If posterity shows curiosity regarding subjects of thought and conversation in the England of the 1980’s, The Radiant Way will serve as an informative guide. Exploring a network of interlocking relationships and ranging over the whole social fabric of the country, the novel amounts to an anatomy of life in England during the Thatcher years. It is Margaret Drabble’s tenth novel and her first in seven years. Not only is it large in scope, but it also shows a deep understanding of the springs of human life and action. Although it is honest and uncompromising, with no concession to sentiment, there is a quiet compassion never far beneath the surface.
In its scope and its narrative technique, The Radiant Way resembles a nineteenth century English novel. Drabble’s narrator is not content to be self-effacing but comments directly on her own technique. For example, an episode about one character introduced too early stops abruptly with this observation: “But that is another part of this story, and not to be pursued here. ... Forget I mentioned him.” Commenting on how her novel differs from the Japanese Genji monogatari (eleventh century; The Tale of Genji, 1935), as revealed in the opening pages, she wonders to herself “Do pages open in a Japanese novel? Probably not.” In her mind too is Jane Austen, who recommended that a novel should be formed around three or four families in a country village. Drabble, in deliberate contrast, takes “a few families in a small, densely populated, parochial, insecure country. Mothers, fathers, aunts, stepchildren, cousins. Where does the story begin and where does it end?” The question is an appropriate one for this novel in which personal and social divisions and estrangements are juxtaposed with unexpected connections.
The leading protagonists are all women. Liz Headleand is a forty-five-year-old Freudian psychotherapist, married for twenty years to Charles Headleand, a high-powered television executive. Liz has come a long way from her unprivileged family background in the fictional northern town of Northam. Her sister, Shirley, however, did not manage to escape. She remains in Northam, where she is now a bored housewife, left with the sole responsibility of caring for their old, and increasingly insane, mother. Liz has two old friends from her undergraduate career at Cambridge University, Alix Bowen and Esther Breuer. Alix, although she holds a degree in English literature, spends her time in various low-status, part-time teaching and research jobs. Her position is threatened by government cutbacks in spending, but she at least has the consolation of being happily married to Brian, her second husband, a good-natured socialist who teaches English at an adult education college. Esther is by training an art historian, content to make a precarious living from occasional lectures, articles, and teaching. Unlike the other two, she has never married but is in love with an eccentric married anthropologist, Claudio Volpe, who seems to spend much of his time on the trail of werewolves. A long cast of other characters come and go throughout the novel, some of them created and developed with some care, others more sketchily drawn.
The changing political and social framework of the 1980’s forms an ever-present background to the events of the novel. A steelworkers’ strike is imminent and a bitter miners’ strike is shortly to follow. There are cuts in social spending, high unemployment, and widening social divisions. The latter are readily apparent in the contrast between the affluent, middle-class south, as revealed in the social circle of Liz and Charles Headleand, and the impoverished north, as represented by Shirley’s family. England is still, as Drabble’s narrator points out, the “Two Nations” that Benjamin Disraeli described in the nineteenth century. As the novel reveals, the widening gap between the “two nations” results in a polarization of political opinion. The old middle-of-the-road Labour Party is transformed into a genuine party of the Left, and the “New Right,” Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, with its emphasis on self-reliance and private enterprise, is on the rise. A new political party, the Social Democrats, is formed to occupy the deserted political center—a fundamental shift in political alignment which represents the loss of the broad consensus politics of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The nation is divided and has lost its way.
As can probably be guessed, the title of the novel is ironic on several levels. It refers first to the title of a television documentary which Charles Headleand made in the 1960’s, a brilliantly effective exposure of the evils of Great Britain’s class system. He and his...
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