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Lady on the Burning Deck (1978)

by Catherine Heath

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The narrator of this comedy is Frances, a widow and mother of two grown children. The author portrays Frances' entanglements in the affairs of the young, and her consequent reappraisals and coming to terms with herself. Catherine Heath's novel, Behaving Badly was filmed as a television series.
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A very good, and basically comic book about the 60's/70's. The missing contact lens in the garden is worth the price of admission. I like Catharine Heath as written. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Feb 26, 2014 |
The novels of Catherine Heath seem to have fallen into a most ill-merited abeyance, despite the success on television in 1989 of a serialisation of her novel, Behaving badly.
Heath wrote five novels: Stone walls (1973); The vulture (1974); Joseph and the Goths (1975); Lady on the burning deck (1978); and Behaving Badly (1984), as well as unpublished stories and an autobiography.
The 1960s and 70s were times of turbulent change, even in predominating morality. Heath's heroines, like herself, are `trapped, wise, desperate', looking back longingly to a recent past, a safe world. `It would be helpful, Jenny says, if one could still assume, as the old puzzles tell one, that Greeks always tell the truth and Cretans always lie. Such certainties we once lived among.' Thus Frances in Lady on the burning deck (1978). She and her two close friends attempt at once to abide by their deep-seated, long-cherished principles, and to champion their six children of the times. These have become variously a subway guitar-player, a squatter, a nude model, a hippy drop-out, one of a ménage á trois, and a campaigning homosexual. (The mother of the last tells him, `There are times when you remind me of your great-uncle who used to preach teetotalism in every Nonconformist chapel from Leeds to Manchester'.) Because it is unthinkable for any of them to disown or appear ashamed of their children, two of the parents display their daughter's `peekaboo' photographs in their living room, where photographs have not appeared before. It is well-paid work: `She is at least, as Jenny remarks at frequent intervals, earning a good living. We do not pause on the word "good".'
Frances and her friends share the contemporary perplexities of Barbara Pym's Letty Crowe - all of them `excellent women' twenty years on. `Whatever the disasters of life do to us, Jenny and Ruth and I remain pre-eminently copers. The word dates us. We are post-Girl Guide, pre-Existentialist. The golden mean, the norm.' Frances wryly describes herself preaching her traditional principles: `Cliché after cliché rolls from me. Toads from the mouth of an elderly princess.' Moral dilemmas abound as the good ladies strive to adapt to the changing times: `The whirlpools of moral paradox confuse me, swirl me round, engulf me. Drown me.' `You may decide ... according to your moral viewpoint, if you are lucky enough still to have one.' Confronting the leader of her son's highly organised squat, Frances reflects, `Causes, not people are the source of happiness these days, I see, or if not happiness, at least some way of surviving. ... Nora has learned early not to trust affection. I cannot adapt.'
Heath's work could be taken as social history as well as marvellously witty reading. Her targets are of her time, including the 1970s' penchant for spiritual food and yoga; popular music (`I thought you had to have a name like Zak and be C-stream secondary modern and come from Bootle to be able to play what people want to hear today. And be on pot as well.'); religious education (`the children no longer sing hymns. Instead they have sad stories about the third world read to them. ... what can an eleven-year-old do about famine in Ethiopia?'). Her work also introduces a note of ethical philosophy into satirical fiction.
Her novels illustrate the dilemma outlined by the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, in his 1900 essay, Laughter. He saw reality as constant change, and the essential human quality to be a vitality, a spontaneous, changing, personal response to each situation in which we find ourselves. The comical element consists of `a certain mechanical inelasticity, where one would expect to find the wideawake adaptability and living pliableness of a human being; a certain inborn lack of elasticity in senses and intelligence, so that we continue to see what is no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible: to adapt ourselves to a past situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct in accordance with the reality which is present.'
Heath gives us a tiny image illustrative of this failure to adapt when Frances tells us: `A woman in one of the council flats flutters a yellow duster from her window, and I feel for her as if she were a sister, for I have often thought I must own the last yellow duster in England.' ( )
1 vote KayCliff | Jul 31, 2008 |
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A sly and accurate common sense is evident throughout ... The distinctive humour of this very funny novel is provided by the apparent competence of the fluid narrative voice ... her acute sense of social context. The tone of voice here is calculating yet at the same time unable to exercise control.
added by KayCliff | editDictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 14, Gerard Werson (Aug 14, 1983)
 
Her broad comedy is suffused with a rueful tenderness that shadows what might otherwise be a mere summer afternoon's romp.
added by KayCliff | editWashington Post, Clara Claiborne
 
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I've got this feeling that real life, by which I mean life as lived in London NW4 in the 1920s, which is of course just too soon for me really to remember it, must sooner or later return or even be rediscovered, going on perfectly normally (I use the word advisedly) in Basingstoke or Lincolnshire or Leeds.
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It would be helpful, Jenny says, if one could still assume, as the old puzzles tell one, that Greeks always tell the truth and Cretans always lie. Such certainties we once lived among.
The worst of widowhood is the absence of someone to talk to at the instant, at the very moment, that an illogical need for comfort springs. No, the worst of widowhood is ... there is no end to this list.
I am sometimes outraged to find myself a widow.
A woman in one of the council flats flutters a yellow duster from her window, and I feel for her as if she were a sister, for I have often thought I must own the last yellow duster in England.
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The narrator of this comedy is Frances, a widow and mother of two grown children. The author portrays Frances' entanglements in the affairs of the young, and her consequent reappraisals and coming to terms with herself. Catherine Heath's novel, Behaving Badly was filmed as a television series.

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