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


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                   Townsend was already working for the Phoenix Theatre when she started reading diaries, letters and journals of well-known writers such as Waugh, Conrad and Woolf. Being "a very nosy person" she was very much interested in the private confessions of other people.[24] In fact she liked diary writing so much that she started writing experimental fictive diary fragments herself.

                   When one boring Sunday afternoon her son asked why they never went to safari parks like other families did the idea to write the secret diary of a 14-year old boy was born.[25] Her son's challenging question made Townsend realize that adolescents secretly brood over a great number of problems. The incident showed her that adults seriously underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of adolescents. As a result of this sudden insight she planned to write the diary of such a puzzled youth in order to show adults how these youngsters really see the world and the adults who rule it. Adrian Mole was born.

                   A lot of people wonder why a woman would prefer to write the diary of a boy rather than a girl. Townsend explained that she chose a boy as the protagonist of the secret diary because she thinks that, even though boys and girls at that age are rather similar, boys are much more interesting than girls. In her opinion boys of fourteen are much funnier than girls simply because they have more to hide. By their nature boys are more introverted and hence their secret diaries must contain more shocking and surprising confessions.[26]

                   In an interview in The Observer Townsend gave a second reason why she preferred to write about a boy:

"When I started to write it I was extremely interested in feminism... I wanted to illustrate certain points and use him. But then I actually sort of fell for the character."[27]

The "points" Townsend originally wanted to illustrate were the bad habits and the egoism of men. Describing the life of a young boy growing up, she wanted to expose the rudeness and selfishness which she believes to be characteristic of every man. During the process of writing, however, she fell in love with her character and this newly acquired sympathy considerably reduced her initial pugnacious attitude.

                   In the conception of her young anti-hero Townsend made use of three models. Her first source of inspiration were her own children, especially her nearly fourteen year old son. Yet, she took care not to make her fictive character a mere reflection of her own boy. Next to the experiences, attitudes and feelings of her own offspring she also drew on her own feelings and experiences as an adolescent.[28] She also now and then used the children she worked with in the youth club as an example for her fictive character.

                   When she had finished the draft of the Secret Diary she showed it to one of the actors of the Phoenix Theatre. This person was very enthusiastic about it and encouraged Townsend to send the draft to the BBC. Eventually she did and the people at the BBC reacted as eagerly as her friend actor had; they turned it into a radio play series. The radio series became a huge success. De Haagse Post reported:

"De reacties van luisteraars waren overstelpend. Van de uitgevers ook. Binnen een week dongen er zeker vijf naar de uitgeversrechten. Het werd uiteindelijk Methuen... Nog voordat het boek in de etalage lag was er een tweede druk."[29]

This was the beginning of a long success story.



                   Shortly after the publication of The Secret of Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ in the form of a novel, a songbook with the same title appeared. Due to the success of the novel a complete lucrative Mole business flooded the market. There were Adrian Mole diaries, pencil cases, writing pads, etcetera.[30]

                   Two years after The Secret Diary was launched, it was turned into a play by Townsend herself. Although the play also became very successful the author was not entirely satisfied with it. She regretted that the shades of meaning that were present in the original perspective had been lost in this comedy. Hence the play missed the essential and unique quality the book possessed.[31]

                   The following part of the Mole story was published in 1989: The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole. This book also contained the fictive diary of Margaret Hilda Roberts and diary-like fragments about the life of Susan Lilian Townsend herself, which both had already appeared in instalments in The New Statesman.[32] In 1991 a fourth (and so far last) part of the Adrian Mole saga was added; it appeared in a collection of the entire cycle: Adrian Mole: from Minor to Major.



                   Adrian Mole is an acne-plagued thirteen year old boy who reports his thoughts and experiences in his secret diary every day. To Adrian this diary serves as a kind of sanctuary where he almost therapeutically rids himself of anything that is on his mind. Being an adolescent he finds himself confronted with all sorts of problems. He worries about his parents who drink too much, about his dog that runs away and regularly has to be taken to the vets in order to get stitched up, about his health (he is even a hypochondriac), about his spots and lots of other things.

