I was making my way through The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, thinking I was really enjoying it, when I realized on about page 75 that it was utterly failing to hold my interest. I couldn’t figure out why, because I generally love these kinds of books–portraits of women rooted in a time and place, books like The Group by Mary McCarthy or Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman. This book has strong, faceted female characters and the prose is layered yet lucid. Why, oh why, were my eyes glazing over?
And then I figured it out–the book is just so very, very English. Drabble uses the political and economical climate of early 1980s Britain as a huge part of her characterizations, perhaps even the largest part in several instances that I could see. And I, being an American who was 7 years old when the events at the outset of the book took place, have little to do no framework with which to grasp the subtle distinctions she’s making. I can’t recognize these women at all.
Still, that hardly seemed a reason to put the book down, until I reached p. 79 of my copy and found this extraordinary passage:
Jane Austen recommended three or four families in a country village as the thing to work on when planning a novel. Esther Breuer might well have been expected to approve this advice, with its implication that depth rather than breadth is of importance, and intimate knowledge of a corner more valuable than a sketchy acquaintance with the globe. In fact, perversely, Esther Breuer disliked the only Jane Austen she had ever read (which was, perversely, Sense and Sensibility) and frequently boasts of her inability to tackle the others. “Too English for me,” she will sometimes add, in her impeccably English middle-class intellectual’s voice.
Really weird, right? “Too English for me” was exactly how I put it to myself when I had my epiphany four pages earlier. I took it as a sign to move on and try something a little less Englishy. Like Where Angels Fear to Tread… EM Forster’s my kind of English.
I don’t really want to give up on Drabble altogether, so I’m actively soliciting recommendations. Please leave a comment if you can help me out.