#100WomenNovelists: Sue Townsend

Blog Post 26: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (1982)

Thursday January 1st
BANK HOLIDAY IN ENGLAND,
IRELAND, SCOTLAND AND WALES

These are my New Year’s resolutions:

1. I will help the blind across the road.
2. I will hang my trousers up.
3. I will put the sleeves back on my records.
4. I will not start smoking.
5. I will stop squeezing my spots.
6. I will be kind to the dog.
7. I will help the poor and ignorant.
8. After hearing the disgusting noises from downstairs last night, I have also vowed never to drink alcohol.

Adrian Mole is one of the greatest ever comic creations. Quintessentially British with all the quirks, worries, frustrations, conformity, good intentions, disillusionments, and misinterpretations that come with it. And he is a teenager, on the cusp of growing up, dealing with his parents whose marriage is falling apart, his first love, comprehensive school, an uncooperative body, and a certain amount of existential angst.

It is fitting that Sue Townsend should be included in my list of #100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century. She was a rare gift, a writer who truly knew what it was to be human. She wrote with wit and empathy and always with a thread of poignancy and tenderness. Adrian Mole was her greatest creation. Like Pooter before him, and Bridget Jones after him, he is the fool who shines a light on the truth of the human condition. Often unreliable in his narration, we the reader can see the bigger picture that he unwittingly shows us.

Wednesday January 21st
Mr and Mrs Lucas are getting a divorce! They are the first down our road. My mother went next door to comfort Mr Lucas. He must have been very upset because she was still there when my father came home from work. Mrs Lucas has gone somewhere in a taxi. I think she has left for ever because she has taken her socket set with her. Poor Mr Lucas, now he will have to do his own washing and stuff.

Adrian Mole would now be 50. I have known him a long time. I have grown up with him. We were first introduced when I was 12 and he was 13 and I immediately found someone who I could laugh at and with. He is so recognisable and yet so unique, accompanying us through our own times, living through Thatcherism and Blairism, boil-in-the-bag cod and tinned peaches with Dream-topping. If you want social history, any history, read Adrian’s diary. And such a loss to our literary world that Sue Townsend died at 68, because Adrian is no longer able to grow old, except in our imaginations. Apparently Sue Townsend was about to write the next diary to be called ‘Pandora’s Box’. We shall never know whether Adrian finally wins back the love of his life.

David Nicholls, the same age as the diarist, wrote a piece for the Guardian earlier this year. He sums up my feelings.

‘The anxiety about acne and nuclear war, the perpetual sense of injustice, the anguish of the unrecognised intellectual, the reverence for the BBC and reliance on the public library in the endless quest for self-improvement, it was all here, and made blissfully funny in a sustained, near flawless piece of comic ventriloquism…Adrian was entirely average; a middle-achieving Everyboy from the Midlands, not as posh as Pandora or Nigel, posher than the terrifying Barry Kent, unremarkable, invisible, with everything happening below the surface like, well, a mole. The Secret Diary was smartly written, stuffed full of in-jokes and references to Orwell and Flaubert and Simone de Beauvoir, but it made sense to people who weren’t quite sure what a campus looked like, and there was also a compassion so much other comedy seemed to lack. Often touching, sometimes angry, never sentimental but always sympathetic, and with an extraordinarily high joke-per-page ratio, no wonder its appeal was so immense. Boys and girls read Adrian Mole, adults and teenagers, all of us wondering the same thing: “How does Sue Townsend know?”

How did she know?

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#100WomenNovelists: Clare Chambers

Blog Post 25: Back Trouble (1994)

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I felt so groggy when I woke up that I decided to leave the hearse at Tim’s and walk home. I had been celebrating New Year’s Eve there with my brother Raymond who was over from Canada.

Clare Chambers is one of my favourite contemporary writers. when I first read one of her novels, ‘The Editor’s Wife’, I felt that finally I was reading the type of book I was trying to write. I soon devoured all of her novels. I recognised my experiences in the lives of her characters. The same childhood, the same teenage years, the same slightly dysfunctional families with Baby Boomer parents and Generation X kids. The aunties and uncles, the boring sunday afternoons, the humiliations of growing up. Heartbreak and loss and yet the possibility of new beginnings and a brighter future.

