Unlike many, I can’t claim to have met Sue Townsend, but the death of the popular author today leaves a void in the publishing world acutely felt by fans and admires the world over.
Her most successful work, The Adrian Mole series, enthralled many. But her down to earth nature also ensured she was popular whenever she made appearances at festivals or signings. The Mole series would later go on to sell over eight million books as well as being made into a popular radio and television series.
Mole, who first appeared in a BBC Radio play in 1982, appeared in print later that year to critical acclaim. This precocious schoolboy who believes he the universe is out to thwart him becoming the next big writing sensation – despite his obvious lack of technical ability and social faux-pas – quickly become one of the definitive characters of our time.
The everyman who tells the story of a generation in his own unique style encapsulated many of our own fears and worries and Townsend wrapped these up in a compellingly powerful and funny narrative. You can’t help but root for Mole, despite his awful lack of social tendencies as Townsend used him to explore the social issues of our age.
Social commentary has always permeated not only the Adrian Mole series, but many of Townsend’s other books. The Queen and I (1992) sees the Queen living on benefits post-revolution, and it’s later sequel Queen Camilla (2006) continued the satire with Prince Charles growing root vegetables in a Midlands cul-de-sac whilst the deposed Corgis barked their way through life.
Of course, the Adrian Mole series was well-known for its fair share of satire. After the biting mockery of Thatcher’s Britain, the lifelong socialist made her disappointment at New Labour clear in 1999’s The Cappuccino Years.
Townsend’s greatest success is to capture much of ourselves in Mole, as well as our relationships with each other. Townsend’s deft touch allows not only Mole’s pompous observations to be punched by the appearance of a zit, or having to stay in and eat his tea, but also for him to be savage in his observations on his parents deteriorating relationship.
His unrequited love for raven-haired Pandora also became one of the romances of the 1980’s, and her timeless prose about the nature of heartbreak and romance, heightened through the prism of adolescence became essential reading that still ripples through the decades.
By all accounts, Townsend was the complete polar opposite of Mole, witty, amusing and gentle. Many of those paying tribute to her have commented on always laughing in her presence and being bowled over by her kindness. Sadly illness dominated much of Townsend’s life with diabetes causing her blindness. Brushing off people calling her brave, she might light of the situation whilst lamenting through her prose on the sense of loss this caused.
Nowadays, it is Harry Potter or Edward Cullen teens devour, but Sue Townsend’s teenage everyman is a character whose earth shattering moments involve rejection from a girl, or the library not having in a book rather than colossal fights of good versus evil. Mole harks back to a more gentle and rewarding time, and the literary world is a little duller today without the promise of Townsend’s sparkling wit.
Sue Townsend, author, 2 April 1946 – 10 April 2014