Last week the literary world mourned the passing of English writer and humorist Sue Townsend, following a stroke at the age of just 68. Hailed by the Guardian as “one of Britain’s most celebrated comic writers”, Townsend was most recognisable as the creator of much-loved character Adrian Mole. Providing a political and personal voice that is identifiable to so many, Lucy Maguire has compiled a short list of reasons why the legacy of Townsend, and Mole, should endure.
1. Mole’s voice of the angst-ridden adolescent is timeless: ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾’ first appeared in 1982, yet Adrian’s mix of lust, boredom and despair is still easily recognisable as the plight of every modern suburban teenager. Townsend’s matter-of-fact delivery results in some brilliantly candid quotes, such as: “I have never seen a dead body or a female nipple. This is what comes from living in a cul-de-sac”.
2. Adrian Mole is scarily similar to nearly every English student on campus: Adrian’s dreams of living as a writer, his secret poetry (half muddled political critiques, half love poems) and his love of fancy coffees: sound familiar to anyone? I’m sure many of us pursuing English as a degree – myself included – went through a phase where we pondered this very question: “Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13¾-year-old undiscovered intellectual.”
3. Townsend’s biting social commentary: Though readers came to Townsend’s work for the lovably hapless Adrian Mole, many were persuaded to stay by her unique blend of domestic humour and fierce social critique. In the Mole series Margaret Thatcher and New Labour are equal subjects of scrutiny, with both found lacking. These political hits wove effortlessly into Mole’s own narrative. A socialist herself, Townsend explored themes of political change more overtly in other works, such as ‘The Queen and I’ or ‘Queen Camilla’.
4. Townsend’s own extraordinary life: It could be said Townsend’s political alignment is hardly surprising, given her own life experience. Self-educated from the age of fifteen, she was fired from her job in a clothes shop for reading Oscar Wilde in the changing rooms. Subsequently married at eighteen, she found herself the single mother of three young children, all at the tender age of twenty-five. She had to take numerous jobs to keep the family afloat, and only began to profit from her writing a decade later in 1979. Even then, Townsend’s career was sabotaged by numerous illnesses: a heart attack in her 30s, diabetes, arthritis, kidney failure and the loss of her sight in 2001. Despite all this she leant her hand to plays, novels and journalism. For the last decade of her life, she dictated her works to her son Sean, utilising her personal experiences to build her characters.
5. Townsend never forgot where she came from: Even after Sue Townsend achieved literary success, she still maintained her socialist perspective, dryly remarking when interviewed that no amount of “balsamic vinegar or Prada handbags” could dull the memory of living as a single mother on welfare support. A champion of small business, she bought two failing pubs near her home in Leicester to save them from closure, and was given ‘the freedom of Leicester’ in 2009 for her work supporting the city. Her skill as a writer, combined with her sense of social justice, will ensure Sue Townsend a place in the hearts of many readers, both present and future.
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