A comprehensive study of the non-dramatic work of Sue Townsend. (Jurgen Willems)
2. HER WORK
2.8.TRADITION IN WHICH TOWNSEND'S WORK IS TO BE SITUATED
Since Townsend had read a large amount of books when she started writing herself, she must in her early work have been influenced by a great variety of writers. Especially the writers and books she particularly enjoyed must have inspired her considerably. Therefore it might be interesting to give a list of her favorite books and writers and to analyse her relationship to some of these artists.
Her favorite books are:
The House of the Dead Fyodor Dostoevsky
Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis
Erewbhon Samuel Butler
Jane Eyre Charlotte Brönte
Scoop Evelyn Waugh
Resurrection Leo Tolstoy
The four Rabbit books John Updike
Inside the Whale and other Essays George Orwell
Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
Dostoevsky John Jones
Townsend's favorite authors are Dostoevsky, Dickens, Wilde, Wodehouse and more recent writers such as Theroux, Updike and Murdoch.
For those who are familiar with Townsend's comical style it should not be surprising to find writers such as Wodehouse, Wilde and Murdoch in her list of favorites. With them she shares a spontaneous sense of humour.
The name Dostoevsky on the other hand may cause some surprise. His impressive descriptive style seems diametrically opposed to Townsend's zany style, which deliberately avoids descriptive passages. Nevertheless he is Townsend's most important example as a writer. On the one hand she aspires to his greatness and grandeur as a literary artist but on the other hand she is aware that Dostoevsky's sublime style is beyond her capacity. She would like to write like him but she is afraid she would only bore her readers. And boring her reading public is something she absolutely wants to avoid. Unlike some other artists, she always keeps the recipient of her work in mind. This may account for the brevity of her chapters and sentences and the abundance of humorous comments or situations.
In style Townsend differs substantially form her great example, yet she does have something in common with the Russian genius. She shares his preoccupation with the duality of man. According to Dostoevsky both the devil and god strive to get control over man. As a result no human being is completely good or evil. Townsend used this idea in the conception of her characters. Adrian Mole, for instance, seems a good boy on the whole. Yet, he does steal a ring. And Coventry who is described as a harmless, kind woman does resort to prostitution. No characters in Townsend's fiction are exclusively good or bad. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky's fiction Townsend took over was his sympathy for suffering people, which the novelist already showed in his first novel Poor People. This compassion for and empathy with the victims of cruelty, oppression or injustice resulted from both writers' personal experiences. Both Townsend and Dostoevsky knew what suffering was when they started their writing-career.
This sympathy for the poor suffering people is also found in the work of another of Townsend's favorite writers: Charles Dickens. Like Townsend, Dickens had a very unhappy youth. As an adolescent he was sent to work in a blacking factory because of his father's bankrupting. Thus he was confronted with the hardness and injustice of life at a very early age. Memories of this bleak period haunted him for the rest of his life and pervaded much of his writing. He brilliantly rendered these unfortunate experiences in his semi-autobiographical masterpiece Oliver Twist. Townsend's adolescence was probably not as bad as Dickens's but anyhow she did experience this period of her life as a terrible ordeal. Like Dickens she incorporated some of her juvenile feelings and experiences in a novel about an unhappy youngster: Adrian Mole.
The fact of incorporating personal experiences in their fiction is not the only similarity between Townsend and Dickens. In fact, Sue Townsend could be considered as a literary heir of Charles Dickens with regard to both style and particular themes. With this great novelist she shares not only a love for and understanding of the common people, but also a certain grotesqueness in the description of characters and a critical attitude towards the social situations of her time. Like Dickens she manages to endow her fiction with a warmth and vitality seldom found in other works of literature.
In the first chapter of this dissertation it was pointed out that the first books Townsend read were Crompton's Williams books. These novels made a deep impression on the young Townsend. In fact, their impact can be clearly perceived in the Mole books. Like William, Mole "constantly undermines and punctures adults pretensions and vain ambitions". Furthermore Townsend's humour and irony may be an unconscious imitation of Crompton's humour. I believe that Crompton was one of Sue Townsend's main "sources", next to Dostoevsky and Dickens.
.Valery Grove, "Secret diary of a royal Mole", in The Times, September 1, 1992.
.I borrow the lists of favorite books and writers from the article "Secret passion between the covers", in The Times Saturday Review, August 29, 1992, p. 32.
.These aspects of Townsend's work will be analysed in the section devoted to her style.
.Steve Martin, "Secret passion between the covers", in The Times Saturday Review, August 22, 1992.
.Note on Dickens's life in an addition of Oliver Twist, London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1991, first page.
.In the subtitle of Rebuilding Coventry Townsend directly refers to a novel by Dickens. The subtitle of her novel is: A Tale of Two Cities, the exact title of a novel by Dickens.
."Secret Diary of a Royal Mole", in The Times, September 11, 1992.