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


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                   When presenting The Queen and I in Brussels, Townsend stated that she does not feel capable of writing long descriptive passages without boring her readers.[41] In my opinion this is a good reason for avoiding the novel form, where description is more important than in a diary. Diary entries, by their nature, tend to be rather brief. The reason for this brevity is mainly to be found in the "real time aspect". With this term I refer to the time actually devoted to writing daily entries. Although some diarists, like for instance the fictitious character Robinson Crusoe, may spend hours a day reporting their feelings and experiences, most diarists do not have or do not want to take the time to write extensive reports of their experiences and feelings of the day. Especially adolescents who keep a diary are inclined to limit their daily record to a couple of lines. Due to this limitation long descriptions are normally excluded.

                   In an interview for the BRT television Townsend said that "[she] really wanted to write about the secret of life of a teenager".[42] A secret diary is of course the form par excellence for emphasizing the secrecy and intimacy of the confessions of a youngster. Had she chosen the novel form to present Adrian's secrets, these would never have been experienced as forbidden knowledge by the reader. By having Adrian write his own story in a diary, which serves as his only confident, Townsend places the reader in the position of a peeping Tom. It seems as if Adrian himself is the only person who is permitted to read his own confessions. Whereas some diarists address an imaginative audience, sometimes only to facilitate the writing process, Adrian does not reckon with any other reader than himself.[43] Still, he also tries to simplify the process of writing by addressing his diary. In Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians for instance, he writes:

"But, dear diary (I would got mad [sic] without you to confide in!), what is sending me insane is..."[44]

But of course, his diary is not a human being, who could laugh at him or detest him because of his deepest secrets. Adrian surely does not want anyone to know about the pornographic magazines under his mattress except maybe for his best friend Nigel. Even so, he would never allow Nigel to read his diary because it proves him to be a very vulnerable and ignorant boy and moreover, Nigel is now and then severely criticized in it. The reader, however, does "glimpse into the writer's inner world", although it seems that he is not allowed to do so.[45] And this pleases the reader. By prying into the teenager's (and later the young man's) secrets, he assumes the role of a voyeur who sees what he ought not to see. This satisfies a fundamental curiosity that is found in every human being. The existence of such a curiosity is proved by learning theories which have shown that children possess an innate curiosity, that motivates them to learn new things.[46] Especially very young children are extremely inquisitive. This initial curiosity weakens as the child grows older because it acquires more and more knowledge which satisfies its eagerness to learn. Still, the inquisitiveness never completely disappears.

                   An advantage of the diary which results from this intrusion-aspect is the closeness to the reading public. Because the diarist usually abandons himself completely in his diary the reader can get to know him very well. The diarist drops the mask that every person keeps up in public. As a result there is a "Nähe zu dem Publikum" that is seldom found in other literary genres.[47]

                   One could wonder why Townsend did not use letters instead of a diary as Goethe did for his famous Werther story. But the desired aspect of secrecy is not present in a letter as strongly as it is in a secret diary. If the person the letter is addressed to is a very reliable friend who will certainly not reveal any of the secrets he had been entrusted with, there is of course also a very high degree of secrecy and confidentiality. Yet, the writer of the letters is not very likely to commit himself to his addressee as openly as he would commit himself to his diary. Moreover a letter is often sent to the addressee and thus it goes through the hands of several people who might open the letter and read it. Porter Abbott describes this difference between diaries and letters as follows:

"The term diary invokes an intensity of privacy, cloistering, isolation that the term letter does not."[48]

Secondly the presentation of the story through letters does not offer the above mentioned closeness to the reading public. In the Werther novel, for example, the reader is merely a third person who is allowed to read the letter exchange between Werther and his addressee. It is the addressee who is close to the writer, not the reader.

