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


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                   These two collections of confessions were first published in a series of columns in The New Statesman.[67] Afterwards they were published in book form together with the third part of the Mole saga under the title: True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, Margaret Hilda Roberts and Susan Lilian Townsend.

                   In the first chapter of Townsend's confessions the writer recounts a journey she made to Majorca. Her accounts of her travels and experiences are exactly, as it is the case in the Mole books, presented in the form of a diary. It is as if Townsend sits down every night to commit her daily experiences to paper. Since Townsend here confines herself to a description of the landscape, the houses and the inhabitants (and tourists) of the island this report soon gets rather boring. It lacks the scintillating humorous remarks and dialogues that make her other fiction so enjoyable.

                   Such humorous comments are found in the following chapter. In a sort of short essay on writing for television, the author describes her dislike for this activity. She explains why she hates to write for the 'small screen' by depicting a possible (or maybe even real) meeting with a producer. The entire passage is highly grotesque and consequently very funny. Townsend ridicules the fact that the initial concept of a writer is nearly always changed by the producer. Moreover she complains about the unfair nepotism in the television business by having the producer propose his wife as the protagonist of the story.

                   In the next chapter the reader is presented with the report of another of Townsend's journeys. Here the report is not presented in the diary form. In retrospection Townsend describes how she travelled to Russia with a group of English writers. There they met several Russian writers and visited various places. Especially Townsend's relationship with the other writers is focused on.

                   The fourth and last chapter is somewhat surprisingly given the title "Why I like England". If one is familiar with Townsend's work and her ideas, one is amazed that this critic of English politics and society wants to write such an essay. Townsend acknowledges that she loves the English countryside, the churches, the weather and the peculiar reserve of the country's inhabitants. But subsequently the critical reader's suspicions appear to be justified because Townsend adds:

"I was asked to write about why I like England in 400 words. Now if I'd been asked to write about why I don't like England I'd have needed, 1,000, an I suspect it would have been easier to write."[68]

The true confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts are based on the same structural principals as Mole's true confessions. Here too the reader finds a combination of diary fragments and letters.

                   In a first part Margaret Thatcher, alias Margaret Hilda Roberts, presents her daily habits and her opinions in a secret diary while the second part presents some letters which characterize the protagonist at a later age.

                   Townsend ridicules Thatcher by presenting her as an extremely class-conscious overzealous teenager. Naturally Margaret is the best pupil of her class. Everything she does has to be perfect, and it usually is. But this perfection in only reached at the expense of social isolation. Margaret's classmates do not like her very much and Margaret herself is much too critical about people to make friends. She will not tolerate any imperfection. As a result there are no people who can live up to her expectations. Furthermore the overkneen schoolgirl only respects a select part of society: the rich upper-class she could profit from. For the lower social classes Margaret only feels a deep contempt.

                   Every morning the future Prime Minister gets up long before dawn in order to help her father in his grocery shop or to do some extra homework for school. Just for fun she makes "delicious mathematical equations" or she reads difficult chemistry books. She works so hard that even the headmistress of her school tells her to slow down a bit.[69]

                   Young Margaret clearly takes after her father, who is a very hard worker and a finical hairsplitter. He fanatically takes stock of his shop almost every week. Her mother on the other hand is depicted as a normal human being. She is far from fanatical and sometimes her husband's behaviour almost drives her crazy. The poor woman is not only continuously hurried by her riggling husband, she is even supervised by her over-active daughter. In the diary Margaret complains about her mother:

"... she is such a slug-a-bed. She would stay in bed until 7.30 a.m. if I let her!"[70]

                   In the letters presented in the second part the reader gets an impression of the grown-up Margaret. She writes a letter to an agony aunt, in which she complains that nobody likes her. She asks the experienced woman for advice. When the agony aunt realizes who she really is she suggests to resign. The next letter is an answer of the Prime Minister to a complaint a jobless man has sent her. The reader gets two versions of the response. Firstly, the crude unofficial reply of Thatcher herself. In this letter she calls the poor wretch a "parasite" and advises him to drown himself.[71] Secondly, the reader is presented with the expurgated version of the letter that is actually sent to the man. In sharp contrast to the first draft of the letter this version informs the addressee that the Prime Minister is very concerned about his problems.

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[66].Idem, p. 81.

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

[68].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, Margaret Hilda Roberts an Susan Lilian Townsend, London: Methuen, 1989, p. 131.

[69].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, Margaret Hilda Roberts an Susan Lilian Townsend, London: Methuen, 1989, p. 137.

[70].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts, p. 137.

[71].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts, p. 157.