I heard on CBC radio last week that one of my favourite writers, Sue Townsend, passed away recently at the age of 68. Townsend was the creator of Adrian Mole, one of the most subversive and endearing literary characters of the twentieth century. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and ¾ is the first in a series of books written from the point of view of the angst-ridden, spotty, and bewildered Adrian. Townsend was one of the great masters of “naïve narration,” a literary technique wherein the reader understands what is happening long before the protagonist does. Adrian’s world is confusing, frustrating and nonsensical, and he vacillates between complete despair and lofty aspirations. His diaries are astute political and social commentaries on current events in Britain at the time of writing and they are frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
As so often seems to be the case, Townsend’s comical writing rose out of a great deal of personal suffering. A struggling student, Townsend left school at the age of 15 and was married by 18. By age 23 she was a single mother to three children, working at low-paying jobs (factory work, retail) and occasionally resorting to welfare to feed her struggling family. She wrote for almost twenty years, mostly at night when her children were unconscious, before ever showing anyone her work. When she met her second husband in her early thirties he encouraged her to join a local writers’ group at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester. Soon afterward she won an award for her first play, Womberang, and launched her writing career. (Writers’ Groups make a difference!)
The Adrian Mole books were a huge commercial success and are what Townsend became known for, but she continued to write plays, screenplays, novels, essays and non-fiction. Sadly, once her financial woes were behind her she began to struggle with serious health issues, eventually losing her sight and her mobility. Her last books were dictated to her husband.
If you have never read the Mole books I cannot recommend them highly enough (especially the first two). Although they may be found in the YA section of the library they are nuanced and very adult in subject matter. Townsend’s voice is funny and sad and full of compassion. She will probably never be included in the “canon” of great literary voices (humorous books are seldom taken seriously, and particularly books by poor, working class, uneducated women) but she was a vastly talented writer. I will always treasure her for the much-needed laughter she brought to my life.
That’s it from me this week. If you’ve read any novels by Sue Townsend, tell us about it in the comments below. Wishing you perseverance in both your writing and your life,
Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, May 25, 2014. We hope you can join us.
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Daffodils: Barb Cooper