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


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                   In the introduction of this chapter I referred to the importance of Townsend's personal experiences for her work. She incorporated several of her own habits and experiences in her novels and plays. In this chapter I would like to prove this through some examples.

                   A striking example of an experience Townsend once went through and afterwards used in several of her books was her confrontation with the Department of Social Security. In Mr Bevan's Dream she described how she begged for money in a DSS office but receive none. Similarly Queen Elizabeth and Pauline Mole queue at a counter in a DSS office and await their turn to beg for an emergency payment. Like Townsend herself, both characters fail to obtain money. The description of the situation is very much the same in these three passages. The waiting room is depicted as a dreary and depressing place full of tramps and mothers with screaming toddlers in their arms and the reception clerks are invariably portrayed as unsympathetic apathetic people.

                   In the presentation of the genesis of the Mole phenomenon it was pointed out that the idea of writing a secret diary of a young boy emerged from one of Townsend's sons challenging attitude. This son asked why they never went to safari parks on Sundays like some other families did.[94] This critical remark is literally repeated by Adrian in his secret diary:

"Bored stiff all day. My parents never do anything on Sundays but read the Sunday papers. Other families go out to safari parks, etc. But we never do."[95]

                   Townsend once travelled to Russia and reported about this journey in her part of the True Confessions. In Adrian's True Confessions he likewise describes a holiday in Russia. Like his spiritual mother he longed to visit Dostoevsky's grave since Dostoevsky is his great idol. From the discussion of the tradition in which Townsend works we know that Townsend too reveres this great Russian writer.

                   The idolization of Dostoevsky is not the only resemblance between Townsend an her famous brainchild. The author also projected her love of reading in Adrian. Actually she had him read exactly those books she read herself.[96] And Adrian is not the only character in her work who is very fond of reading. Coventry Dakin also appears to be an omnivorous reader. When Coventry describes  her passion for books it almost seems as if Townsend herself is speaking:

"I've always loved books. I'm passionate about them. I think books are sexy. They are smooth and solid and contain delightful surprises. They smell good. They fit into a handbag and can be carried around and opened at will. They don't change. They are what they are and nothing else. One day I want to own a lot of books and have them near to me in my house, so that I can stroll to my bookshelves and choose what I fancy. I want a harem. I shall keep my favorites by my bed... I want to handle the books, caress them, open and devour them."[97]

When one knows that Townsend, now that she can afford it, has bought and still buys loads of books the link with her own life is very clear.

                   The fact that Townsend became rather wealthy notwithstanding the fact that she left school prematurely is, in a way, also reflected in one of her novels. In Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians Townsend presents an uneducated character, Rocky (one of Pandora's boyfriends), who is much richer than all those characters who did study. Even though Rocky "has only ever read two books in his life" and he "was the only one out four children not to go to university" he is "the only millionaire".[98] And Barry Kent, who could hardly read or write when he left school, is well on his way to become a very important poet, in this same part of the Mole story. His success is a reflection of Sue Townsend's success as a fiction writer.

                   In an interview for De Haagse Post Townsend indicated another parallel between her life and  her  fiction.  Some-where in his diary Adrian reports that a piece of bacon has been lying on the floor between the refrigerator and the stove for three days and he is very incensed about the fact that his mother has not picked it up yet. It does not occur to him that he could as well throw the piece of meat away himself. With this incident Townsend wanted to ridicule men's unwillingness to help. She was confronted with a similar incident in her own family. Someone had dropped a digestive biscuit on the stairs and her husband and sons stepped around it for a whole week without even thinking of throwing it away. Her daughters on the other hand picked it up from the moment they laid eyes on it but Townsend ordered them to leave it there in order to observe the men's reactions.[99]

                   In Mr Bevan's Dream Townsend described what happened when she suffered a heart attack. In hospital she noticed the multicolouredness of the doctors and the nurses. De-spite her agony she identified one of the doctors as a young man from Asian origin and one of the nurses as a West-Indian woman.[100] Similarly Adrian observes the different ethnic origins of the nurses who take care of him when he is in hospital to have his tonsils removed. On the first day he is attended to by a black nurse, whereas on the next day a Chinese nurse looks after him.[101] The colour and race of the nurses and doctors may seem insignificant details and one could consider the mentioning of these characters' ethnic origin in both passages as a pure coincidence. Yet, I do not believe these references to be merely coincidental. For the description of Adrian's stay in hospital the extra information about the race of the staff in unnecessary. The two adjectives 'Chinese' and 'black' must have been put in for a particular reason. This reason is simply found in Townsend's personal experience.

                   A last fact from Townsend's life that we find incorporated in her work and which I would like to draw attention to is the smallness of estate houses. As a child the writer used to live in a very small prefab. About this house she once said:

"It is just incredible that our family of five lived there. I once lay down in the space where our bathroom was, and it seemed to me my feet were overhanging."[102]

Two of her protagonists also live in extremely small houses. The house of Adrian's parents in a cul-de-sac only has enough rooms for the three of them so that Adrian wonders what they will have to do when his little sister is born. And Queen Elizabeth in The Queen and I has to move into a bungalow so small that her expensive silk carpets have to be cut down to size and a Napoleonic settee has to be sawn in half in order to fit in.

                   There may be still more examples of correspondences between Townsend's life and the life presented in her novels but the above examples should suffice to prove that Sue Townsend does draw heavily on personal experiences and habits in the conception of her novels. In fact, there must be many more instances of incorporated personal experiences than those indicated here, because Townsend frequently disguises the material she borrows from her own life and this obviously hinders the search for the incorporated private experience.[103]

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[93]."Secret Diary of a Royal Mole", in The Times, September 11, 1992.

[94].The passages referred to are found in the chapter "Taking the Bottles Back" in Mr. Bevan's Dream (p. 34), in chapter 19 of The Queen and I titled 'The Long Walk' (p. 111) and in The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole on Wednesday September 22nd (p. 263).

[95].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13, p. 162, entry of Sunday February 7th.

[96].Like Townsend Adrian reads Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Amis, Waugh, etcetera.

[97].Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry, London: Mandarin, 1989, p. 42.

[98].The first citation is taken from p. 471 and second from p. 486 of Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians.

[99].Ally Van der Pauw, "Sue Townsend. We zijn ten onrechte veel te vrij met onze kinderen", in Haagse Post, July 13, 1985, p. 50.

[100].Sue Townsend,  Mr Bevan's Dream,  London: Chatto & Windus, 1989, p. 45.

[101].Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13, p. 130, diary entries Monday October 26th and Tuesday October 27th.

[102]."Secret Diary of a Royal Mole", in The Times, September 2, 1992.

[103].At the presentation of The Queen and I in Brussels Townsend revealed that she usually adapts the material borrowed from her own life because she does not want to recognize herself in her books.