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


home list theses content previous next  



                   In this final chapter I examine the reasons for the popularity of the Adrian Mole books and the Queen and I. But before turning to listing the causes of these books' successes I want to prove that these books have indeed sold like hot cakes.


                   Townsend's creation Adrian Mole was an instant hit. The first edition of 7,000 copies was immediately sold out and The Secret Diary soon entered the lists of the bestselling books. Moreover it found its way to the number one position and it remained there for a long period. Its sequel The Growing Pains measured up to the success of The Secret Diary. At the end of the eighties both books became thé bestselling books of the decade in Britain.[161] By now more than seven million copies of these two Adrian Mole diaries have been sold, not only in Britain but all over the world.[162] They have been translated into nearly thirty languages, including Russian and Japanese.

                   The third and fourth parts of Adrian's story were not as successful as their predecessors. Even though the success of these two latest parts of the Mole saga is difficult to ascertain since they have both been incorporated in a collection, it is clear that the reading public in general was not as enthusiastic about True Confessions and The Small Amphibians as it was about Adrian's first two diaries. The reason for this diminished enthusiasm will be given in the section devoted to the causes of the popularity of the first two parts. Still Adrian's True Confessions and the compilation From Minor to Major were definitely no failures. Both books also sold relatively well but they never reached the record sales figures of the first part and its immediate sequel.

                   Such high sales figures were again reached by The Queen and I. Initially at least, since it is not certain that this novel will remain a bestseller as long as Adrian's diaries. Immediately after its release Townsend's "provocative new novel" entered the bestsellers' lists.[163] That this entry was rather dramatic is proved by the novel's second place on The Sunday Times' bestsellers' list at its first appearance.[164] What is more, The Queen and I was nominated for the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, "Britain's richest prize for fiction".[165]

                   The only novel that did not really reach the bulk of the reading public in Britain was Rebuilding Coventry. Mr Bevan's Dream was even less successful. But then high sales figures are never to be expected from political pamphlets. They only reach a very limited reading public.


                   Let us now turn to an examination of the aspects of the Mole books and The Queen and I which might have contributed to the commercial success of these books. First the particular aspects that explain the popularity of the Mole diaries will be focused on. Next the causes for the success of Townsend's latest novel will be discussed. Finally, general reasons for the success of these books will be given.

                   In 1989 interviewer Janice Turner asked Townsend how she explained the popularity of her brainchild's diaries. The Leicester author replied that it is really a mystery to her but she added that:

"People have tried to supply the answer by saying that there is something universal about Mole because we have all gone through adolescence, it is a shared experience."[166]

This universality of the diaries is indeed an aspect that must have attracted a wide audience. The fact that a lot of people are able to recognize themselves in Adrian, springs from Townsend's striking insight into the mind of the adolescent. People like to read the diaries because they recognize a lot of the feelings and problems presented in Adrian's writings. Townsend has managed to capture the essence of the crisis all teenagers go through. This universal appeal of the Mole books is proved by the fact that they have been translated into more than twenty languages. Since even the Japanese, a people with an entirely different culture, seem to be able to enjoy Mole's scribblings there must be some universal attraction to these books, in spite of the fact that not only the Japanese but most non-British readers do not grasp Adrian's typically British innuendos.[167]

                   This brings us to another possible reason for the popularity of the Mole diaries: the references to famous people and events. Especially, for the British these innuendos are a source of enjoyment. When Adrian refers to Malcolm Muggeridge, Terry Wogan, John Major and many others Townsend pokes fun at these people. But of course the reader has to know these people in order to understand the criticism or comments. The same applies to Adrian's comments (which are in fact Townsend's comments) on British events like the marriage of Charles and Diana, terrorist actions by the IRA, etcetera. Many foreign readers may miss a lot of the hidden references or misunderstand the straightforward allusions but the British readers are sure to enjoy them.

