Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2014

The Radiant Way (1987), by Margaret Drabble

The Radiant WayI was so sorry to come to the end of Margaret’s Drabble’s magnificent 1987 novel, The Radiant Way!  What cheered me up was the belated discovery that it’s the first of a trilogy, so  A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1991) went straight onto my wish-list to add to my Margaret Drabble shelf.  I have become very fond of the characters Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, and I want to follow the further adventures of these brilliant women as they negotiate Thatcher’s Britain and their own middle age.

Drabble introduces this trio at a lavish New Year’s Eve party:  Liz is a wealthy Harley Street psychotherapist but this is the first NY Eve party she’s ever thrown.

They have given many parties in their time, but on New Year’s Eve they have always gone out to the gatherings of others – sometimes to several gatherings in the course of the evening, and some years separately, not always meeting even for the magic chimes.  A modern marriage, and some of its twenty-odd years had been more modern than others.  Maybe. Liz reflects (f0r this is what she contemplates, through the oval mirror), maybe this is why they decided to have such a party, this year, at the end of this decade: as a sign that they had weathered so much, and were now entering a new phase?  A phase of tranquillity and knowledge, of acceptance and harmony, when jealousies and rivalries would drop away from them like dead leaves? Well, why not? After twenty-one years, one is allowed a celebration.  Charles will be fifty, she herself is forty-five.  There is a symmetry about this, about their relationship with the clock of the century, that calls for celebration.  (p. 6)

Alas for Liz, the new phase she enters into so abruptly on this night is separation from Charles, who has – to everyone’s astonishment – decided to leave her for Lady Henrietta Latchett.  Dull, neat, and not even young and sexy.  For Liz, the humiliation is comprehensive, not least when she realises that she is almost the last to know.

Looking back, Liz would try to remember the moment at which she had known rather than not known: she would have liked to have thought that she had known always, that there was no moment of shock, that knowledge had lain within her (the all-knowing), that she had never truly been deceived, that at the very worst she had connived at her own deceit.  Surely Ivan’s first sentence of the New Year had alerted her? (Though that would have been late, late, late.) Surely she had taken it as an ill omen?  But no, she had taken it all at face value: from Ivan, of all people, who spread malice as his trade.  She had thought herself exempt.  Slow she had been, unbearably slow, she who could hear many strands of speech at once: trusting she had been, she who had been reared in the bosom of suspicion.  She had thought herself invulnerable.  She had been possessed by pride. (p.39)

So, for Liz, 1980 means learning to live alone, to make decisions about what to do with the over-large Harley Street house where she has her professional rooms as well as her home, to renegotiate her relationships with her three step-sons from Charles’ first wife.  The collapse of her marriage and its certainties coincide with new demands: her strange, difficult mother is ageing, and her sister Shirley who has never left their birthplace Northam is expecting her brilliant, glamorous sister to make a bit more of an effort to engage with the old woman who has tormented them both since they were children.

Liz’s friends are solace, but they have their own adjustments to make too.  Alix,  well-intentioned but naïve, is forced by Thatcherism to confront her own somewhat vague political philosophy.  Like Liz, she graduated from Cambridge, but her career has been desultory.  She has part-time teaching jobs here and there, and at the time the novel opens she’s teaching English in a prison with a progressive program. Her nice husband Brian who’s never abandoned his working-class roots teaches English too, so cuts in education funding and privatisation affect them both.  Alix’s discovery that they’re not in the same place along the political Left continuum makes her very uncomfortable indeed.

And then there’s Esther.  Esther is eccentric.  A dilettante with a highly specialised collection of interests and a complete lack of interest in using her expertise as an art historian to achieve anything with her Cambridge degree.  Her relationships are ambiguous, her friendships exotic.  Esther is obsessive about one of her pot plants,  and she likes to walk the dark streets of London by night, which is not a good idea when there is a serial killer about.

But no, The Radiant Way is not a thriller or a crime novel. (I wouldn’t have read it if it were, I find those genres boring).  The novel is a panorama of the 1980s, which had me captivated from the very first pages.  The comfortable complacency of this confident generation of Cambridge women is systematically explored and challenged by the complexity of city life in a time of powerful political turmoil.   Firmly grounded in its period with cascades of images that took me back to the 1980s each time I opened the book, I had just one moment of incomprehension:

These were the years of inner city riots, of race riots in Brixton and Toxteth, of rising unemployment and riotless gloom: these were the years of a small war in the Falklands (rather a lot of people dead), and of the Falklands Factor in politics: these were the years when a new political party boldly declared that it would attempt to find a way out of the impasse of class conflict: these were the years when strange tattered, vulture-like grey and black false plastic creatures began to perch and cluster in the trees of Britain: these were the years when cast-away fast-food cartons of indeterminate texture and substance proliferated in the streets and front gardens and underpasses and hedgerows of Britain.  (p. 228)

What on earth are those strange tattered, vulture-like grey and black false plastic creatures that Drabble is alluding to??  Help please!

