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


home list theses content previous next  



                   If one reads more than one work of Sue Townsend's one is likely to notice a certain similarity between her individual books.[112] Apart from the typical style of the writer and the abundant humour, which seems to be an inescapable feature of her writing, the reader is confronted with particular motifs, recurring central themes and side issues in almost every novel or even play.[113] Although the discussion of Townsend's plays fall outside the scope of this dissertation there will be several references to her drama in this section. These references are necessary to illustrate that certain themes, motifs and side issues are found throughout the author's work.

                   With regard to theme and motifs even Townsend's political pamphlet Mr Bevan's Dream is closely connected with her novels and plays. In fact there is not much difference between this book and Townsend's novels since this pamphlet is a collection of anecdotes rather than a serious exposition and since her novels also reflect the central idea of the pamphlet. Hence I will refer to Mr Bevan's Dream as a novel in the course of this section. This means that when-ever the term "novels" is used, the political pamphlet is included.

                   Before we can turn to the discussion of themes, motifs and side issues, and their recurrence in several novels and plays it is necessary to define these terms. Thus misapprehensions or faulty interpretations will be avoided.

                   The concept 'motif' refers to "a recurring element in a number of works". It is a semantic unit which can take the form of a symbol or an image. The concept 'theme' is used to refer to the "abstract concepts dominant in a work of any intention" or in other words "de algemene grondgedachte van een literair werk". The difference between a theme and a motif is that a theme may appear as a motif while a motif cannot be a theme. A theme is not necessarily explicitly indicated whereas a motif is always explicitly named.[114]

                   A motif is always linked to a theme and that is what makes it different from the side issues. These side issues are to be interpreted as secondary references which do not have anything to do with the central themes in Townsend's work. Here, not all the side issues occurring in Townsend's novels and plays will be discussed. Only those secondary references which recur in several works shall be focused on.

                   Almost all the central themes of Townsend's individual works recur as motifs in her other novels or plays. The central theme of The Queen and I for instance is incorporated in every other novel and in most of her plays. The condemnation of the segmentation of British society in unequal classes is most clearly perceived in The Queen and I in which Townsend directly confronts the top of the social pyramid, the royal family, with the basis of the pyramid, made up of deprived people and criminals. but this social inequity is also referred to in Adrian Mole's diaries, in Rebuilding Coventry, in Mr Bevan's Dream, in the diary of Margaret Hilda Roberts and in several plays. In the Mole books Townsend presents the financial problems of the average working class family and in Rebuilding Coventry she has her lower middle class heroine observe the extravagant differences between the aristocrats (such as Dodo's brother and Podger) and the tramps living in the streets of London. These differences are also perceived by the young Margaret Thatcher who divides society into two groups: the interesting enviable rich people and the "horrid working-class" people, whom she blames for their own poverty.[115]

                   The central theme of Mr Bevan's Dream is closely connected to the theme of social inequality. The subtitle of the pamphlet indicates the link: Why Britain needs its Welfare State. In this pamphlet Townsend pleads for the existence of Social Security and a National Health Service since these institutions help to improve the conditions of the poor. She tries to make clear that the country really needs the Welfare system in order to narrow the gap between the social classes.

                   Both the Department of Social Security and the National Health Service appear in several novels and plays. The former institution recurs as a motif in The Queen and I and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole in situations described in detail in the section on aspects of Townsend's life reflected in her work. The NHS occurs as a motif in the Mole series and in The Queen and I and it is even the central theme of two plays: Womberang and Ear, Nose and Throat. Each time the Health Service is mentioned in a novel or play its  deficiencies are severely criticized. When Adrian has at last his tonsils taken out, he has been on a waiting list for years and Queen Elizabeth has to wait several hours in a hospital before a doctor shows up to suture a deep cut.[116]

                   The opposite classes of British society, the upper class and the working class, are symbolised by motifs which are abundantly found in all Townsend's books. The shop Marks and Spencer's serves as a symbol for the upper class while Alsatian dogs tend to be associated with working class people. Both symbols are strewn abundantly over Townsend's fiction and they occasionally occur in some of her plays. In the play Bazaar and Rummage the two symbols are referred to in one and the same passage:

"Well, there are people and people, aren't there? It was hardly the Marks and Spencer set, was it? Tattooed grandfathers, single parents, Alsatians, delinquents and maladjusted children. Hardly a discriminating public was it?..."[117]

Here the two figures are directly opposed. The "Marks and Spencer set" are an extremely enviable group because they have money, education and manners.

