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

 

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2. HER WORK

2.7.PLOT SUMMARY OF "THE QUEEN AND I"

                   The central idea of this novel is brilliant. A republican party wins the election in April 1992 and its first action is the abolition of the royal throne. The Queen and her family have to vacate Buckingham Palace and are exiled to a dreadful council estate somewhere in the Midlands. There they have to cope with the hard life millions of their compatriots have been living for years.

                   Initially, the newly arrived ex-royals are rejected as "poshos" by their neighbours, tattooed criminals with high-heeled wives. Their integration is hampered by the problem of communication. The polished and lofty RP spoken by the Windsors appears to be unintelligible for the inhabitants of the estate. But soon the courageous ex-monarch and her clique are accepted in their neighbourhood. Most of them do their very best to adapt themselves to these surprisingly different circumstances. Especially the two young princes William and Harry are quick to integrate. In no time they become friends with the local children and take up the "horrible" grammar and defective spelling of these playmates. Furthermore, their language is far from improved at the local primary school where standards of education are incredibly low.

                   With a tinge of 'Schadenfreude' Townsend describes how the Queen joins the queue as an NHS patient and Social Security claimant. Nevertheless she depicts Elizabeth as a very brave woman who never gets down-hearted. Prince Charles also makes the best of a bad situation. He takes to gardening, grows a ponytail and fancies the neighbour woman. However, his enjoyable life comes to an end when he is, by accident, imprisoned for assaulting a policeman. Princess Anne also copes. She dates the local handyman and aspires to become a do-it-yourself expert. Even the Queen's dog integrates well. After a short period of obstinate fasting it joins a pack of mongrels, commanded by an Alsatian suitably named King. Diana, like the dog, first passes through a difficult period but once she has forgotten her 70,000 Mercedes and falls in love with the relatively rich son of their Jamaican neighbour she too settles down.

                   Three members of the family, however, cannot pull themselves together. The Queen Mother at first seems to do alright. She becomes friendly with the Jamaican neighbour and puts on an occasional bet via this woman's son (Diana's lover). But suddenly she gets ill and dies. Philip, unlike his wife, the Queen, cannot put up with his reversal of fortune and stays in his room sulking until he finally becomes insane and is sent to a mental hospital. Margaret stubbornly clings to her aristocratic accent and behaviour and keeps her curtains drawn.

                   Three other royals are not in the picture. Prince Andrew is reported to be floating under the polar icecap in a submarine and his brother Edward is on a theatre tour in New Zealand. Fergie, on the other hand, is not even mentioned.[77]

                   Whereas most of the Windsors reconcile themselve to their new situation, a group of royalists called BOMB (Bring Our Monarchy Back) strive for the reinstatement of the Queen with amateur guerrilla and terrorist actions. But since the group only consist of ineffective middle-aged upper-class men this illegal organization does not succeed in disorganizing the government. This republican government is certainly not idealized by Townsend. In fact the new rulers, who lured the people into voting for them by subliminal advertising on television, do not govern the country any better than their predecessors did. As the Queen and her retinue experience for themselves, life does not improve for the lowest class of society. What is more, the republican government proves to be a complete failure when it sells the country to the Emperor of Japan, in a desperate attempt to repay a Japanese loan. The new Prime Minister even has the nerve to 'marry off' the kidnapped Prince Edward to the Emperor's daughter so as to seal the union in a symbolical way.

                   The Queen who sees this happening on television cannot believe her own eyes. Seeing that her country is sold like a fish in the market-place and that her beloved son is forced into an impossible marriage seems to be her worst nightmare. And surprisingly it is. In the final chapter she wakes up in her royal bedroom and finds out that the Conservatives have won the election.

