s an altogether delightful read where favourite lines can be relished over and over again: Upstairs Frieda closed a detective story. It was useless. She had no access to South American arrow poison. And as one character says near the end, using a very Barbara Pymish word, ‘Isn’t it, in a way, splendid?’