"She's a decent women. She's got Marks and Spencer labels all over her."[118]

one of the characters in Groping for Words remarks. And unsurprisingly professor Willoughby D'Eresby, who shelters Coventry for a while, eats Marks and Spencer's oriental dinners rather than food from a simple grocery or supermarket.[119] Similarly the group of upper-class monarchists called B.O.M.B. who strive for the reinstitution of Queen Elizabeth's regality all wear grey Marks and Spencer's car coats.[120] In the Mole diaries the shop is mentioned several times and each time it is mentioned its class implication is clear from the context.[121]

                   The motif of the Alsatian is, unlike the Marks and Spencer's motif, not always used in the same sense. Both in Groping for Words and Rebuilding Coventry this breed of dog is not used as an emblem of the working class. There the Alsatian is chosen as a prototype of the fierce and dangerous watch-dog.[122] Still, the fierceness and aggressivity which Townsend always combines with this breed helps to characterise the working class in those instances where Townsend does use the Alsatian as a symbol of class. Adrian's friend, the poor pauper Bert Baxter, owns an Alsatian. His dog serves as an emblem for his poverty on the one hand and for is subversive anger (Baxter is a communist) on the other hand. In The Queen and I Elizabeth's dog Harris joins a pack of mongrels which is lead by an Alsatian called King.[123] The whole pack of dogs and their leader in particular are symbolic of the unemployed living in run-down council estates.

                   Both language and housing are clear indications of the class the British belong to. These two items are repeatedly focused on in Townsend's work. It is again especially in The Queen and I that the extreme differences with regard to speech and houses of the opposite classes of British society are highlighted. The Queen moves from a palace that is much too big to a hovel that looks more like a kennel for a large dog than a house. Parallel to this movement is her change from a state of incredible riches to a state of grinding poverty. In these new surroundings the language of the royal family proves to be totally different from the simple people's language use. The Windsors are brought "into the real world of imperfect people, who wear drab clothes and speak another language".[124] As a result of their different use of words and their idiosyncratic pronunciation the royals are misunderstood at first. When the Queen asks her neighbour whether he has an axe she could borrow the uneducated man answers: "I dunno what an "ix" is".[125] By the end of the book, however, the Queen and her family have learned to speak the language of the ordinary people.

                   Especially this language-motif is also often used in Rebuilding Coventry and in the Mole diaries. When Coventry first meets Professor Willoughby D'Eresby she has difficulties to understand him when he speaks in his "super-refined upper-class accent", that seems to sound like a foreign language.[126] Communication is not only hampered between people from the top class and the bottom or lower middle class. Even the middle class and working class people have difficulties understanding each other. When Coventry's husband, Derek, visits the widow of the man Coventry has killed, it is clear that even the adjacent classes use different words and a different pronunciation.[127] In Adrian's diaries the language motif does not occur as frequently as it does in the two novels mentioned above but in a couple of entries Adrian (or indeed Townsend) ridicules the silly upper-class accents.[128]

                   The central themes of The Queen and I, Mr Bevan's Dream, Womberang and Ear, Nose and Throat are not the only themes that have been incorporated throughout Townsend's work. The feminist theme of Rebuilding Coventry is also discernable as a motif in several other works. In the Mole saga for instance Coventry's feminist awakening is reflected in Pauline Mole, Adrian's mother. She takes up assertivity training, starts looking for a job and she has her hair cut short.[129] As a result of his mother's rebelliousness Adrian has to do his part of the daily chores. Furthermore, his beloved Pandora also strives to be a free and emancipated woman. Her feminist ideas are voiced when she tells Adrian about her future plans:

