A comprehensive study of the non-dramatic work of Sue Townsend. (Jurgen Willems)


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                   Susan Lilian Townsend was born on April 2nd 1946 in Leicester, where she still lives today. Her parents were both bus conductors who were very keen readers. Susan herself, however, did not learn to read until she was eight. At that age a teacher she liked a lot, mr. Moles (coincidence or not), taught her how to love and enjoy books.[1] From that moment she became addicted to print. She would read anything she could lay hands on, especially books from the local library. She took out so many books that the local librarian used to test if she actually read them all because he suspected her of showing off.[2]

                   The very first book she read were Richmal Crompton's William books.[3] These children's books were the key to her future mania for reading.

                   In school the only subject she really liked was English. She excelled at essay writing, which was unfortunately the only thing she was really good at.[4] As a result Sue, as she was commonly called, failed her 11-plus exams and went to another school. There her atheism and republicanism were born. As she herself said in an interview in the Observer she realized two things at the age of twelve: "God did not exist. And the Royal family were ordinary people."[5]

                   Growing up in working-class surroundings, it was quite normal that, like her two sisters, she left school at fifteen. The only way in which she was different from other working girls of her age was through her love for books.[6] By this time she was reading the plays of Oscar Wilde. She even took her books to work. In her first job at a tax office, for instance she read the biography of Ernest Hemingway.[7] Next she served petrol at a filling station. This job she particularly liked because it allowed her to read in between serving customers.

                   Townsend now describes her adolescence as "an accumulation of frustrations". It was a time during which she was "terribly unhappy". Like the hero of her first novel, Adrian Mole, she considered herself an underestimated intellectual. During her adolescence Townsend started reading the Tsjechov-Russian novelists. These books by Dostoevsky, Tsechov and other great Russian writers perfectly matched the black mood, characteristic for that period of her life. These works of fiction suggested the idea of becoming a writer herself.[8]

                   Townsend got married when she was eighteen. Before her marriage she had already taken up a whole range of unskilled jobs. She had served as an assistant in a dress shop, sold hot dogs and even peddled encyclopedias for a short period. In the year of her marriage Townsend discovered Graham Greene, John Steinbeck and George Eliot and kept reading with undiminished vigour.[9]

                   Seven years later her husband, a sheet-metal worker, ran off with another woman and left her with three children. For some time she and her children had to live on an allowance of nine pounds a week. Here we find the roots of her dislike of the rich and her concern for the oppressed minorities of society which would later be reflected in her work. In order to be able to feed her children she had to take up three jobs. During the day she took care of old people, at night she worked in a youth club and in the weekends she had a job as a waitress.[10]

                   At the youth club she fell in love with one of her colleagues who then became her second husband and the father of her fourth child. This canoe builder called Colin Broadway today still lives with her in their Edwardian House, a former vicarage, in Leicester.[11]

                   At the age of thirty-three, Townsend was finally discovered as a writer. She had been secretly writing for a long time but it was only in 1979 that she presented her work to other people. This happened when she joined the Phoenix Theatre Writing Group where she had to present a script of her own to the other group members. Her work turned out to be surprisingly good and with this first play called "Womberang" she won the Thames Television Bursary, a prize worth 200 pounds. From then onwards she became writer in residence at the Phoenix Theatre.[12]

                   In fact this talented writer ended up as a playwright because she had misread the name of the group she joined. Townsend had placed the emphasis on writing rather than on theatre in the name Phoenix Theatre Writing Group. In fact she became a playwright by accident.[13]

                   Later on, in 1982, after she had already written several plays for the Phoenix Theatre, a very successful radio play series based on Townsend's witty creation Adrian Mole furthered her career significantly. The extremely popular diary novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13, the novel version of the radio play, turned the modest playwright from Leicester into a best-selling celebrity. The reading public and especially the publishers of The Secret Diary were soon crying for more and this resulted in the sequel The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, which was published in 1984.[14]

                   Giving in to the demands of both publishers and readers Townsend became a real workaholic. But at the age of thirty-nine, after she had discovered she was a diabetic, she suffered a heart attack. These two severe mental and physical blows compelled her to slow down.[15] This meant that she did no longer care about the stress-engendering deadlines. She simply had to take her own well being more seriously.

                   Anyhow, chain-smoking Townsend continued to lead a rather busy life. In 1988 she finished the satirical novel Rebuilding Coventry, a novel about a normal average housewife whose life is suddenly disturbed when she kills her neighbour and subsequently flees to London to escape prison. This novel never reached the success her two Mole diaries had had. So one year later, although she had, after the publication of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, sworn not to write about Adrian anymore until 1992 when he would be 26, she gave in to the pressure of her publishers and wrote the continuation of the Mole story under the title True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole.[16]

                   At the end of the eighties it turned out that Sue Townsend had been the best-selling author of the decade in England. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 is even the most widely read book of the 1980's while The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole appears third on the chart of the best sold books of the decade.[17] Adrian's diaries were not only tremendously popular in England. World-wide, thousands and thousands of copies were sold, in English or in translation.