                   Other kinds of references that the foreign reader can appreciate as well as the British reader are the reports of the latest events in Great-Britain and in the world. In fact the diaries contain a considerable amount of information about life in the eighties. As a result they could be regarded as a factual document, be it restricted, of this decade. Due to the references to facts, events and habits of the eighties the reader experiences the books as very up-to-date. Those readers who read the diaries shortly after their publication had been in real life confronted with some of the events, fashions and persons referred to in the diaries. For the latest part of the Mole saga this is still the case at the very moment I am writing this dissertation. John Major, for instance, who is reported to be the new Prime Minister of the country at the end of The Small Amphibians is still the head of the English government today. And the international conflict with Iraq, which is also mentioned in the last pages of this diary, is still fresh in the minds of the readers now .[168]

                   Some of the advantages inherent to the diary form, which were extensively discussed in a previous chapter, have probably also contributed to the success. The aspect of secrecy, the closeness to the reading public, the immediacy of the diary mode and the credibility all are features of the Mole diaries that heighten the reading pleasure.

                   Adrian's good nature may also be an aspect that contributes to his success. Townsend herself once hinted at this in an interview for Knack. She said that people like her pimply teenager because of his goodness. He may be somewhat strange or even slightly abnormal but essentially he is a really nice boy. And this goodness, according to the writer, gives the readers some sense of hope.[169]

                   Another aspect of the diaries that has possibly had a positive effect on their reception is the multi-linearity of the plot. Unlike some other first-person books about adolescents the Mole books are not merely solipsistic.[170] This means that Adrian in his diaries is not exclusively concerned with his own life. He also pays attention to the experiences and feelings of his friends and parents. Thus Townsend avoids monotony and keeps the reader's attention alive.

                   There are some other factors that lie at the basis of the success of the Mole saga but these will only be discussed after the specific causes for the success of The Queen and I are examined. They also account for the success of Townsend's Queen-novel whereas the causes given above only apply to the Mole diaries.

                   That the third and the fourth part of the Mole cycle have not been as successful as the first two parts may be explained as a symptom of satiation. Those elements that make The Secret Diary and The Growing Pains so alluring seem to lose their attractivity by overuse. In my opinion Townsend has tended to capitalize successful aspects of the first two Mole books in the conception of the third and fourth parts. As a result True Confessions and The Small Amphibians lack the sparkling originality that made Adrian's first diaries so vivid.

                   The main reason for the success of The Queen and I was already indicated in the section devoted to the reception of this novel. Due to the sheer coincidence of the wave of royal scandals and the publication of this book, The Queen and I got a lot of attention in the media. Moreover, like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾, it was serialized on radio four.[171] This weekly broadcast must have persuaded a considerable amount of people to buy the book. After all radio serialization, if properly produced, enlivens a story and stirs the interest of the listeners.

                   A fact that may also have incited some people to buy the novel was its nomination for the annual Sunday Express Book of the Year Award. Nominations of that kind (the award is Britain's richest prize for fiction) attract a lot of attention and persuade people to read some of the nominated books. Moreover a nomination for this particular award must attract extra readers since it is a prize for "the most stylish but  also  compulsively  readable novel  of  the year".[172]

                   Like the diaries of Adrian Mole the latest Townsend-publication contains some very up-to-date references. But these kind of references to current habits, events... are found less frequently in The Queen and I than in the Mole saga. Whereas the diaries are clearly rooted in the eighties, this novel is less associated with the period in which it was conceived. Yet, there are some indications proving the novel to be a product of the early nineties. A clear example is Townsend's mentioning of a Sega computer game called Desert Storm. This reference includes two up-to-date elements. Firstly it refers to a make of computer games that became one of the market leaders in the early nineties and secondly it refers to the crucial battle in the international conflict with Iraq, which also took place at the beginning of this decade. This is one of the few direct references to current habits and events, which the reader is happy to discover.

                   This is a first potential cause of success that is shared by the Mole diaries and The Queen and I. The following aspects of Townsend's fiction that may explain the popularity of her success novels also appear in her less successful fiction.