"I should like to have one child when I am forty-six years of age. The child will be a girl. She will be beautiful and immensely gifted. Her name will be Liberty."[130]

Pandora assertively states that she does not want any children before she has reached the middle of her forties for a reason that is given by Coventry: "Once you've had a child you're never free".[131] And Adrian's girlfriend precisely wants to free herself from the burdens of the traditional role pattern. She wants to have a career instead of living the dull uninspired life so many housewives lead. She certainly does not want to end up like Coventry Dakin, who after twenty years of marriage concludes:

"I'm forty and I've never flown in an aeroplane; never driven a car; never, as an adult, been to the theatre or been ice-skating; never played tennis or been to a night-club; never eaten Chinese food in a Chinese restaurant, worn pretty underwear of had a bank account or talked about sex, money and politics in mixed company. What is the Dow Jones Index I admit, I don't know. I'm an ignorant woman."[132]

In this train of thought Townsend reflects the missed opportunities, 'the life unlived', of millions of conventional, married and oppressed women. By focusing on the oppression of women, she tries to convince her female readers to start liberating themselves. Her 'propaganda' for the feminist point of view, and the emancipation of women is reinforced by the presentation of very strong female characters in her novels and plays. Her female protagonists or antagonists are either emancipated from the beginning of the story (like for instance the assertive central character in Womberang) or they free themselves from the yoke of male domination in the course of the story, like the two above-mentioned adult women do.[133]

                   A motif that is very closely connected to the theme of feminism is maleaggression. Townsend often depicts her male characters as egotistic, unfeeling bullies who show no respect for the members of the other sex. Especially in Rebuilding Coventry men are depicted in a very negative way. In the beginning of the novel there is a pub scene in which Gerald Fox (Coventry's future "victim") and other male pub-goers are described as truly despicable creatures. Some examples are:

"Their large bums lapped over the edges of tiny, pink Dralon stools."

"Once again Norman Parker echoed Gerald's laughter. His mouth opened and closed, displaying half-chewed bits of shepherd's pose."

"Norman and Gerald were talking at the bar, swopping lies and bragging about money earned, personal strength and women conquered."[134]

The image of Gerald Fox is of course at its worst when the man is pictured strangling his life. Fox is not the only male character who brutalises a woman. In three of Townsends plays female characters are subjected to male violence. Margaret in Bazaar and Lummage reports how she was once raped as a teenager, Thelma in Groping for Words is pinched in the breasts by an ill-mannered youngster and Lila in The Great Celestial Cow is hit hard by the sadistic Harold.

                   Of course not all men are presented as aggressive brutes. But, even those men who seem to be considerate, unconsciously believe women to be inferior to the male sex. A clear instance of male lack of confidence in the abilities of women is found in Adrian's report of his journey to Russia.

"Mr Braithwaite went pale when I told him that the pilot was a woman."[135]

In the sentence following this same passage Townsend ridicules the so-called feminist views of such "considerate" men. She makes Adrian write:

"Then he remembered that he was an avowed feminist and said, 'Jolly good'."

In a previous part of the Mole sage Townsend also laughs at the assumed superiority of men when two neighbours of the Moles come to get their wives who are in a meeting of Pauline Mole's women's group. The first husband needs his wife because he cannot find his pyjamas while the second wants his wife to tell him how to work their electric kettle.[136] Even young Adrian when still a boy, adopts a very patronizing attitude towards women. He is absolutely devastated when Pandora tells him she wants to have a career instead of marrying him. He "wouldn't mind her having a little job in a cake shop or something" but he certainly does not want her to go to university and make a career for herself.[137]