                   It must be noted that after the publication of her first diary novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 Townsend had not stopped writing for the theatre. In between the publication of her novels she continued writing plays. Groping for Words, The Great Celestial Cow, Ear, Nose and Throat and Ten Tiny Fingers, Nine Tiny Toes are the plays she produced between 1982 and 1990. Inevitably she also made a play version, or rather a semi-musical version, of Adrian Mole's Secret Diary which was staged at the Wyndham Theatre in London in 1984.[18]

                   At the start of the nineties, in 1991 to be precise, a compilation of the Mole diaries was published under the title Adrian Mole: from Minor to Major. This volume included the first three parts of the Adrian Mole saga plus a new episode of the series entitled Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians.

                   At the time of writing this dissertation, Townsend's latest publication was the controversial novel The Queen and I that came out in September 1992. This much-discussed fantasy presents the story of a republican election victory after which the monarchy is abolished. The narration depicts how the deposed monarch and her family turn into normal human beings and try to get on with life. Because this novel was published in the middle of a monarchy crisis, during which the papers were full of royal scandal stories, Townsend was immediately accused of profit-seeking. But the author revealed that she had already started her research and writing two years earlier, when the royal's reputation was still unblemished. So the concurrence of the publication of the novel and the libelous campaign against the Windsors was just a coincidence. A very fortunate coincidence indeed for Townsend whose book would probably never have attracted as much media attention as it did under the present circumstances.

                   Today Sue Townsend is the happy grandmother of three grandchildren. She still is an omnivorous reader, who spends at least two or three hours a day reading anything, from the Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro to Martin Amis.[19]

                   Despite her success and despite the fact that she has become a very rich woman Townsend still is her own congenial self. It was for instance very characteristic of her to start washing the dishes immediately after she had found her first diary novel on top of the Sunday Times' Bestsellers' List. "That brings you back to earth" she said.[20] This shows us what she really is: a down-to-earth unpretentious woman who has never lost touch with reality. On the contrary, she still has a pervasive insight into the real world and what is more she has the admirable capacity of displaying her own insights and perceptions in a highly entertaining and enlightening way.

                   However, even though Townsend has sold over seven million books all over the world she is not really recognized as one of England's best authors. In the title of an Observer article on Townsend she is correctly described as a "literary outsider". On the one hand this might spring from the fact that most literary "cognoscenti" in their judgement of Townsend as a writer seem to overlook that, besides creating Adrian Mole, she has also written several serious stage plays as well as two novels.[21] On the other hand Townsend's being underestimated as an author could be blamed on her lack of formal instruction. But then other great writers such as Daniel Defoe, Thomas Mann of Hugo Claus were also self-made authors. And they did get the recognition they deserved; Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Hugo Claus was very close to winning it. Anyhow literary experts would contest that Townsend deserves any recognition at all. The main reason for this patronizing attitude towards Townsend is caused by her comical style and the seeming triviality of her work. Yet, there is more to her work than just the entertaining aspect. On a deeper level she discusses serious themes and in the subtle presentation of these she criticizes social abuses.[22]

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[1]."Majestic republican takes on the royals", in The Observer, September 13, 1992, p. 18.

[2].Steve Martin, "Secret passion between the covers", in The Times Saturday Review, August 28, 1992, p. 32.

[3].Steve Martin, idem, p. 32.

[4].I found this information in an interview with Sue Townsend by Jean W.Ross that was published in Contemporary Authors, Volume 127, 1989, p. 458.

[5]."Majestic republican takes on the royals", in The Observer, September 13, 1992, p. 18.

[6].Thera Coppens, "Adriaan Mole's geestelijke Moeder: De rijken - ik vind ze niet aardig", in Elsevier Magazine, september 21, 1985, p. 127.

[7].Steve Martin, "Secret passion between the covers", in The Times Saturday Review, August 28, 1992, p. 32.

[8].Jean W.Ross, Interview with Sue Townsend, in Contemporary Authors, CXXVII, 1989, p. 458.

[9].Steve Martin, "Secret passion between the covers", in The Times Saturday Review, August 28, 1992, p. 32.

[10].Ruth Ling, "The growing pains of Sue Townsend", in Best, November 24, 1989, pp. 70-71.

[11].Serena Allott, "We are easily amused", in Daily Telegraph, September 19, 1992, back page.

[12].Reintje Gianotten, "Mijn ambitie is mensen naar het theater lokken en aan het lezen zetten", in Vrij Nederland, September 28, 1985.

[13].Reintje Gianotten, "Mijn ambitie is mensen naar het theater lokken en aan het lezen zetten", in Vrij Nederland, September 28, 1985, p. 113.

[14].A more detailed description of the history of the Adrian Mole phenomenon will be rendered in the section devoted to the work of Sue Townsend.

[15].Sally Brompton, "Secret agony of Adrian's 'mum' aged 40", in The Times, October 13, 1986.

[16].Thera Coppens, "Adriaan Mole's geestelijke Moeder: De rijken - ik vind ze niet aardig", in Elseviers Magazine, September 21, 1985, p. 127.

[17].Andrew Stephen, "Growing pains of a literary outsider", in The Observer, September 3, 1989, p. 35.

[18].Cees van der Wiel, "Een mislukt en onbegrepen genie verovert de wereld", in De Tijd, August 30, 1985.

[19].Martin Amis is the son of the well-known writer Kingsley Amis and a personal friend of Sue Townsend.

[20].Andrew Stephen, "Diary of the mum behind the Mole", in Sunday Star Review, October 22, 1989, p. 6

[21].Andrew Stephen, "Growing pains of a literary outsider", in The Observer, September 3, 1989, p. 35.

[22].I will present an analysis of the themes and the social criticism in a following chapter.