                   Some of the facts Adrian mentions are really sad or even tragic. For instance the fact that his parents split up because his mother has fallen in love with the neighbour, Mr Lucas (or "Lucas creep" as Adrian nicknames him) or his being brutalized and blackmailed by a vicious fellow pupil, Barry Kent. But most of the entries abound with humorous details which are often unconsciously put in by the extremely naive schoolboy. A superb instance of such humour caused by ignorance can be found when Adrian reports that:

"There is a new girl in our class. She sits next to me in Geography. She is all right. Her name is Pandora, but she likes being called "Box". Don't ask me why. I might fall in love with her. It's time I fell in love, after all I'm 13¾ years old."[33]

                   Adrian indeed very soon falls in love with Pandora, who belongs to a higher social class. And this love is reciprocated when Adrian gains the girl's admiration by starting a red-sock-protest in school. While Adrian discovers the joys of love, his parents experience the discomforts of the loss of love. This of course also has its impact on Adrian who regrets to see that his father becomes infatuated with Doreen Slater (nicknamed "Stick Insect" because of her thinness) while his mother has gone to live in Sheffield with Mr Lucas. On top of that his father is made redundant as an electric radiator salesman which results in serious financial problems for this single-parent family. Whenever the problems get too bad Adrian goes to his grandmother. She then comforts him and prepares him a good meal so that he temporarily forgets the unpleased situation at home. Adrian and his father even move in with her for a while when Mr Mole is unable to pay the electricity bill.

                   Even though Adrian has a lot of problems of his own he joins a Good Samaritan organization where he is given the task of looking after a dirty revolutionary octogenarian, called Bert Baxter. At first Adrian is repulsed by Baxter's filthiness and deadly scared of the man's dog, a fierce-looking Alsatian called Sabre. Nevertheless he soon takes a liking to the old man and his dog. Toward the end of the Secret Diary the 89-years old Bert marries Queenie, another old age pensioner whom Bert had met in an old people's home.

                   In school Adrian and Pandora start the magazine "The Voice of Youth". In their youthful enthusiasm they make 500 copies of the first issue but to their disappointment they do not sell more than 20 copies. Yet this failure is soon forgotten when they can turn their attention to an experimental nativity play in which Adrian is to take the part of Joseph.

                   At home the atmosphere improves considerably when Adrian's mother abandons Lucas Creep and is reconciled with his father. Moreover his father finds a job with the Manpower Services Commission. He has to keep the canal bank clean. But this soon turns out to be an extremely frustrating task because the bank is continually strewn with garbage.

                   Although Adrian is still tremendously naive and ignorant he believes himself to be an intellectual. He writes poetry and sends it to the BBC (only to get an encouraging letter in return), he considers himself an expert on the Norwegian leather industry ever since they discussed this subject in school and he claims to be the best-read boy in his class. He even reads Sakharov's Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom which, after having read a couple of pages, he judges to be "inestimably boring".[34]

                   In his diary Adrian criticizes several aspects of the British society of the eighties. When he hears that his father has lost his job for instance, he maturely wonders:

"How can we live on the pittance that the government will give us."[35]

Especially Margaret Thatcher has to bear the full brunt of this attack. In his entry on Wednesday April 22nd Adrian remarks:

"... Sheffield looks OK, just like home really. I didn't see any knife and fork factories. I expect Margaret Thatcher has closed them all down."[36]

                   Adrian's last entry of the Secret Diary mentions the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands. This happens on Saturday April 3rd 1992, exactly one day after Adrian's fifteenth birthday. In The Growing Pains, the immediate continuation of Adrian's diary, he will give further comments on this brief English-Argentinean conflict.



                   In this diary Adrian, amongst lots of other things, reports about a visit of his American friend Hamish Mancini. This teenager, whom Adrian had met during a holiday with his mother and Lucas Creep, suddenly invites himself over and spends about a week at Adrian's home. When the unashamed and over-enthusiastic American finally goes back to 'the States' Adrian is happy to wave him goodbye.

                   Townsend ingeniously uses the friendship between her typically British boy and his American friend to reflect the extreme differences between England and America. She brushes a very stereotypical picture of the two countries and their inhabitants which obviously creates very funny episodes.

                   The marital problems of Adrian's parents culminate again when his mother and 'Stick Insect' Doreen Slater both appear to be pregnant. Whereas the biological father of Doreen's baby is clearly George Mole it is unclear who has fathered Pauline Mole's child. Townsend subtly indicates that Pauline actually wants to have an abortion. But these plans are inadvertently sabotaged by Adrian. Consequently his mother does have the baby. The extra-marital children-business drives his parents apart for a while. Stick Insect gives birth to a boy and Adrian's father takes pity on his ex-mistress and her two children (Slater already had a son). They move in with Adrian's grandmother, who is crazy about his tiny half-brother. When Pauline's child is born, however, the Moles are reconciled and George comes back home. At first Adrian is envious of his sister Rosie since she gets all the attention but soon he takes a liking to the little girl.

                   Adrian keeps visiting and helping Bert Baxter and his newly wedded wife Queenie. Unfortunately Bert's happy marriage does not last very long. Queenie gets ill and weakens; she passes away only one year after the old couple's marriage. Obviously Bert needs even more attention after this sad event. Since the tormented schoolboy cannot take care of Bert on his own he is assisted by Pandora and by his parents.