                   From Townsend's recurrent defence of the female point of view one should not conclude that she is an ardent feminist. She does not want to be identified with the organized feminist movement because she thinks the present feminism is too much like fundamentalist religions.[138] Since Townsend is by nature a person who likes to put things in perspective she cannot stand radical attitudes. She says: "Ik zie mezelf graag als een ontspannen feministe".[139]

                   A fifth central theme that is reflected in several novels is the problem of the integration of immigrants. This theme is developed in Townsend's favourite play The Great Celestial Cow.[140] The play presents an Indian family who come to live in England. The wife tries to adapt to the habits of the English but she is hindered by her husband who still adheres to their native traditions and rules. In her process of integration the heroine of the play is also confronted with the racist attitude of some white people. This racism recurs as a motif in Townsend's three works of prose fiction. In The Queen and I Diana's negro lover Fitzroy seems to have been the victim of racist policemen in the past. This can be deduced from the comment that "He didn't like meeting the police head on. Never had".[141] Since Fitzroy is a very decent young man there is nothing that could explain his reluctance to meet the police except the colour of his skin. In The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole the motif crops up when Adrian reports about a very unpleasant incident:

"Barry Kent shouted horrible names at two of the Singh kids. I said, 'Oh lay off em eh, Baz, they're all right!

Barry sneered and said, 'I'ate anyone who ain't English!"[142]

Kent says "anyone who ain't English" but in fact he means "anyone who ain't white". The Singhs are an Indian family who live nextdoor to Adrian. Despite the fact that these people have integrated very well they are still excluded by some racist individuals like Barry Kent.

                   Coventry Dakin is also confronted with the phenomenon of racial hatred. In the pub scene in which Gerald Fox and other male drinkers are presented as ill-mannered bullies Townsend exposes the lack of respect for coloured people. Fox addresses the bar-keeper as Abdul, a name he probably uses to refer to every coloured immigrant, while he knows perfectly well that the Indian is called Parvez.[143] Further on in the novel Coventry witnesses a demonstration against apartheid in Picadilly Circus.[144] This is the first time in her life she realizes that people are discriminated against because of the colour of their skin.

                   Next to the motif of racism the reader is repeatedly confronted with references to the multiraciality of present-day society. When Coventry arrives in London and starts exploring the gigantic city she is surprised and captivated by the sight of so many different nationalities.[145] And Adrian notices that the nurses who take care of him in hospital are from different ethic origins.[146]

                   A final central theme that is reflected in more than one work of Sue Townsend's is the theme of illiteracy or Groping for Words. This is a play about a couple of adults who cannot read nor write. Since their illiteracy prevents them from leading a normal life they try to acquire these two very important skills in evening classes.  This theme occurs as a motif in both Adrian Mole's story and in Mr Bevan's Dream. Adrian reports that Barry Kent "was taught to read and write during his last period in a detention center".[147] This means that Kent does not learn to read and write until the age of sixteen. In her political pamphlet Townsend presents a similar situation. One of the chapters in the pamphlet deals with three difficult teenagers who come to Townsend three weeks before they are leaving school and ask her if she could teach them to read. Townsend comments:

"They were sixteen years of age, each of them had received eleven years of compulsory education, and yet not one of those hulking quick-witted lads could read so much as a Cornflakes packet. They could barely write their names and addresses."[148]

                   By developing this theme in one of her plays and later on referring to this problem in other works, Townsend wanted to criticize the decline of educational standards. Direct references to the inefficiency of the present-day school system in England are found in The Queen and I. In the scene where the Queen asks her neighbour whether she could borrow his axe Townsend refers to the condition of the educational system by making Elizabeth think that:

"... her new neighbours were obviously morons. she was aware that educational standards had fallen, but not to know what an axe was... It was a scandal."[149]

Of course her neighbours do know what an axe is but, as pointed out above, they do not understand the Queen properly. Further on in the novel the lack of funds for education is criticised. When Prince Charles brings his eldest son to his new school he is astonished when he sees the state of the school-buildings. The headmistress tells him that they have been waiting for a new roof for five years. In the meantime the roof has started leaking like a sieve but there is no money available to repair it. There is even no money to buy books so that the teachers have to photocopy pages out of their own books at their own expense.[150] When the reader learns this he must conclude that proper formal education in Britain is impossible as a result of misgovernment. At least, that is what Townsend wants him to conclude.

