Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Radiant Way is chiefly a story about the friendship of three women. It also explores the relationship between the personal lives of the women and the world that exists outside the three of them—their professional lives, their relationships with men, and the political and economic changes taking place during the time in which the novel is set, the early 1980s.
All three women—Liz, Alix, and Esther—are graduates of Cambridge, are highly intellectual, and are (like everybody) conflicted about the personal and external issues in their lives. They are all Londoners but have roots and ties elsewhere. Liz is from a town in the North, where her mother and sister live (she visits them infrequently). The resulting guilt about leaving them, partly imposed upon her by her sister as their mother ages, affects other aspects of her life, and the mystery of the father she and her sister never knew haunts her. Esther's roots are in central Europe, from which she and her family escaped to Britain during World War II, and Alix, like Liz, is originally from Yorkshire. In politics, all three are basically left-wing but are conflicted over the changes taking place in Britain and the world during the Thatcher years and over the right way to respond to them. In many ways, dislocation and ambivalence are at the heart of the way the three women approach the outside world, in their relationships as well as in their professional lives.
The women sense, of course, that they are at the forefront of a new generation of independence, and in some ways, the ties to the men in their lives are a hindrance to them. Liz's husband, Charles (whose intention to divorce her she first learns of from a friend), is a television producer whose professional and personal life takes a turn for the worse after he leaves her, partly because he's an unrealistic person and is unable to keep up with the changes in technology in his field. Alix's husband, Brian, is a defiantly old-school left-wing ideologue who doesn't grasp that, in the face of the conservatism of the early 1980s, the Labour party has to make changes. And Esther's obsession, a scholar named Claudio, is mired in mysticism, remote from "real" life. (Late in the novel he gives a lecture about the existence of werewolves.) Liz, Alix, and Esther all seem able to adapt to the changing world in ways the dysfunctional men are unable to. One question at the heart of the novel involves this process of adaptation and the integrity of the spirit in the face of outside changes. What is the bearing that technology and social transformation (the latter mostly a negative thing in the novel) have on one's personal life and its success or failure? As the women go through their individual journeys, the answer to this question is surprising in a different way for each of them.
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.
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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 colleagues, embodying much of the national mood during the early years of the 1960’s Labour government, had thought that the program would contribute to the emergence of a new, egalitarian society. The way, however, did not become radiant, and Charles was one of many who later drifted toward the political Right, disillusioned with his former socialist ideals and the greed of the British trade unions.
The title of the documentary was taken from a reading primer written during the 1930’s. Liz discovers her own copy of it, at the end of the novel, as she goes through her dead mother’s belongings. The cover shows a boy and a girl running merrily down a hill, while the sun shines down on them. For the characters in the novel, however, it is a different story. Although they make their way in life, adapting, compromising, making the best of things, there is no radiance, nor is there a “way,” in the sense of a path toward a clearly discerned goal. These characters do not bravely shape their destinies; they are too busy reacting to the daily hodgepodge of events. Yet they do make attempts to discern a pattern in life, to connect a series of apparently discrete events into a meaningful whole, and this quest for pattern forms an underlying theme of the novel.
When the novel opens, Liz appears to have succeeded at precisely this task. As she contemplates the arrival of her guests at her New Year’s Eve party (which occupies the first fifty pages of the novel), she feels almost as if she were a magician, able to summon people up at will. She has been feeling more and more in control of life, even able to predict the next word in a dialogue; reality seems “to be revealed to her at times in flashes beyond even the possibility of rational calculation.” She has always believed that there is a plan to life, a goal to the journey, a point at which one can say that one has arrived. As she speculates, she thinks repeatedly of dances—reflecting her perception of life as ordered and harmonious movement. She envisions herself as the prime mover, the one in control of the dance. Yet she feels slightly uncomfortable to be in possession of such knowledge, and at the party she wants the unpredictable to happen.
Unfortunately for her, she gets her wish when she learns that her husband is to divorce her, after twenty years of marriage, for the titled but tedious socialite Lady Henrietta Latchett. The illusion of order disappears. She does not collapse at the news (all the protagonists are reasonably well-adjusted, stable individuals who are not likely to disintegrate), but her sense of identity is severely threatened by the experience. In her perception, the breakdown of her marriage constitutes nothing less than “a complete and utter unmaking of the fabric of [her] true self.”
Liz is contrasted with Alix Bowen. Alix never sees a pattern in life. “What an ill-organized, hotchpotch, casually assembled, patchwork. . . . Everything seemed to have happened by accident, even the things that lasted,” she thinks to herself. At one point, she assembles in her mind like building blocks all the elements of her life, but even with a great effort of will the separate parts will not form themselves into a whole that makes any sense. Yet she still has intimations of the connectedness of life, that there is a pattern somewhere, if only she could discern it. For her, however, it is an impersonal vision. She hardly even believes in an individual self, seeing peoplemore as flickering impermanent points of light irradiating stretches, intersections, threads, of a vast web, a vast network, which was humanity itself; a web of which much remained dark, apparently but not necessarily unpeopled; peopled by the dark, the unlit, the dim spirits, as yet unknown, the past and the future, the dead, the unborn.
