Sue Townsend was born in Leicester in 1946 and left school at 15 years of age.
She worked in a variety of jobs including factory worker and shop assistant, joining a writers' group at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester in her thirties. At the age of 35, she won the Thames Television Playwright Award for her play Womberang (published in Bazaar and Rummage, 1984) and started her writing career. Other plays followed including The Great Celestial Cow (1984), Ten Tiny Fingers, Nine Tiny Toes (1990), and most recently Are You Sitting Comfortably? but she has become most well-known for her series of books about Adrian Mole.
The first of these, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 was published in 1982 and was followed by The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984). These two books made her the best-selling novelist of the 1980s. They have been followed by several more in the same series including Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993); Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004); and most recently The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001 (2008). The books have been adapted for radio, television and theatre, the first book being broadcast on radio in 1982, and Adrian Mole:The Wilderness Years (1993) and Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999) also being serialised for radio. Sue Townsend also wrote the screenplays for television adaptations of the first and second books.
Several books have been adapted for the stage, including The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4: the Play (1985), and The Queen and I: a Play with Songs (1994) which was performed by the Out of Joint Touring Company at the Vaudeville Theatre and toured Australia. The latter play is based on another of her books, in which the Royal Family become deposed and take up residence on a council estate in Leicester. Other books include Rebuilding Coventry (1988) and Ghost Children (1997).
In 2001, Sue Townsend published The Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman aged 55 3/4 (2001), a collection of monthly columns written for Sainsbury's magazine from 1993-2001. Leicester University awarded her an Honorary MA in 1991.
Sue Townsend has written a variety of novels and plays, but will always be most well-known for her character Adrian Mole, who quickly became a national treasure, along with his author and creator.
In The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ (1982) and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984), Adrian’s diaries detail, with delightful humour, the excruciating pains of teenage angst, while the later books chronicle the angst of young adulthood and, even later, approaching middle age. Adrian is neurotic, self-obsessed and takes himself far too seriously, yet he is also incredibly endearing and kind-hearted, and embodies the image of the classic British underdog, continually disappointed and frustrated, and feeling that others do not appreciate his unique and special qualities. His love life is disastrous and he never quite gets the girl of his dreams - Pandora Braithwaite, his classmate at school who comes from a more affluent family and later carves out a political career for herself. Above all, from adolescence to middle age, Adrian’s angst is about his self-identity, his purpose in life and the state of the society in which he lives - this is something everyone can relate to and, as such, makes him the ‘Everyman’ of modern Britain.
Adrian, like Townsend, is sharply observant, though his trains of thought often descend into the comically absurd (such as logically analysing why he thinks William Hague is the son of Margaret Thatcher). The author affectionately mocks her character’s sense of self-importance - he notices and analyses everything about himself and the world around him, has an opinion on everything and likes to consider himself an intellectual. He is acutely pre-occupied with himself and records every detail of his own thoughts and experiences, which enables Townsend to combine the trivial, the comic and the absurd with sections which are serious and poignant. For example, like most teenagers, he worries about spots, girls (particularly Pandora) and the size of his anatomy. Yet he must also endure the traumas of his parents’ tumultuous marriage and adulterous affairs. Although this is depicted with Townsend’s usual wit, there is an underlying seriousness and genuine emotion, along with a compassionate (but never sentimental) tone towards all the characters involved.
Yet, for all the poignant and hilarious personal detail, the Adrian Mole diaries offer the reader far more than the experience of one individual. Townsend’s greatest strength as a writer is her seemingly effortless ability to combine the personal with the wider social and political context. Her satirical social commentary is dry and witty, revealing her incredibly sharp and perceptive eye for detail through Adrian’s acute observations. It also offers a revealing and compassionate picture of the way in which socio-political matters affect the lives and mindsets of the ordinary person and the ordinary family. The early books therefore combine the fairly timeless issues of adolescent ups and downs with a telling commentary on Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, while the later works apply the same sharp satirical eye to New Labour in the 1990s and early twenty-first century, intertwined with Adrian’s worries about marriage, divorce, parenthood and career. Yet, despite Townsend’s penetrating vision, the tone of her work never descends into despair or pessimism.