                   Next to these themes and motifs Townsend also repeatedly focuses on certain side issues. In fact there are lots of recurring side issues in her novels and plays. Only the most prominent ones will be discussed here.

                   Next to the social criticism there is also  a lot of political criticism in Townsend's books. Townsend's political position could be described as Far Left.[151] Hence it is not really a big surprise that her novels contain a considerable amount of criticism directed at the Conservative government. In the plot-summary of the Mole diaries it has already been pointed out that especially Margaret Thatcher, who was the emblem of the Conservatives for a long period, is often subjected to heavy criticism. Adrian sometimes blames her for the disintegration of the country as for instance when he writes

"My parents are victims of Thatcherism so neither of them is working."[152]

or he just ridicules her:

"The inmates are still on the roof of Strangeways prison. Mrs Thatcher is having to be restrained from climbing up there and beating their brains in."[153]

England's former Prime Minister is most harshly ridiculed in her fictive diary which depicts the 'Iron Lady' as a completely abnormal careerist.

                   In Rebuilding Coventry Townsend fiercely criticizes a couple of fictive Conservative politicians: Dodo's brother and Podger. Both aristocrats are depicted as corrupt snobbish politicians.[154] But Townsend does not only attack the Conservative Party. In fact she denounces politics as such as a completely dirty business. Even the Republicans who seize the power in The Queen and I are presented in a negative way. First of all they condition the televiewers to vote for them by subliminal advertising and secondly they sell the country to the Japanese after a period of misgovernment.

                   A second issue that is repeatedly referred to is the difficulty of male and female cohabitation. Most of the marriages Townsend describes in her work are far from happy. Adrian's parents are quarrelling continuously and eventually they split up. Coventry is in a way happy to be released from her dull husband. Right after she has killed Gerald Fox and is fleeing to London she describes the buildings of her hometown she now probably sees for the last time. When passing the church she thinks about the five ill-fated weddings she has attended there.[155]  This word 'ill-fated' is an adjective that suits most of the marriages in Townsend's novels and plays. Even if there is no direct conflict between husband and wife there is always some aspect of marital disharmony. Especially adultery is a recurrent issue in the novels. The marriage of Pandora's parents for example seems allright but this does not prevent Mr Braithwaite from having an extramarital affair when he is in Russia with Adrian. The glamourous fašade of Charles's and Diana's marriage that is described in Adrian's diary is destroyed in The Queen and I in which both the Prince of Wales and his wife fall in love with other people.[156]

                   The fact that the majority of marriages in Townsend's work are failures is a reflection of the writer's opinion on this form of cohabitation. After the breakdown of her first marriage she seems to have adopted a rather sceptical view on marriage in general.

                   In her novels, with the exception of Mr Bevan's Dream, Townsend repeatedly scoffs at the popular press. She points out that papers like The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Star, ... always render a simplified or even distorted vision of the truth. Furthermore, she reveals that the reports in these popular papers are always ideologically determined. When coventry's mother learns that her daughter has fled to London she presses "her lips together in cartoon style" because

"She disapproved of London. The popular press had informed her that London was entirely populated with dirty, drug-crazed pop stars and filthy communist councillors."[157]

This image of the capital of England is of course ridiculously simplified. Townsend does not only comment on the popular press indirectly, she also incorporates a couple of newspaper reports in her fiction. In Rebuilding Coventry the article on Coventry's murder case is hilariously exaggerated. The title of the report indicates the sensational tone of the entire article:


In The Growing Pains Adrian adds a newspaper article on him and his mother to his entry of Wednesday October 6th. The article is full of wrong information:

