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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The principal characters of Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way are:

Liz Headleand. A psychologist and graduate of Cambridge. Her husband Charles, a television producer, divorces Liz in the opening portion of the novel and marries Henrietta, a shallow upper-class woman. Liz is originally from a town in the north where her mother, Rita, and her sister Shirley still live.

Alix Bowen. Along with Esther Breuer, Alix is a friend of Liz; all three women attended Cambridge together in the 1950s. Alix teaches English literature to women inmates of a prison in London.

Esther Breuer. Born in Austria and brought to England during World War II, Esther is a specialist in Italian art. She forms a lifelong attachment (or obsession as she recognizes) with Claudio Volpe, another scholar whose interests extend to the supernatural.

Jilly. She is one of Alix's students at Garfield Prison in London. When released from jail her life goes downhill, and she ends up on drugs and living in a squat house.

Rita. Liz's elderly mother. Liz feels guilt, exacerbated by her sister Shirley, over her reluctance to travel north to visit Rita and the infrequent calls she makes to her. In the course of the story we find that Rita has withheld secrets about the girls' father who died when they were very young and of whom they have almost no memory.

Brian. Alix's husband, a left-wing ideologue and also a teacher. He represents that element of the British left who resisted compromises with the wave of conservatism sweeping Britain and the US in the early 1980s.

The other characters, chiefly the children and step-children of the above, play minor roles but are part of a great panorama of British life in the early years of Thatcherism which Drabble depicts.

Characters Discussed

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Liz Headleand

Liz Headleand, a native of Northam whose determination took her to Cambridge University and a prosperous career as a psychoanalyst on London’s Harley Street. Divorced from Edgar Lintot and remarried to Charles Headleand, she learns in the novel’s opening scene—a marvelous set piece of a New Year’s Eve party welcoming in the Thatcher 1980’s—that Charles is leaving her for the boring Lady Henrietta Latchett.

Alix Bowen

Alix Bowen, Liz’s friend from Cambridge, now married to Brian Bowen, a reliable literature teacher, also from Northam. Alix teaches part-time in a reformatory for young women. Her first husband, Sebastian Manning, died not long after their marriage, and their son, Nicholas, inherits his paternal grandmother’s fortune. When Brian loses his job, he and Alix move to Northam and Alix takes over the task of sorting the papers of a local poet who is somewhat famous.

Esther Breuer

Esther Breuer, who formed a triumvirate of close friends at Cambridge with Liz and Alix. Esther is an art historian who spends much of her time in Italy. Although she has remained unmarried, she has had a long relationship with a married man, an Italian anthropologist who suffers a curious obsession with werewolves. Of the three Cambridge friends, she is the most individualistic, not so much bohemian as self-reliant and inwardly directed.

Charles Headleand

Charles Headleand, Liz’s second husband. Charles is a television executive who was a widower with three sons when he married Liz. When the novel begins, Charles is fifty years old and Liz forty-five. They have had two daughters of their own in their twenty years of marriage. In the 1960’s, when he was a liberal, Charles made a television documentary titled The Radiant Way exposing the British class system, but he has since swung to the political right.

Brian Bowen

Brian Bowen, Alix’s husband, an earnest...

(This entire section contains 560 words.)

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administrator in an adult education college who moves back home to Northam when he becomes redundant under Margaret Thatcher’s austere administration. Brian is the archetypal struggling “decent” man, a faithful husband and a dutiful son to his aged father.

Shirley Harper

Shirley Harper, Liz Headleand’s younger sister. When the two sisters were young, Liz’s vision of a better life somewhere beyond Northam had kept her attention fixed on her textbooks, but Shirley had been the rebel with painted lips who hung around with boys and hoped for salvation through sex. Now Shirley remains in Northam, taking care of her husband, Cliff, and their three children. She sulks because the care of their reclusive mother, Rita Ablewhite, falls to her while Liz stays in London with her smart set.

Jilly Fox

Jilly Fox, a brilliant but ill-fated student at the Garfield Centre, where Alix teaches literature to delinquent girls. Jilly’s affluent background and high intelligence fail her in her struggles with drugs and lesbian misalliances. She develops a crush on Alix and pursues her at home after she is released from Garfield. She turns into a problem for Alix.

Rita Ablewhite

Rita Ablewhite, Liz and Shirley’s mother. She is comatose in her only appearances late in the novel, but she haunts Liz with guilt for neglecting to visit Northam for years on end, and she burdens the embittered Shirley, who feels that her mother’s care has fallen to her unfairly.