                   Another attractive aspect of the diary is its immediacy. It endows the diary with a vitality and directness that can hardly be reached in any other literary form.[49] In the diary, there is only a very small time-interval between the events and their reproduction on paper. The reader is presented with the experiences and feelings of the writer, who, unlike the distanced narrator of for instance an autobiography, reports under the direct influence of what he had experienced, seen or thought.[50] Of course an omni-scient narrator in a novel can also provide a very direct report of a character's thoughts or experiences but in such instances there is inevitably a clear distance between the narrator and the facts he relates. This brings us back to the attractive closeness inherent in the diary. But this closeness is different from the kind of proximity discussed above. Here I refer to the closeness of the narrator to the narrated events. The narrator in a diary is not only close to the related events in time, he is also personally involved in these events. The vitality and directness resulting from this can only be approximated in I-narrator stories, in which the narrator recounts his own experiences or thoughts at the moment they occur.

                   The reader gets firsthand information, presented in a lively way. But due to this immediacy of the report and the personal involvement of the narrator there is a disadvantage to this perspective. Precisely because the report is rooted in the very moment, it inevitably lacks objectivity. The subjective approach of the narrator may not be noticed at first because a diary fosters an impression of objectivity and truthfulness.[51] Anyhow, the writer of a diary cannot possibly be objective since he cannot place the reported facts or feelings in perspective yet. Due to his direct involvement he unconsciously perverts the truth. In a real diary this is a considerable impediment because the reader thus gets a false reproduction of reality without ever realizing it. In a fictional diary on the other hand the author can hint at the truth. Consequently the lack of objectivity need not be a disadvantage in an imaginary journal. In the next paragraph it will become clear how Townsend succeeds in turning this kind of disadvantage into an advantage.

                   In additional seeming disadvantage that results from the immediacy and directness of a diary is well analyzed by Porter Abbott:

"Cloistered as they are, working within the moment and without the whole pattern of their lives in view, they [= the diarists] yield to the temptation to create in what they write the image of themselves they wish to see."[52]

The "they" referred to in  the  quotation are  both the fictional and the non-fictional diarists. Indeed, these people are often found to be lying about certain facts in their reports so as to magnify their ego.[53] This "Selbstverfälschung", as Boerner labels it, is again a disadvantage in real diaries in the sense that it deceives the reader.[54] In fictitious diaries on the other hand the writer can make use of this disadvantage so that it is no longer an impediment. Townsend for instance gratefully uses Adrian's forgery of the self to create humour and to illustrate a certain aspect of Adrian's nature. By bursting Adrian's "Selbstverfälschung" she exposes his lies to the reader and thus shows Adrian to be a very vulnerable and insecure person. To illustrate this I would like to refer to the books Adrian claims to read. He loves to consider himself as an intellectual and by mentioning the fact that he reads rather difficult literature he hopes to strengthen this image. He probably does read some of the books he mentions but several novels the boy claims to read are far too difficult for him. Townsend in some cases subtly indicates that her protagonist only pretends to read the book he names. One day, Adrian reports that he has taken War and Peace from library. When Townsend makes him write that he has finished this volume on the evening of the next day the reader must of course conclude that Adrian cannot possibly have read the whole book.[55] Townsend even enhances the pretence by having Adrian comment that: "It was quite good". This understatement, referring to the quality of the novel is naturally hilarious, knowing that War and Peace is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. That the pimply schoolboy never really read the book is indicated much later in the Mole cycle. On January 1st 1990 the first of Adrian's New Year resolutions is to finish Tolstoi's masterpiece.[56] This is the ultimate proof that he lied a couple of years ago. Another example of an overt lie is found in the fourth part of the Mole Saga. In one of his entries Adrian pretends: "As I have been predicting for some time, the Berlin Wall has come down" whereas some days before he had reported:

"They want the Berlin Wall to come down. Poor idealistic fools! The Wall will never come down in their lifetime or mine."[57]

The effect of the lie is rather funny again and it proves Mole to be a boy who cannot only not admit that he has been wrong but who also claims that he is always right.

                   A further interesting aspect of the diary I would like to focus on is its accessibility. In contrast with some elitist genres, as for instance verse drama, diary fiction is a very democratic genre. It is a genre that can be produced by anyone. After all everybody can keep a diary. Accordingly, a little bit of imagination suffices to be able to produce a diary novel. Since The Secret Diary was Townsend's first non-dramatic literary attempt it is possible that she chose to write in the diary form especially because of this attractive advantage.

