The Radiant Way

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Radiant Way, which has no chapter breaks, switches back and forth from one character to another and has an omniscient narrator who intrudes occasionally in a neighborly way to comment on the course of events. The narrative voice beguiles in its wit, allusiveness, and erudition. Symbols and myths pop up, and the clamor of public affairs and politics rumbles in the background, but the unfolding lives of Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer evolve into a loose structure around which details fall into place.

Most of the action takes place in London, but Northam provides structural and thematic contrasts. The novel opens with the Headleand’s splashy New Year’s Eve party for two hundred guests from London’s professional circles, and the scene shifts abruptly to Northam, where Shirley Harper is grimly entertaining her husband Cliff’s brother and his wife, Cliff’s parents, and Brian Bowen’s father. Brian’s kind and likable father contrasts with Cliff’s disagreeable mother, whose every sly complaint grates on Shirley exactly as the old harridan intends. Such comic scenes recall the novels of Jane Austen, whom Drabble invokes at one point with the observation that “Jane Austen recommended three or four families in a country village as the thing to work on when planning a novel.”

No beginning, middle, and end shape Drabble’s account of five years in the England of the Margaret Thatcher era. Liz Headleand endures Charles’s abandonment of her in divorce and a wrenching removal from her fashionable Harley Street address....

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Margaret Drabble has written a dozen novels chronicling the lives of modern women, works that are always closely observed and sincerely felt. One of her earliest novels, Thank You All Very Much (in America, The Millstone), presents the plight of a highly educated young woman who finds herself pregnant by a man she has no interest in marrying. Indeed, he does not even know that she is pregnant. Drabble’s sympathetic treatment of this theme is fixed in a larger context: As the unwed mother-to-be makes her way through the British system of socialized medicine, she realizes the many day-to-day obstacles faced by people of lesser education and resources. As an account of a young woman’s loss of innocence, The Millstone typifies Drabble’s concern with a human predicament that always overlaps with other people’s struggles to get on in the world.

This all-important social context in which Drabble situates her characters puts her more in the “great tradition” of F. R. Leavis than in any variety of feminism. In fact, Liz studied under Leavis at Cambridge and looks back with great pleasure on his dating classes, which involve taking an unidentified scrap of quotation and homing in on its date and author. Drabble studied at Cambridge and must have excelled at dating exercises.

Alix Bowen, in December of 1983, questions herself about her feelings on the state of affairs in London. Her answers are perhaps Drabble’s answers also: Although London is a more dangerous place than it was in 1979, it is probably not the Tories’ fault; although Brian thinks that a Labour government would have improved things, Alix has changed her mind from five years ago and no longer thinks so. Although the Metropolitan Police are probably corrupt, a Labour government would be able to do little to halt a largely inevitable decay. Although the left-wing groups mean well, they may be “positively encouraging the growing inequality of the society they claim to wish to redeem.” Despite all these doubts, Alix still calls herself a socialist.

Two later novels continue the characters of The Radiant Way: A Natural Curiosity (1989) finds Liz and Shirley learning more about their family background, and Alix caught in a familiar liberal dilemma; The Gates of Ivory (1991) takes Liz on a harrowing search for Stephen Cox in Kampuchea (Cambodia).


(Great Characters in Literature)

Duguid, Lindsay. Review of The Radiant Way. The Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1987, 458-459. Praises the honesty and social consciousness of The Radiant Way but says that the “highly wrought prose” renders the political concerns “strained and unconvincing.”

Gray, Paul. Review of The Radiant Way. Time 130 (November 16, 1987): 87. Stresses the depiction of Thatcher-era England in this “odd hybrid, soap opera grafted onto newsreel,” that “engrosses” and actually “works.”

Hulbert, Ann. “Maggiemarch.” The New Republic 197 (December 14, 1987): 38-42. Sneers at Drabble’s “version of the emerging Social Democratic sensibility” and her “portentously detached and cliquish” style. The novel reveals no empathy, only smugness, and it revels in a “hackneyed symbolism.”

Stuewe, Paul. Review of The Radiant Way. Quill & Quire 53 (April, 1987): 33. A sour judgment on The Radiant Way as a feminist’s delight but “a pretty dismal trip” for other readers.

Updike, John. Review of The Radiant Way. The New Yorker 63 (November 16, 1987): 153-154. Rousing applause from another master novelist. Notes Drabble’s “chummy” way with her readers and praises “her lively mind showing its incidental erudition, its epigrammatic flair, its quick-witted impatience and impudence.” Mostly, however, Updike praises “her earthiness—her love of our species and its habitat—and her ability to focus on the small, sweaty intersections of mind and body, past and present.” These qualities make The Radiant Way “a rare thing—a novel we would wish longer.”