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


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                   The title of this novel is rather deceiving. At first sight the reader may assume that the story  will have something to do with the town called Coventry but that is not the case. Yet, there is some connection with the town as the heroine of the novel is named after it.

                   Coventry Dakin is a beautiful blonde working-class woman. She lives in a nameless city somewhere in the English Midlands with her boring husband Derek and her son and daughter, John and Mary. The mere choice of the names of the children already indicates the lack of inspiration in these people's lives.

                   Derek can best be characterized by the fact that his hobby is keeping tortoises, which he loves almost more than his wife. That Coventry should have fallen in love with dull Derek some twenty years earlier is not surprising, knowing that she came from an over-protective family. Her plain parents used to be embarrassed by her good looks and indoctrinated her to be ashamed whenever a man even looked at her big breasts, which brought her the nickname "Conventry titty".

                   In the not very exhilarating circumstances of her marriage Coventry is neither happy nor unhappy. She lives in a state of lethargy (or so it seems) until she kills her neighbour by hitting him on the back of the head with a toy Action Man. She has two good reasons for doing so. Firstly she wants to prevent the bully from strangling his wife and secondly she wants to punish him for having spread the lie that Coventry has been his mistress for over a year. In trying to escape prison she flees to London. This is the start of a new existence. Freed from the burden of conventionality Coventry can start "rebuilding" her life. While at home her relatives are shocked by the news that their wife, mother or daughter is a murderer, Coventry roams around in London trying to get some food and money. Amidst the crowds of the London metropolis she finds refuge and embarks on a picaresque journey, looking for a new self.

                   In fact Coventry's escape turns out to be some sort of wish fulfillment. Her son John discovers this when he read his mother's secret diary which he is concealing from the police. Actually Coventry had already escaped her boring existence without any of them knowing it. While her husband and offspring were away she assumed another identity. She called herself Lauren Mc Skye, wore extravagant clothes and attended art classes.

                   Roaming around in London, Coventry regrets that her brother Sidney (who is called after a town just like she) is on a holiday in Portugal. Since he is about the only person in the world who would help her regardless of the fact that she had killed someone, she genuinely misses him. Sidney is presented as a beautiful smooth operator. His main characteristic is that he cannot be shocked. Indeed, when Coventry finally manages to establish contact with her brother and informs him about her situation he remains rather apathetic.

                   In her new surroundings Coventry gets to know the dark reality of life. Whereas she has never been confronted with any serious problems in her safe homely existence she is now submerged by the problems of the real world. In Trafalgar Square for instance she witnesses a demonstration for the release of Nelson Mandela. At this meeting she is confronted with the problem of racism, probably for the first time in her life. Later on she is in a way forced to prostitute herself in order to survive. She experiences the life of the homeless, who dwell in "Cardboard City" which

"... lacks certain facilities such as: a roof, walls, windows, a floor, hot and cold water, a lavatory, a bath, electricity, gas, a front door."[63]

which are all taken for granted by those people who do have a home. In the big city Coventry meets surprisingly odd people such as an interesting couple who employ her to keep house for them. The man is a nutty professor and the wife is a psychologist who wears no clothes in the house. All in all they are friendly people and Coventry feels rather comfortable in the house. However, her feeling of security disappears when she discovers that these people have a son who is "in a state of ontological insecurity".[64] Furthermore she discovers the warnings "Watch out for the son" and "Get out while you can" written on her bedroom wall. But contrary to her apprehensions the son appears to be a harmless "loony".[65]

                   The very moment Coventry starts to feel at home in this "unconventional household" the professor sees her on television and learns that she is in fact a killer. He then informs her that he knows all about her secret and says

"It's not that I'm shocked, my dear. Murder is yawningly ordinary to me; but, even so, I cannot harbour you under my roof. I'm a professor of forensic medicine. I'm in daily contact with the police. You do see the position I'm in?"[66]

So he turns her out after having given her a leopard-skin coat and a fifty-pound note.

                   Back on the streets Coventry spends her money rather carelessly: she buys boots, has her ears pierced and has an expensive telephone conversation with Sidney. The fact that she decides to wear earrings, things she has never worn in her entire life, is symbolical. The jade earrings that the professor's wife has given her become the symbol of her emancipation. Coventry is emancipated in two ways: firstly she gains freedom as a woman and secondly she is emancipated as a human being. This means that, unlike the materialistic and corrupted inhabitants and visitors of London, money does not bother her anymore. She has freed herself from the burden of financial worries. In a way, Coventry returns to a state of naturalness.

                   Coventry's urban life as a tramp is changed substantially when she gets acquainted with Dodo, a dark-dressed woman who comes from a well-known political family. Dodo has lived in the streets of London ever since she was discharged from a mental hospital. Since she is already experienced in making a living on the streets she teaches the rather ignorant Coventry some survival techniques and thus brings some distraction to Coventry's monotonous life.

                   One night the two women visit Dodo's brother, who is a former Cabinet Minister. This snob objects to having them over for dinner because he is having a posh dinner party that night. Still, Dodo and Coventry manage to stay. Over dinner several photographs are taken. One of these pictures shows Coventry sitting next to an important politician, called Podger, who seems to be fondling Coventry's left breast. Toward midnight the two tramps are thrown out because Dodo starts getting rude. But before they leave Dodo manages to snitch the above-mentioned picture from the table and steal a thousand pounds from her brother's sock drawer, which enables them to spend the night in a luxurious Ritz'suite.

                   The next morning they go to Gatwick Airport in order to meet Sidney, who is returning from Portugal. There Dodo reveals a wicked plan to Coventry. With the incriminating picture she wants to blackmail Podger so as to obtain new passports and a one way ticket to Moscow (Dodo is a communist) for the two of them. When Coventry hears this she is shocked but nothing can be done since Dodo has already arranged everything. After a while Podger arrives and gives them their new identity cards, tickets and a large amount of money. Next, the two women outmanoeuvre the police who are searching for Coventry and they board a plane to Russia where a new existence awaits them.

                   In a brief final chapter Townsend describes what will happen to the other characters in the future. It appears that not only Coventry succeeds in emancipating herself but that all the other women in the novel, even the minor characters, start freeing themselves from the traditional role pattern.

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[62].Idem, p. 11.

[63].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, London: Methuen, 1989, p. 92.

[64].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, p. 71.

[65].Idem, p. 70.

[66].Idem, p. 81.