                   The reason why a diary (novel) is so easy to write lies in its structural requirements. The diary is characterized by a lack of strictness. It does not even demand a leitmotiv or plot. The writer is allowed to present a collection of spontaneous brainwaves instead of a continuously sustained train of thought. For that reason neither a diary nor a diary-novel make high demands on the writer's competence. The author is free of the special constraints or compulsions so often found in other literary genres.[58]

                   The aforementioned immediacy of the diary and its subsequent vitality makes irreal events probable and credible.[59] This brings us to a characteristic of the diary novel that is very much appreciated by writers of fiction, namely its apparent authenticity. Lorna Martens describes this aspect of diary fiction as follows:

"No other genre but diary fiction can achieve comparable closeness between the narrator and the narrated world without being identifiably fictive."[60]

It is true that the make-believe aspect of a lot of diary novels is very strong. This means that they often pretend to be authentic diaries. This is of course not surprising if one considers the fact that a diary, by its very nature, fosters an impression of reality. The advantage of the presentation of a diary as a non-fictive document is that it guarantees interest from the reader. A lot of readers very much appreciate authenticity. Unsurprisingly Townsend, a writer who takes the requirements of her readers into account, also presents Adrian's scribblings as a genuine document. She sustains the impression of reality by having Adrian comment on real topical issues or events as for instance the Falkland War. Thus, the reader gets the impression that Adrian is a real boy living in the eighties (later on  the  nineties), reading  the newspapers  and watching the television news and incorporating some of the news into his diary.

                   Moreover, in an author's preface of the third part of the Mole sequence Townsend claims that she included Adrian's poetry because he threatened to go on a hunger-strike unless she did. So the writer herself refers to her brainchild as a real person.

"There is also some previously unpublished material... And some poetry written by A.Mole (included here only because he threatened to starve himself to death unless I agreed)."[61]

Next she adds some notes on the contributors of the book. In the first note she depicts Mole's writing career. At the end of the description the note says:

"In 1986 he won record damages against the failed novelist Sue Townsend after she published his diaries claiming that they were her own works of fiction."[62]

                   The reality aspect of an adolescent's diary implies that overt political and social criticism are unlikely to occur in it. An adolescent is, especially in his diary, primarily concerned with his personal problems. Furthermore only very few teenagers under eighteen are already interested in politics and social matters. Townsend may have been aware of this when she started writing The Secret Diary. It is possible that she chose the diary form because of these expectations of the reading public. Adrian's diary allows her to give severe social an political criticism without overtly seeming to do so.

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

[41].I personally attended Townsend's presentation of her latest novel in The Brussels bookshop W.H.Smith.

[42].Stefan Hertmans, interview with Sue Townsend for the BRT television programme "Wie schrijft die blijft", March 18, 1987.

[43].Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 26.

[44].Sue Townsend, From Minor to Major, London: Mandarin, 1991, p. 462.

[45].H.Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 80.

[46].Jeremy Harmer, The Practice of English Language Teaching, London and New York: Longman, 1988, p. 7.

[47].Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 62.

[48].H.Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 2.

[49].Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 28.

[50].Peter Boerner, idem, p. 13.

[51].This is of course another advantage of the diary.

Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 30-31.

[52].H.Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 70.

[53].Lorna Martens, The Diary Novel, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 6-8.

[54].Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 32.

[55].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary, p. 41, Friday March 6th.

[56].Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians, p. 479.

[57].Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians, p. 465 and p. 468, on Wednesday October 18th and Friday November 10th.

[58].Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 65.

[59].Peter Boerner, Tagebuch, Stuttgart: Metzlerische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, p. 28.

[60].Lorna Martens, The Diary Novel, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 6.

[61].Here I have to refer to another edition than the From Minor to Major compilation since neither the author's preface nor the notes on the contributors occur in it.

Sue Townsend, True Confessions, London: Methuen, 1990, p. 9.

[62].Idem, p. 11.