A casual party in the ’80s is thronged with teachers, freelance writers, a novelist, a comic book writer, librarians, editors, and engineers.
There’s beer and wine. Maybe chips. People stand and talk for hours.
Nobody will go away unless you lock yourself in your bedroom.
In retrospect, you can’t imagine why you didn’t run away with the flirtatious bookstore owner, but you barely noticed him. You comfort a sobbing friend who caught her husband on the fire escape kissing another man.
There are always such flirtations and fluctuations in relationships at parties.
But it was a party in the Midwest, and it was not at all like the glittering New Year’s Eve party in 1979 in London at the beginning of Margaret Drabble’s novel, The Radiant Way, given by Liz Headleand, a successful psychoanalyst, and her husband Charles, a rich TV executive. Yet the Headleands’ party, too, is characterized by sexual confusion and breakups. Liz discovers that her husband is having an affair with Lady Henrietta, a socialite they made fun of and whom she has never considered a threat. Charles wants to marry Lady Henrietta. And the Headleands’ divorce heralds the 1980s, a foreshadowing of the many social upheavals that characterize the decade.
The Radiant Way, published in 1987, is the first of a trilogy, and its brilliant sequels are A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1991).
Drabble’s trilogy is a neglected masterpiece of the 20th century. And it isn’t even in print anymore.
The Radiant Way focuses on three women friends in middle age who met at Cambridge: Liz, after 21 years of marriage and raising three stepsons and two daughters, must adjust to single life and move from the big house on Harley Street ; Alix Bowen, who studied English at Cambridge, teaches part-time at a women’s prison and is married to Brian, a teacher at an adult education college; and Esther Breuer, an eccentric art historian, is even more marginal than Alix where employment is concerned. Alix, Brian, and Esther will all end up scrambling for jobs in the ’80s. Of the three, only Liz will have a stable job: the liberal arts, God bless them (hear, hear! I’m a lib arts grad), can’t keep Alix, Brian, and Esther lucratively employed now that the budget has been cut and their degrees undervalued.
But the novel is not just about the characters’ relationships and work: it is also about politics. Drabble documents the vicissitudes of the 1980s in England under a conservative government, the intersections of different classes and kinship networks, demonstrates the urgent need for adult education at both at colleges and prisons, highlights Thatcher’s budget cuts and analyzes their effects on unemployment and mental health, charts the downward mobility of the post-industrial society and the growing violence in London.
The title of the novel, The Radiant Way, comes to us twice removed. It is originally the title of the primer from which Liz’s ex-, Charles Headleand, learned to read when he was four. And it is the name Charles gives his influential film about the education system, made when he was young. Drabble explains that The Radiant Way was “A series that demonstrated eloquently, movingly, the evils that flow from a divisive class system, from early selection from Britain’s unfortunate heritage of public schools and philistinism.”
One can envision the rays of light shining out in all directions as a result of the primer, the film, and reading Drabble’s The Radiant Way.
Drabble is a thorough, intellectual researcher. She has obviously read the history, political science, and sociology. Not to mention, she has had rich experiences. She obviously knows so many kinds of people. Her characters discuss leftist politics, but they also understand the arcane commodities of symbols, subtexts, and motifs. Drabble plays with the word “head,”: there are the Headleands; then a serial killer roams London and severs the heads of victims; Esther dreams of a severed head and then they chat about Mr. Dick’s monomania with King Charles’ head in David Copperfield; Esther studies paintings of headless John the Baptist…and there is more.
There is so much in this. I hope it comes back into print.