She groans "Oh God, what a nightmare!" and pulls the sheet over her head.[78]

2.7.1.COMMENT

                   Like in the Mole diaries and Rebuilding Coventry Townsend here presents her crazy story at a very high pace. Exactly like in the modern films the work is built up of short consecutive flashes which introduce the reader to a great many characters. Undeniably, the central character is the Queen. It is not only her personal dream, she is also the admirable heroine of the story. As the outline of the novel clearly proves, she reveals herself as a woman who knows the tricks of the trade. Slowly but surely she drops the artificial facade she has been keeping up for her entire life. She learns her neighbours' dialect and sociolect and slowly gets to know the real world. When, in the penultimate chapter, she hurls a portable radio at the wall in a fit of anger she has finally arrived at the stage of being a completely normal human being. And she likes it, just like Princess Anne, who perfectly voices the voidness of their former existence:

"We lived in a bloody zoo to be gawped at by the public. I'm glad I'm out of it."[79]

It is exactly this feeling which makes the Queen's exclamation (Oh god, what a nightmare!) at the end of the novel very ambiguous. The word 'nightmare' can be interpreted in its literal sense. In that case the exclamation is a sigh of relief and the monarch is happy to find herself still living in her beautiful isolated palace. On the other hand the word can be read in its figurative sense. Then the Queen could still mean two different things. She is either disappointed to be back in the "zoo" or she dreads the fact that the Conservatives have won the elections. These two latter interpretations are not only perfectly possible, the are even supported by the fact that the Queen pulls they sheets over her head. In my opinion this gesture indicates that the Queen does not want to face reality. She hides under the blanket because she does not want to live like a fish in an aquarium anymore. She would probably prefer her dreamworld, in which she was free, to her life at the court with all its restrictive rules and decorum. Or maybe she refuses to be confronted with the continuation of the conservative government, which leaves millions of poor people in the cold.

                   Anyhow, no matter how the last sentence is read, its ambiguity does provide an open ending to the novel. It is not clear what the Queen is going to do next. Most readers probably think that she will go on living like she used to before her dreams, even if she is reluctant to do so. The real Queen Elizabeth would indeed be very likely to do exactly that. But this Queen is, after all, a fictional character. Hence she is as likely to abdicate or reject the government as to do anything else.

                   The last page of the book with its revelation that the entire story has only been a dream was not really liked by the critics. A lot of them, both those who loved the book and those who hated it, were very disappointed by Townsend's little surprise. Val Hennessy for instance enjoyed the book so much that her "ribs were aching with laughter" but when she read the end she thought it was "such a cop-out that [she] threw the book across the room."[80] Or Hans Van Den Bergh, who does not approve of the novel, described Townsend's move as "de banaalste schrijverstruc van alle tijden".

What is more he added:

"En dan is de noodgreep romantechnisch nog onverantwoord ook, want dat de koningin zelf al het voorafgaande gedroomd kan hebben, is niet vol te houden. Tal van scenes heeft zij immers niet bijgewoond."[81]

Van Den Bergh certainly has a point there. Moreover this is not the only flaw of the book he lays bare. He also exposes the novel's defective structure.

                   Actually, Townsend would perhaps better have left out this trivial and unpopular ending. But still I cannot agree with the critics who reject the final page as a complete failure. Perhaps they missed the ambiguity of the last sentence. I admit that the ending would indeed be a terrible "cop-out" if Townsend had shown Elizabeth unchanged by her dream. By making the Queen yell "Oh do be quiet, you cowing little dog" after the barking animal has woken her up, however, Townsend indicates that the 'nightmare' might have brought about a change in Queen Elizabeth.

                   After one has finished the novel one inevitably wonders why Townsend chose the title The Queen and I. There seems to be no connection between the novel and its title. Seeing the cover the reader may think that the 'I' in the title refers to the dog. Since this corgi is the only living creature in the drawing the reader might expect that the story will be presented from the royal pet's point of view. But when he starts reading he quickly notices that such is not the case.

