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


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                   The duality that underlies the conception of Townsend's characters is also found in the broader context of her work. Her novels and plays are dual in the sense that they present a mixture of tragedy and comedy. This mixture results from the sharp contrast between the earnestness of her themes and the lighthearted way in which these themes are presented. In other words, there is a discrepancy between the content and the style of Townsend's books. On the one hand she writes about very serious subjects such as the breakdown of families, the disintegration of a country or the devaluation of morals but on the other hand she presents these grave themes in such a way that the reader is more likely to laugh than to feel depressed when he reads the books.

                   Wittgenstein once stated that:

"The limits of our language are the limits of our world."[104]

When we transfer this maxim to Townsend's literary world, i.e. the world she is able to create in her books, this means that due to the limitation of her style Townsend is restricted to the creation of a rather stereotypical world. Her style is limited in the sense that she cannot possibly write anything without being funny.[105] In an interview for Studio Brussel she confessed that humour seems to be an inevitable feature of her style.[106] When she starts writing a book she does not plan it to be funny in any way but then, the result always proves to be hilarious. The Queen and I, for instance, was meant to become a very serious and sad novel. Nevertheless the book is a real 'hoot'. This stylistic restriction used to bother Townsend considerably. But since she has learned that Tsjechov had exactly the same problem she can put up with it much better.

                   The restrictiveness of Townsend's style is not only a disadvantage. Firstly her humour mitigates the underlying criticism and satire. For that reason the reader thinks that her books are less serious then they really are. Consequently she attracts more readers since lots of people are averse to serious books dealing with grave problems. By the double-edgedness of her fiction, her novels can be read on different levels. Those readers who are merely reading for entertainment do find diversion in her fiction, while the more attentive readers discover well-founded criticism and sarcasm under the lighthearted surface level. Secondly Townsend's critical message has all the more impact because of the humour with which it is presented. In his booklet on humour Paul Liekens explains that a humorously presented message is much better integrated by the recipient since the humour removes possible barriers and thus the message is allowed to penetrate the subconscious.[107] This means that even those readers who merely read for entertainment and pay no special attention to the deeper level of the novels are influenced by Townsend's critical remarks.

                   The humour in Townsend's books undeniably facilitates the reading process. But it is not the only element which makes the novels easy to read. The immediacy and density of her style also contribute to making the Mole saga and Townsend's two later novels such pleasant reading.

                   Townsend's novels are very direct in the sense that they offer the reader a lot of dialogues. Descriptive passages are reduced to a minimum since the writer is afraid to bore her readers.[108] Instead she makes use of a technique she perfectly masters: the dialogue ."In de dialoog ligt mijn kracht" she once declared.[109] This should not be surprising knowing that Sue Townsend is really primarily a playwright. She started her writing career in the theatre and she still considers herself a playwright rather than a novelist.[110] In the theatre dialogue is all-important and the characters are usually characterized through their speech. Townsend transfers this feature of drama texts to her novels and thus makes her fiction come alive. By the abundance of direct speech the reader gets a living picture of the characters.

                   Townsend's style could also be described as very dense in the sense that she formulates her message in a very limited space. Her sentences and chapters are extremely short. In the Queen and I for example, the chapters only run to an average of 4.2 pages. this brevity of both sentences and chapters causes an impression of a very flowing style, which naturally simplifies the reading process.

                   Throughout the years Townsend's style has of course changed considerably. She has developed a unique personal style that is clearly recognisable, a feature she highly values:

"Je bent pas geslaagd als auteur als je een stijl hebt ontwikkeld die direct herkenbaar is. Zodra een ander die stijl kan parodiŽren, ben je er: dan heb je je eigen toon gevonden."[111]

By now she has indeed found a tone of her own but still she does not believe she has completely made it as a literary artist. On the contrary, she is very much aware of her limitations and shortcomings. But she works very hard to overcome these impediments and she hopes to produce an excellent piece of writing before she dies.

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[104].Robert Elbaz, The Changing Nature of the Self. A Critical Study of the Autobiographic Discourse, London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1988, p. 155.

[105].Kristien Hemmerechts, "De Vrouwen van Sue Townsend. Schertsend de Waarheid zeggen", in De Tijd, October 7, 1988.

[106].I attended the interview with Townsend for Studio Brussel. She was interviewed by Johan Thielemans and the interview was broadcast on Wednesday November 11th 1992.

[107].Paul Liekens, Humor. Inzicht dat verlicht, Deventer: Ankh-Hermes BV, 1991, p. 8.

[108].Townsend's inability to write long descriptive passages was already discussed briefly in the section devoted to the tradition in which she works.

[109].Reintje Gianotten, "Mijn Ambitie is Mensen naar het Theater te lokken en aan het lezen te zetten", in Vrij Nederland, September 28, 1985.

[110].When I met Sue Townsend in Brussels I asked her what she liked best: writing novels or plays. She replied that she especially loved working for the theatre. "In fact I am still a playwright", she added.

[111].Thera Coppens, "Adriaan Mole's geestelijke Moeder: De Rijken - Ik vind ze niet aardig", in Elseviers Magazine, September 21, 1985.