                   The name Pandora brings us to the protagonist's love life, which cannot be labelled as stable yet. His affair with Pandora has its ups and downs. Sexually there is not a lot to report, much to Adrian's regret. "Just about devastated witch frustration" the teenager writes a letter to an agony aimt. He confesses what follows:

"I have started to be obsessed by sex. I have fallen to self-manipulation quite a lot lately..."[37]

In this state of obsession Adrian has a blind date with a girl called Sharon Bott. Their first encounter at the roller-skating rink is a complete disaster but later Adrian will succeed in getting into bed with this stupid girl.

                   Approaching his sixteenth birthday the neurotic adolescent grows more and more rebellious. He makes friends with the subversive Barry Kent and even joins Kent's gang of skinheads. But well-behaved Adrian is not really fit for the hard life in the streets. He reports:

"Being in a gang is not as exciting as I thought it would be."


"Just got back after a cold boring night of shouting in quiet streets. Barry Kent tipped a rubbish bin over for a laugh, but in fact it wasn't very funny and I had to force myself to guffaw with the others in the gang... After Barry went home I picked the broken glass up and replaced it in the bin. I wouldn't like a little kid to fall on it."[38]

Nevertheless the spotty youth runs away from home in a period of severe depression. But after spending his birthday at the Sheffield rail station alone he is happy to return home. One week of living rough has made him realize that home is the best place to be.

                   At the end of this part of the saga, Adrian is already somewhat more optimistic and with renewed courage he starts preparing his O level exams.



                   Whereas the Secret Diary and The Growing Pains consist of daily reports of Adrian's life, the True Confessions presents portions of his life not only in diary form but also in the form of letters or direct representation of Adrian talking on the radio. Indeed, Adrian finally succeeds in achieving some fame when he is invited to speak on Radio 4. In his first broadcast he is asked to comment on art, politics and culture but instead he talks about the problems he had in getting to the BBC, about his personal life and he even recites a poem of his own (this all to the great dissatisfaction of John Tydeman, the producer of the programme). His second broadcast deals with lifestyle. Of course egocentric Adrian gives a minute account of his own lifestyle rather than discussing the phenomenon in general.

                   This sequel of the Mole story does not offer a day-to-day account of the protagonist's experiences and feelings. It is in fact a collection of chapters which are devoted to some specific aspect of or experience in Adrian's life. These brief chapters are ordered chronologically.

                   The majority of chapters are written in diary form. In the first chapter, around Christmas 1984, Adrian recounts how the Sudgens, his mother's simple-minded relatives, spend a couple of boring days at their house. Further on the by now 17-year-old "intellectual" reports about his journey to Russia with Pandora's father, Mr Braithwaite. They are to "go on a fact-finding tour of milk distribution in Moscow" together but once they have arrived in the Soviet Union Mr Braithwaite goes his own way so that Adrian is left to his own devices. Adrian tours the country with a boring group of dairy farmers and retired milkmen. So he is very happy to travel back home after one week.

                   About half a year later Adrian's success as a literary artist grows. After his radio appearances he wins the second prize in the British Airways Creative Writing Competition with an essay entitled "A Day in the Life of an Air Stewardess" (in fact just a perfect example of cliché popular literature).

                   In July 1986, when the wedding of Prince Andrew with Sarah Ferguson is announced, Adrian desperately falls in love with the future princess. With passionate letters and even phonecalls he tries to dissuade the beauty who "was born to be the wife of Adrian Mole" from marrying the prince. Without success however.

                   At the end of True Confessions Mole decides to leave home and starts looking for a place to live. When he fails to find a cheap and decent room and his mother turns him out because she wants to accommodate two well-paying students, he temporarily stays at his girlfriend's house. This girlfriend, the rather dumb Sharon Bott is in fact just a sex object for 'intellectual' Mole. Soon he realizes that he cannot possibly stay with this girl since Pandora is still his one and only love. Hence he decides to go to Pandora and he begs for lodgings there.

                   During the same period Adrian is dismissed from his job at the local library, but he soon finds employment in the Department of Environment.