Author: Margaret Drabble
Title: The Radiant Way
Publisher: Penguin, 1987
ISBN: 9780140101683
Source: OpShop find, a $2 bargain!


Fishpond had two second-hand copies on the day I looked: The Radiant Way


  1. Iguess she means plastic bags and bin liners; they get everywhere.

    The book looks like an interesting read. She’s another author whose books I haven’t read – there seem to be so many.


    • Yes, she’s a prolific author, and when you read her profile on Wikipedia, it looks as if she’s a kind of Zola of our times – not in the sense of writing a cycle about a family but in the sense of documenting a significant era. I’ve read three of hers now, and my next will be The Red Queen (unless I stumble across the others in the trilogy first, of course).


  2. Fascinating. I haven’t read any Drabble for years; but she is on my reading list. As for the tattered creatures, Jonathan’s suggestion doesn’t sound convincing; the fact that they are given life (creatures, began to perch) made me think of men, in powerful places; perhaps politicians, perhaps bureaucrats, wearing suits; but why at that time, when men have always perched in positions of power, and were wearing suits before the 80s? I gather the rest of the book does’t give any clues. Her long, majestic sentences remind me a bit of Dickens, especially the opening of A Tale of Two Cities.


    • It’s strange, but it seemed ‘obvious’ to me that she was talking about those plastic bags that get caught in trees and (especially before they were biodegradable) stayed around forever. They look like crows or vultures especially when seen at dusk or in silhouette and almost appear alive when fluttering about in the wind.

      Given that none of the other items in the list resort to symbolism and that the last item on the list is also about litter, I would find it surprising to discover that it was a metaphoric reference to power, politics or big business etc. But I am usually pretty dense when it comes to spotting symbolism in novels. :-)


      • Sounds plausible to me, Jonathan!


  3. I read a lot of Margaret Drabble up until about 1990. Since then I’ve been more interested in her sister A.S. Byatt’s books, but I’ve been meaning to get back to her work.


    • I like them both. I loved The Children’s Book!


  4. Thanks for this recommendation, Lisa; it sounds like just the kind of thing I’d enjoy, and a good break from the speculative fiction binge I’ve been on lately. Perhaps there will be lessons for us as we plunge into our own Thatcherite era.


  5. I loved all three of these books because Drabble uses engaging characters and superb storytelling to tease out deep human themes, such as the nature of evil. I read them a long time ago, but the imagery has stayed with me – the ‘radiant way” of progress and optimism coming up against our human failings, the unfair jigsaw puzzles that life sets us, with pieces missing so that we can never finish them. I was fascinated by Drabble’s ability to use the characters to illuminate the themes without compromising their reality or humanity, eg, Liz an Alix being seduced by the radiant way into wanting to change things, while Esther just wants to acquire interesting information. I fell in love with all three women.


    • Yes, I love the way she has realised each character as an individual *and* also each relationship as unique, *and* at the same has managed to convey the sense of a society in flux. It’s extraordinary.


  6. So long since I read this – or any Drabble – that I can’t recollect much more than that I remember enjoying it. So much that I have A natural curiosity in the pile, but I haven’t read it. I enjoy Drabble and appreciated the way she moved from teen and young person angst to middle aged angst, along with the rest of us (more or less)! I’ve read 5 of her novels, three of them with my reading group over they years of our existence. It was interesting the way she was suddenly overshadowed by her sister in the 1990s. I suspect there’s been some tricky times there.


    • A little like Faye Weldon in the way that she traces the way that women’s lives changed in those pivotal years, perhaps. Weldon is wickedly sardonic where Drabble is more generous in spirit, I think. I used to read every new book by Weldon, but I got tired of her after a while.
      I think it’s rather sad that the relationship between these two sisters is an issue. I just take the books as I find them.


      • Ah yes Weldon … good point. I only read a few of hers but as you say different tones. Drabble’s warmth reminds me a little, just a little, of Halligan.


        • Oh yes, Halligan, of course, how I loved her early books when first I discovered her writing!


  7. I’ve been meaning to read Drabble for ages but have not gotten around to it. This one sounds really good!


  8. I found The Radiant Way in a second-hand bookshop today and recognised the cover from your blog; and I bought a copy of A Natural Curiosity as well – £1 each. Now all I have to do is find the time to read them!


    • Oh well done! Does your Natural Curiosity have a woman in yellow seen through a window drinking tea? *Snap!* if it does:)


      • Yes that’s the one – they’re both Penguin. Is the woman drinking tea or is she on the phone? Could this be another Drabble Conundrum?


        • LOL Avec le specs (which I wasn’t wearing this morning), it’s definitely a phone.


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