Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Radcliffe is a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve, a heavyweight attempt to confront openly the issues of its times. It is by no means simply a novel “about” homosexuality—a subject it treats with both graphic frankness and detachment—although it is a misogynist text attempting to relocate art, religion, and politics in the all-male world and to take communion between men to its logical extreme, as D. H. Lawrence fell a little short of doing with Gerald and Birkin in Women in Love (1920). The novel’s most central structuring idea—the debilitating divorce between body and soul in modern Western society—also informed Storey’s two earlier novels. This concept and others, such as the decline of the aristocracy as a spiritual force and the deathliness of the Christian religion, Storey inherits from the Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and The Man Who Died (1931). One is not surprised to learn that he directed a television documentary about Lawrence in 1963.

Yet Storey’s polarization (body and soul, working class and aristocracy) moves beyond Lawrence. This polarization and distribution of values is partly exploded in the novel (ideas are voiced by the dubious figure Blakeley), but Radcliffe, nevertheless, seems to be a novel nailed to the cross of class. On the one hand, it comes to life in the swarming council estate. On the other hand, it revolts against what it sees as the materialism and aesthetic philistinism of the working class (Blakeley’s obscene turns at the club, the inflated furniture) and what can only be described as its (perhaps all society’s) anal/oral compulsion. Imagery and incidents involving food and excrement abound: Tolson “consumes people”; Blakeley “feeds” himself to his audience; another Radcliffe uncle, Thomas, “collects emotional droppings”; in one powerful dramatic scene Leonard literally eats Tolson’s excrement. Also crucial to the novel’s effect and meaning is the orchestration of Storey’s visual imagery into an investigation of whether the physical world is vested with significance (a greater body with a greater soul).