Townsend’s later works follow the hapless Adrian Mole into adulthood. In Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993), Adrian is surprised and frustrated that his novel, Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland is continually rejected by publishers, while in Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999) his life has become a little more complicated: he has been abandoned by his Nigerian wife, and left as the single parent of three-year-old William Mole, along with an older son, Glenn Bott-Mole, from an earlier affair. Throughout his adulthood, Adrian has a diverse career, but in this novel he is a chef at Soho’s Hoi Polloi restaurant. This allows Townsend a gentle mockery of the celebrity chef culture which took off in the 1990s - Adrian somehow ends up on a television programme about offal, entitled Offally Good (Townsend is sometimes criticised for corny jokes and lack of subtlety). Meanwhile, the New Labour government takes the place of Thatcher as the subject of Townsend’s satire, particularly now that Pandora Braithwaite is flying high as one of ‘Blair’s Babes’.
Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004) is noticeably edgier than its predecessors, both on a personal and a political level. As the title suggests, it focuses on the controversial Iraq war, in which Adrian’s elder son, Glenn Bott-Mole, is deployed, while at home Adrian is struggling with mounting debts. He continues his habit, started in his teens, of writing letters to famous people, correcting David Beckham’s grammar and offering fatherly advice to Tim Henman: ‘Forbid your fans from shouting out “Come on Tim!” It makes you sound as though you are coming fourth in the egg and spoon race at junior school.’ The novel’s darker tone, however, is evident in his - albeit amusing - letter to Tony Blair in which he asks for proof that Saddam Hussein’s weapons can hit Cyprus in 45 minutes.
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001 (2008) returns to a slightly earlier period. This is not Townsend at her best - these diaries were originally published as a weekly column in The Guardian and, as such, there is a slightly disjointed feel to the book. There is also a lot of recycled material from earlier books, and some continuity errors. Nonetheless, Townsend’s satirical eye is a sharp as ever and, throughout all the Adrian Mole books, her skill in depicting his development from age 13 ¾ to approaching middle age is quite remarkable. In all the later books, his character, style and tone are recognisably the neurotic but endearing Adrian Mole who shot to fame and popularity in the 1980s - he still makes lists, worries about his sexual prowess (or lack of), overrates his intellectual abilities and notices and comments on absolutely everything. Many of the people and situations around him also remain the same - his mother continues to embarrass him with her promiscuous behaviour, while Adrian’s thoughts are forever preoccupied with the alluring Pandora who is always just out of reach. Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the later books is that Adrian Mole has proved himself to be a reliable and caring parent to his two sons. In this, as always, Townsend conveys poignant emotion without sentimentality.
Townsend has written several other novels, along with a few plays, though none have attained the iconic status of Adrian’s diaries. The novel Ghost Children (1997) is a rare serious work, offering a bleak and heartrending depiction of love, loss and betrayal, but apart from this, most of the other works contain the same brand of satirical humour that made Adrian Mole famous. The Queen and I (1992) depicts the Royal Family experiencing ‘how the other half live’ as a new Republican government evicts them from Buckingham Palace and sends them to live on a poverty-stricken housing estate. It was followed by a sequel, Queen Camilla (2006), in which the story is brought up-to-date by the presence of Prince Charles’ second wife. As in the Adrian Mole books, Townsend skilfully combines farcical humour and absurdity with serious social commentary - this time focusing on social inequality and class divisions. Yet, as always, her satirical mockery is intertwined with compassion, and her tone is never malicious - she is wholeheartedly against the monarchy as an institution, but is not unsympathetic to the royals as individuals. In these two books, Townsend’s tendency to feature strong women and weak-willed men is particularly noticeable. In The Queen and I, Prince Philip reacts to the dramatic change of circumstances by going to pieces, while the Queen exhibits an admirable stoicism. In the sequel, Camilla cheerfully makes the most of things, while her dithering husband absorbs himself in his organic vegetable garden.
In Number Ten (2002), it is the New Labour government that comes under Townsend’s satirical attack. This is less successful than the two monarchy novels, for its humour lacks subtlety (the Prime Minister is a thinly-disguised Tony Blair, named Edward Clare). Nonetheless, it is still an entertaining read, following a similar storyline in order to comment on the gulf between rich and poor - this time, the Prime Minister makes his own choice to disguise himself in order to mingle with the lower classes. Although Number Ten relies on somewhat caricatured images, it does offer an interesting perspective in revealing Edward Clare’s own unhappy childhood and deep insecurities. The novel therefore makes a perceptive comment on the psychology of power, suggesting the vulnerabilities that are often hidden behind ambition and success.
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2009