                   Next to the diary fragments and the representation of Adrian's radio appearances the reader is presented with two chapters of letter exchanges between Mole and two of his friends in True Confessions. In the chapter entitled The Mole/Mancini Letters, Adrian's American friend Hamish Mancini writes to Mole that he has enjoyed reading Adrian's diaries (which have been published by the writer Sue Townsend who claimed that they were her own works of fiction). Being an American Mancini was not able to grasp all of Adrian's innuendos so that is why he includes a list of questions. Adrian responds to this letter with a full explanation of his typically British references and begs his friend to send his diaries back, because he is afraid that they might "fall into unfriendly possible [sic] commercial hands".[39] Evidently Adrian does not know yet that his diaries have been published unlawfully. The second exchange of letters the reader is presented with are the Mole/Kent Letters. Barry Kent is in prison for having vandalized a hedge. Apart from visiting his friend, Adrian writes "Baz" 'encouraging' letters in which he informs him about current events and stimulates him to write poetry. Kent sends a letter demanding that Adrian should dress normally the next time he visits and he includes one of his very vigorous poems.




                   The first entry of this sequel immediately follows the last entry of True Confessions. In this part of the Mole story Townsend again opts for the structure of the first two parts. She exclusively presents the story from Adrian's diary entries, which become more distant in time. Sometimes Adrian does not report in his diary for over a month, possibly because he is past the egocentrism inherent in the adolescent crises. At least that is what one is inclined to think. In (fictive) reality the 21-year-old Adrian is not a grown up yet. It is soon clear that he is still incredibly naive and at the same time very pretentious. The letters he writes to potential editors or broadcasters of his literary products bear witness to this:

"Here is my novel, please read it immediately and then adapt it for the radio. I will charge £ 1,000. Please broadcast it before 8.30 pm..."[40]

                   While Adrian tries hard to become one of England's major writers Barry Kent becomes extremely successful and well-known as 'The Skinhead Poet'. Adrian is eaten up with envy when Baz is invited to prestigious television and radio programmes.

                   Mole is still working at the Environment Department where he gets trouble for having stolen stamps and  two reams of Conqueror A4 paper. And this is not his only problem. Adrian also worries about diverse matters such as the fate of the Palestinians, political developments and especially about his parents' marriage. Their relationship is totally ruined when Adrian's mother falls in love with one of the lodgers, Martin Muffet. Completely upset, his father moves into a sparsely furnished flat. Not long afterwards his mother even marries the 23-year-old Muffet, who gets along perfectly well with little Rosie, Adrian's sister.

                   Still very much in love with Pandora, Adrian looks with sorrow upon her consecutive relationships with the aristocratic Julian Twyselton-Fife, with the uneducated "Neanderthaler" Rocky and finally with the "notorious drunkard and womanizer" Professor Cavendish, who is allegedly the first to have sex with Pandora.

                   Adrian takes driving lessons and drives a whole array of driving instructions to the brink of insanity by his lasting incompetence. Now and then he visits Bert Baxter who is still alive and kicking. Anyhow, although the old man is rather healthy, he needs a lot of help.

                   Towards the end of this book Adrian learns that Sharon Bott is pregnant and there is a hint that he might be the biological father of the baby.

                   Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians ends on the first of January 1991 with Adrian's new list of New Year's Resolutions. Thus, a certain circularity is provided to the Mole cycle since the very first entry of the Secret Diary also shows a list of New Year's Resolutions. Although Adrian is 9 years older and wiser (?) he still comes with a list of hilarious and naive resolutions which he will eventually not live up to. This indicates that the young man of 21 is still very much the boy of 14. Over the 9 years that Adrian is depicted in his diary he hardly changes. For that reason he could be considered as a personification of the eternal adolescent.

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[23].Joan Stephens, "Confessions of Susan Lilian Mole aged 43", in Leicester Mercury, December 14, 1989.

[24].Jean W. Ross, "Contemporary Authors Interview", in Contemporary Authors, CXXVII, 1989, p. 458.

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

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

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

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

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

[30].Norma Klein, "I was a teen-age intellectual", in The New York Book Review, May 25, 1986.

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

[32].Thera Coppens, "Adrian Mole's geestelijke moeder: De rijken - ik vind ze niet aardig", in Elseviers Magazine, September 21, 1985.

[33].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾, p. 19 entry Wednesday January 14th.

Whenever I quote a passage from one of Adrian's diaries I mention the date of entry and the title of the specific diary the passage is taken from. I do this because my page references will refer to the compilation Adrian Mole: from Minor to Major and some readers may not be in possession of this edition. By mentioning the exact diary and the date of entry their search for the correct passage will be considerably simplified.

[34].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 121, entry Friday October 2nd.

[35].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 79, entry Monday June 1st.

[36].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 66, entry Wednesday April 22nd.

[37].Sue Townsend, The Growing Pains, p. 195, diary entry Sunday April 17th.

[38].Sue Townsend, The Growing Pains, p. 335, diary entries Sunday March 6th and Monday March 7th.

[39].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, p. 388.

[40].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, p. 388.