                   One of those common features of Townsend's work is that the world she presents in her fiction seems real and alive. Although her novels always contain some exaggerations and improbabilities the overall picture Townsend produces is a credible and truthful one. The reader finds joy in recognizing certain everyday situations and features of people. With regard to The Queen and I a critic remarked:

"Nowhere is contemporary literature will you find a more authentic picture of life as it is lived by the unemployed citizens of our run-down northern estates."[173]

This same authenticity is also found in Mole's books, in Rebuilding Coventry and in the True Confessions of Susan Lilian Townsend and Margaret Hilda Roberts. The truthfulness of Townsend's fiction is a result of the author's attention for the detail. She notices things which most other people usually never perceive. Hence the presentation of "an enormous amount of detail about the domestic situation, the boil-in-the-bag squalor and banality of everyday life" in her work which confronts the reader with some kind of revelation of the richness of life.[174] By reading Townsend's books the reader becomes aware of certain habits and facts he had never observed before. And in this new awareness he finds some sort of pleasure. An example of a normally unnoticed detail is found in The Queen and I when Townsend depicts the Queen opening a tube of Smarties, emptying it on the table and picking out all the red ones.[175] Some readers will probably recognize this as a habit of their own, but one they were never aware of. For myself, at least, that was the case. It is the inclusion of such enjoyable details that makes the world Sue Townsend conceives so truthful and lively.

                   Townsend's general style is undeniably also a very important cause for her success as a novelist. In the chapter devoted to her style it was pointed out that her novels are accessible for a wide audience. Due to the mixture of tragedy and comedy, of serious themes and comic language and situations, both inexperienced and experienced readers can find something to their taste in the books. By taking the requirements of the inexperienced readers into account Townsend manages to persuade even those people who hardly ever read a novel to read or even buy her books. In the Janice Turner interview mentioned above Townsend revealed that she once

"met a woman buying The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole who said 'It's the first hard-book I've ever bought' - she didn't even know the right expression for it".[176]

The fact that such people also buy Townsend's books accounts for the high sales figures. She reaches a group of readers most other writers are unable to attract.

                   A very distinctive aspect of Townsend's style is her ingenious humour. Probably this humour is the most important cause of Townsend's success. Her novels are in the first place delightful because they are so funny. One cannot possibly read one page of her fiction without coming across a funny remark or a hilarious situation. Since humour is such an important aspect of her books a special chapter is entirely devoted to this phenomenon.

home list theses content previous next  


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

[161].In the chapter devoted to Townsend's life I have given the exact places of the diaries on the bestsellers' list of the eighties.

[162]."Revealed: Diana has an affair, Charles hits a PC and Philip goes barmy", in Western Daily Press, September 2, 1992, p. 9.

[163].The citation is taken from the cover of the first edition of The Queen and I. It is very important to add that the novel was only available in hard-back at first.

[164]."Bestsellers", in Sunday Times, September 27, 1992, p. 15.

[165]."Contenders line up for our rich prize", in Sunday Express, September 27, 1992, p. 42.

[166].Janice Turner, "Making mountain out of Mole thrills", in East Anglian Daily Times, September 20, 1989.

[167].These typically British innuendos are explained by Mole himself in a letter to his friend Mancini. By having Adrian explain the local references Townsend herself shows awareness of the fact that foreigners have difficulties understanding them.

[168].The up-to-date aspect of the Mole diaries is also found in The Queen and I. But there the references to current facts, habits and events are much sparser.

[169].Marc Reynebeau, "Mensen hebben hoop nodig", in Knack, February 11, 1987, p. 153.

[170].Norma Klein, "I was a teen-age intellectual", in The New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1986.

[171]."National Radio" in The Independent, September 28, 1992

[172]."Contenders line up for our rich prize", in Sunday Express, September 27, 1992, p. 42.

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

[174].Janice Turner, "Making mountain out of Mole thrills", in East Anglian Daily Times, September 20, 1989.

[175].Sue Townsend, The Queen and I, p. 229.

[176].Janice Turner, "Making mountain out of Mole thrills", in East Anglian Daily Times, September 20, 1989.