"Attractive mother-to-be Pauline Mole (58) took the desperate action of abandoning her only child Adrian (5) in the Carey Street Social Security office yesterday...".[159]

Not only the content of the articles in the popular papers is ridiculed, even the selection of information is satirized. The Queen is confronted with the triviality of the popular press coverage when she is looking for the article on the death of her mother in a tabloid. She reads:

"On page seven, under a report that a white tee-shirt had been stolen from a washing line in the early hours of Sunday morning in Pigston Magna, was another small news item FORMER QUEEN MOTHER DIES...".[160 

The fact that the theft of a tee-shirt is reported in this paper is totally ridiculous.

                   In conclusion to this chapter it can be stated that Townsend does never merely stick to her central theme. She always presents a broad spectrum of issues, which give an extra value to her work.

home list theses content previous next  



[112].I consider the Adrian Mole saga as one single work here, since the similarities between the different parts of the cycle are obviously manifold.

[113].The terms motif and theme are widely used and accepted. The term side issue on the other hand is a term (and a concept) that I introduce for this particular chapter. The term is defined further on.

[114].The definitions are taken from:

H.Van Gorp, Lexicon van Literaire Termen, Leuven: Wolters, 1984, p. 202 and p. 310.

Liberman  and Foster,  A Modern  Lexicon of Literary Terms, Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1968, p. 117.

[115].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts, p. 144.

[116].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 128.

Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 46.

[117].Sue Townsend, Bazaar and Rummage, London: Methuen Drama, 1991, p. 33, Gwenda speaking.

[118].Sue Townsend, Groping for Words, London: Methuen Drama, 1991, p. 79, Keith speaking.

[119].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 69.

[120].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 214.

[121].For instance in True Confessions, p. 403 or Growing Pains, p. 284, Saturday, November 6th.

[122].Sue Townsend, Groping for Words, p. 92 and Rebuilding Coventry, p. 27.

[123].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 84.

[124].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 74.

[125].Idem, p. 28.

[126].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 68.

[127].Idem, p. 97.

[128].In True Confessions for instance Adrian reports how the postman ridicules the accent of the royals.

[129].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, p. 42; diary entry Sunday March 8th, p. 172; Saturday March 20th, p. 161; Monday February 1st.

[130].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, p. 401, September 1985 (A Mole in Moscow).

[131].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 141.

[132].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 130.

[133].The female protagonist of The Great Celestial Cow evolves from an obedient housewife to a liberated independent woman, just like Pauline Mole and Coventry Dakin.

[134].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, pp. 12, 15.

[135].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, p. 403.

[136].Sue Townsend, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, p. 301.

[137].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 134.

[138].Ally van der Pauw, "We zijn ten onrechte veel te vrij met onze kinderen", in Haagse Post, July 13, 1985, p. 48.

[139].Ally van der Pauw, p. 51.

[140].Sue Townsend told me that this play is her favourite when she signed my copy in W.H. Smith's in Brussels. It is interesting to note that the secondary theme of this play is the heroine's emancipation as a woman.

[141].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 103.

[142].Sue Townsend, The Growing Pains, p. 335, entry of Tuesday March 8th.

[143].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 14.

[144].Idem, p. 45.

[145].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 35.

[146].In a previous section it was indicated that this scene in Mole's diary is a reflection of Townsend's own observations when she was in hospital.

Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 130.

[147].Sue Townsend, True Confessions, p. 414.

[148].Sue Townsend, Mr Bevan's Dream, p. 25.

[149].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 28.

[150].Sue Townsend, idem, p. 123.

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

[152].Sue Townsend, True Confessions, p. 412.

[153].Sue Townsend, The Small Amphibians, p. 479.

[154].For instance on p. 114 Dodo informs Coventry that her brother is thoroughly corrupt.

[155].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 18.

[156].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 98, Wednesday July 29th.

[157].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 116.

[158].Idem, p. 55.

[159].Sue Townsend, The Growing Pains, p. 274.

[160].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 196.