                   There is a chapter in the novel which has the same title as the novel itself. In this short passage the phrase "the Queen and I" is actually uttered by one of the characters. Violet, one of Her Royal Highness's neighbours, tells the busdriver that she is paying for both the Queen and herself. This bringing together of a member of the top class and a member of the bottom social class symbolizes the "deroyalisation", which is the core of the novel. Yet, this is not really a satisfactory explanation for the title since Violet is only a minor character in the novel.[82]

                   In fact the enigma of the title is completely solved when one studies the genesis of the novel.

 

2.7.2.GENESIS OF "THE QUEEN AND I"

                   I discuss the genesis of the novel only after having given the outline of the story because I think that the central issue (being the choice of the title) can be better illuminated when the reader knows the plot of the novel. In the discussion of the Mole books and their genesis I have done the reverse because I assumed that that would facilitate the reader's task.

                   The inspiration for this novel came from a photograph of the Queen and her son Charles. This picture showed the royal mother, who had just returned from a lengthy foreign tour, greeting her boy with a formal handshake. Townsend was so shocked by the lack of emotional warmth between mother and son that she decided to write a novel with the monarch as the central figure. Her initial plan was to merge her own biography with the Queen's biography so as to reveal the tremendous difference between the two. By juxtaposing these two lives the author wanted to show how sterile and feelingless the lives of the Windsors are as opposed to the turbulent emotional lives of "normal" people.[83]

                   This decision was taken some two and a half years ago. Townsend started to research the lives of the royals thoroughly and she "read lots of cringingly horrible sycophantic books about the royals".[84] So she was very well informed when she started writing. Nevertheless she did not make any progress. In an interview for The Times she admitted "It was a nice idea, but it didn't work".[85]

                   As a result Townsend changed her original plan and decided to "deroyalise" the Windsor family by making them live among the poorest and most marginal social group of England. Thus she could depict the royal family as normal human beings and at the same time expose the appalling differences between the two extreme classes. Even though she changed the original concept of the book, Townsend kept the same title, which obviously may confuse some of the readers.

 

2.7.3.RECEPTION OF "THE QUEEN AND I"

                   In a period of royal scandals, during which the cracks in the marriages of both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew were exposed to the public at large, Townsend's satirical phantasy novel evidently got more media attention than it would have had in normal circumstances. People were simply craving for news about the royal family. Everything would do. Next to the taped telephone conversations, the slandering photographs and Diana's Untold Story a satirical novel was very welcome. Consequently the first hardback edition of the novel sold like hot cakes.[86]

                   Townsend was quickly suspected and even accused of making money out of the situation. Being a writer who is less interested in money than in literature she would not allow the media to picture her as a money-grubber. So Townsend vehemently denied the accusations by pointing out that she had started working on the novel long before the scandals.

                   But anyhow, Townsend was forced to change the original due to the recent developments. She had to delete Fergie from the novel at the last moment before the publication. Regretfully Townsend commented:

"She really took to estate life. She was a good-time girl, went to the youth club disco, made a lot of friends very quickly... she was OK."[87]

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[76].Sue Townsend, Mr Bevan's Dream, p. 6.

[77].The absence of Fergie will be discussed further on.

[78].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, London: Methuen, 1992, p. 239.

[79].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 233.

[80].Val Hennessy, "A story to make the Queen smile", in The Daily Mail, September 10, 1992, p. 44.

[81].Hans Van Den Bergh, "De koningin droomt van zich af", in Vrij Nederland, October 3, 1992.

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

[83].Townsend recounted this during her presentation of the novel in Brussels.

[84].Angela Lambert, "Secret passions of a republican Mole", in The Independent, September 1, 1992, p. 11.

[85]."Secret diary of a royal Mole", in The Times, September 11, 1992.

[86].I will go into the matter of sales figures of The Queen and I when discussing the popularity of Townsend's fiction in a following chapter.

[87].Valery Grove, "Secret diary of a royal Mole", in The Times, September 1, 1992.