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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way is a novel centering on three women and taking place from from the last day of 1979 to mid-1985. The women's lives (professional and personal) and their friendship are seen against the backdrop of the early years of the Thatcher government in England.

The women...

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Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way is a novel centering on three women and taking place from from the last day of 1979 to mid-1985. The women's lives (professional and personal) and their friendship are seen against the backdrop of the early years of the Thatcher government in England.

The women all live in London, are graduates of Cambridge, and are in their mid- to late forties as the story takes place. Liz Headleand is a psychologist; in the opening episode of the story, she and her husband, Charles, are hosting a New Year's Eve party, and she finds out, from one of her guests, that Charles intends to divorce her. Alix Bowen is employed as a teacher of English literature to inmates of a women's prison. Her husband, Brian, is a teacher as well, and a left-wing ideologue. And Esther Breuer, who is unmarried, is a scholar of Renaissance Italian art. Her personal life revolves around an Italian man named Claudio, whom she repeatedly visits in Bologna. He is an eccentric scholar who dabbles in mysticism and lectures on the supernatural.

All three women are aware that they are the vanguard of a new, independent generation. They are, understandably, conflicted in their ties to the men in their lives and their families. Liz is originally from a town in the North, where her mother and sister still live. Her divorce from Charles is less a problem to her than her guilt—partly imposed upon her by her sister Shirley—about her relative lack of communication with their mother. Liz and Shirley's father is a mysterious memory to them, given that he died when they were only small children. Alix finds a conflict between maintaining professionalism in her work and honoring the attachment that one of her students at the prison, Jilly, feels for her. After her release, Jilly goes downhill, and Alix partly blames herself. Esther would seem to have the least complicated personal life, except that her attachment to Claudio, she recognizes, has become an obsession. Her own work as a lecturer on art gives her fulfillment, but at some point she has to confront the question of why she has not achieved more in the intellectual world.

The other characters—husbands, ex-husbands, children, and step-children—people the three women's lives with fulfillment and inevitable complications. In looking at the overall story and its trajectory, we're led to ask how much Drabble intends their lives to be either a reflection of, or a defiant confrontation against, the changes Britain and the world were going through in the early 1980s.

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