By the end of the novel Alix has found pattern of a sort, in an unlikely place. When she and her husband Brian, who has been “made redundant” from his teaching job, move to Northam, she strikes up an alliance with an aging, eminent local poet and happily spends her days cataloging his papers. She can impose order and design as she chooses, and as she edits, destroys, or publishes, she acquires, as she realizes, a certain power over a small part of history. It is an ordering power at one remove from life itself, and the ordering is probably false or at least misleading. Biographies may show orderly patterns, but, the reader wonders, do actual lives?
Thus there is one woman who expects pattern but loses it, one who does not expect it and finds it in an unusual way, and one to whom the quest would appear silly. The latter is Esther Breuer. Esther does not look for large patterns or comprehensive meanings in life. She has the scholarly mind and is content to examine minute areas of knowledge for their own sake, although if pressed on the matter she argues by way of justification that the whole of knowledge is contained, at least potentially, in all of its parts. Yet the whole is not really what she seeks. She simply likes to collect interesting information, without much regard for what, if anything, she is going to do with it.
In spite of the pervasive irony of the title, the end of the novel hints at the possibility of transcendence; it half discloses a radiance that up to that point has been hidden. After some dark and incomprehensible events (including a particularly horrifying murder of an acquaintance of Alix), the setting switches to open countryside. The three protagonists are making their way home after a long walk on a summer’s afternoon. They rest momentarily and survey the scene stretching out below them. Still, and rapt with silent attention, they feel themselves surrounded by the eternal presences of nature. The setting sun, which stains the earth the color of blood, seems to suggest a sympathy with the struggle of human life and at the same time to point beyond it. It is a moment of expanded and tranquil awareness, calling to mind the conclusion of William Wordsworth’s poem “The Ruined Cottage.” (Margaret Drabble wrote her thesis at Cambridge on Wordsworth, so the echo may not be mere coincidence.) Wordsworth’s narrator, having listened to a tale of human misfortune and suffering, finds himself comforted by nature, which presents to his mind
So still an image of tranquillity,So calm and still, and looked so beautifulAmid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,That what we feel of sorrow and despairFrom ruin and from change, and all the griefThe passing shews of being leave behind,Appeared an idle dream that could not liveWhere meditation was. I turned away,And walked along my road in happiness.
In similar fashion, the concluding passage of The Radiant Way has almost the force of an epiphany, leaving the reader wondering whether, in a final ironic twist, the way may be radiant after all.
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. Her mother dies, and in rummaging through her mother’s closet she finds newspaper clippings that clear up the mystery of her fatherless upbringing and her mother’s long withdrawal from the world: Her father had apparently killed himself after committing a sex offense.
Alix Bowen suffers no painful divorce and discovers no skeletons in the family closet, but her worries about Jilly Fox climax in a visit to Jilly’s awful flat, or “squat,” as the homeless call a lodging in a dilapidated, unused building. Obscene and nightmarish murals cover Jilly’s walls, and she dismisses Alix, insisting that her life is over. When Alix leaves the squat, she discovers that neighborhood delinquents have let the air out of her tires. Returning the next day, Alix comes upon a crowd around her car and finds Jilly’s severed head on the front seat. She has become the latest victim of a serial killer known as the Harrow Road Horror.
Esther Breuer lives in the dangerous neighborhood of the murders, but is indifferent to the mean streets all around her; the discovery that the murderer lives in the flat above her stuns her. Her independent ways encourage alliances with unconventional people, none of whom is more unconventional than the Italian anthropologist Claudio Volpe, who serves for years as her platonic consort. Claudio studies werewolves, an eccentric preoccupation, perhaps, but a harmless one until he gives a scholarly lecture in which he describes straightforwardly his meeting in the Bulgarian forest with a werewolf who led him to his village. Esther and Claudio’s sister have been good friends for years, and after the Harrow Road murders and Claudio’s death soon after, Esther goes to Italy, where she spends most of her time engrossed in her studies of art history.
After leaving Liz, Charles Headleand settles in New York with Henrietta Latchett, but something goes awry with his television production plans among the Yanks, because Christmas of 1985 finds him at Liz’s new house in St. John’s Wood with all of their children. The hope that he had invested in The Radiant Way, his television production of twenty years earlier, has come to nothing. Strikes plague the country, and Charles has swung to the political Right. The Left has failed, and a new mood has arisen.
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).
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.”