‘Back Trouble’ is a classic of Clare Chambers, with her usual narrative technique of the present sandwiching the past in a dual time frame. Her male narrator, Philip, is completely convincing as a man about to turn forty, forced to face up to his mediocre life when he slips on a chip and ends up bedbound for three months. During this time, he writes his life story and in so doing turns up some surprises and secrets which make him realise what is important and precious to him.

It’s such an accessible read, with deft humour and poignancy, like all of Clare Chambers’ novels. The characters are irrepressibly flawed but you completely want the best for them. I can’t understand why her novels aren’t more widely read and why they haven’t been turned into TV dramas or films. They encapsulate a class of suburban family that so many readers would empathise with – the extraordinariness of small, quiet lives.

Mum seemed to know only seven recipes, and they appeared inexorably on their designated day week after week, year after year. In fact it was impossible to forget what day it was in our house because we were always surrounded by indicators as inflexible as any calendar of our precise position in the routine’s pitiless cycle: what one was wearing, which relatives were visiting, whether or not one had recently had a bath, what was cooking on the stove or left over in the fridge. Habit was a sort of religion with my parents and there was no escaping its rigours. In fact the only way to avoid Saturday’s hotpot was to drown in Friday’s bath.

If you were born in Britain in the sixties into a lower class suburban family with some aspirations, you will identify with these novels. You will understand the petty squabbles between siblings, the harsh injustices of the school caste system, the chasm between adults and children and the frightening and confusing bridge of adolescence.

I should also add that Chambers uses the best verbs and imagery, and brilliant subtext. When Philips’s dad takes up DIY , he is somewhat slapdash, reflecting his approach to marriage, fatherhood and life itself.

…instead of stripping paintwork, or even washing it, he would set straight to work, brushing gloss over old gloss, dust, mould and even, in one instance, a dead spider which lay preserved like a Pompeian relic in its shell of green paint.

Every time I read one of these fabulous novels, I feel both comfortably and uncomfortably at home.

 

#100WomenNovelists: Carol Shields

Blog post 23: Larry’s Party (1997)

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By mistake Larry Weller took someone else’s Harris tweed jacket instead of his own, and it wasn’t till he jammed his hand in the pocket that he knew something was wrong.

‘Larry’s Party’ asks the question: what’s it like being a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields spends the course of the novel trying to answer this question being asked, mainly unknowingly, by one ‘ordinary’ man, Larry Weller.

Larry Weller is born in 1950 in Winnipeg, Canada, to English parents, and we follow his reminiscences over the first 46 years of his life, the constant struggle he has with himself to construct his place in the world, and his yearning to find that most elusive of states: happiness.

The last half of the 20th century saw great changes in gender roles, social conventions, fashion, work, ideals, family life etc. and the novel is structured in such a way as to examine these issues separately – Larry’s Work, Larry’s Love, Larry’s Folks, Larry’s Penis, etc. – and yet everything is also entwined, as it is for any human being.

Much of Larry’s life happens by accident – after high school, he goes to college on a floristry course, basically because he was sent the floristry leaflet rather than the furnace mending one. He gets his girlfriend pregnant and they have to get married. He finds his passion on honeymoon in Hampton Court maze and in time becomes a world-renowned maze-maker. Shields doubles back and repeats herself in each section, as if she is leading us, the reader, through a maze. Which is the overarching image of the novel.

The whole thing about mazes is that they make perfect sense only when you look down on them from above.

Larry’s Party, the final chapter, is one of the best set pieces I have read. It’s almost a play, being nearly all dialogue, but the novel has been leading us in various directions and back tracks to this beautifully constructed end. Just like one of Larry’s beloved mazes.

Larry stumbles through life, knowing that he wants to be a good friend, a good son, a good husband, a good father, but he struggles to really live this life of his. Instead, it’s almost as if he’s an observer of it. But by the end, by the time of the dinner party that he and his girlfriend throw, Larry, who is always searching for more, maybe finally realises that he has enough.

Larry’s is a thoroughly convincing male voice, especially when he ruminates about sex. The writing is not cliched. It’s nuanced and complex and yet simple too. Shield wrote an incredible book. There are so many clever connections that you only make on a further reading of this novel. Like a maze, you can enjoy it in a different way each time. Brilliant.

#100WomenNovelists: Tove Jansson

Blog Post 22: The Summer Book (1972)

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

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It was an early, very warm morning in july, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed. the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

‘What are you doing?’ asked little Sophia.

‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’

This novel is quite frankly a joy. Written by the creator of the Moomins, it is a classic in Scandinavia and far beyond, though I only read it for the first time about ten years ago. It is such a treat to revisit it.

The world loves the Moomins. In the words of Ali Smith from her review of ‘The Summer Book’ in the Guardian in 2003, ‘The Moomins are archetypes of tolerance and adaptability, creatures of curiosity and quiet philosophising who live in a Scandinavian setting of mountains, forests, seas and valleys. Joyful, melancholy and in the end uncategorisable, they survive terrible upheavals simply by their mild geniality. Their extended communal family is generous and inclusive, made up of outsiders from the calm to the anarchic.’

And the essence of the Moomins is captured in ‘The Summer Book’ which shows the complex and yet simple relationship between a grandmother and her young granddaughter. Tove Jansson lived her summers on such an island with her life-partner, Tuulikki Pietilä and this book is an homage to the islanders repetitive, rhythmic way of life and to the relationship between her own mother and niece, Sophia, on whom she bases the characters in this novel.

Grandmother, Sophia, and her parents spend their summers on a remote, tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. But this year is different. Sophie’s mother has died and so it is just the three of them. Her father is distant, either working at his desk, or out doing jobs, in his boat, in his own world of bereavement. There is only one mention of the mother’s death at the beginning but the knowledge of it informs the rest of the book, not in any maudlin way, but in the working out of grief for the young girl and in the grandmother’s acceptance of her own immortality. Grandmother is old and crotchety and fed up of being bossed around. She wants to swim, and smoke, and hike and feels her freedom is slipping away. But she is also weary and poorly. Sophia is also fed up of not being allowed to do whatever she wants and, between the two of them, they navigate this contradictory desire for freedom and safety.

‘You’re a very good climber,’ said Grandmother sternly. ‘And brave, too, because I could see you were scared. Shall I tell him (father) about it? Or shouldn’t I?’

Sophie shrugged one shoulder and looked at her grandmother. ‘I guess maybe not,’ she said. ‘But you can tell it on your deathbed so it doesn’t go to waste.’

Each chapter is an episode, a small adventure, a story in itself. They are simply written but Jansson is an expert in subtext. She shows us the surface of the water but gives us the space to stare down into the clear and sometimes murky depths. This might be a small, quiet book, but it is mighty and vast.

I had a fantastic grandmother. She took me and my cousins on adventures. She had a rusty old van and we would loll around on a mattress in the back. Because of the rust bucket we were able to go to places we weren’t technically allowed to visit. She said we’d look like workmen. So we would explore dilapidated country houses, fishing for her beloved newts in ponds with crumbling fountains. We’d have picnics of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and fish paste crusty rolls. She had a fruit knife and would peel apples from the garden. And there would always be a flask of coffee because tea was never the same from a Thermos.

If I asked her a question, she would generally answer it, though she might doctor the details to help me through, without ever patronising me. When I lost my father, at the age of ten, she didn’t talk directly about it, but like Sophia’s mother she continued to have adventures with me. I was lucky to have her until I was 41. Losing her was like having my heart cut out. But now, my heart has grown back and I think of the wonderful times we had and what she taught me. Which was much more than how to crochet (though she did that too).

If I am ever blessed enough to have a granddaughter, I hope I can be such a grandmother. And I will read this book to her.

#100WomenNovelists: Barbara Pym

Blog Post 21: Excellent Women (1952)

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‘Ah, you ladies! always on the spot when there’s something happening!’ The voice belonged to Mr Mallett, one of our church wardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my front door.

I first discovered the simple joy of Barbara Pym a few years ago and I even blogged about my first impressions. Which haven’t changed at all. I adore her. So I am cheating this week and I’m going to repost the blog post from 2012 below:

Excellent Woman.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.’

Why has it taken me all these years to read the magnificent Barbara Pym?

I’d certainly heard of her, believed her to be a novelist who was of a certain era, one that has changed so much that she is not longer relevant. Well, I was most definitely ill-informed and it took a review, comparing This Holey Life to Excellent Women, to put me right.

Set in dreary post-war London, Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman,‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather.’ (from blurb of Virago Modern Classics edition, 2012). Mildred, whose mother and clergyman father have passed away, lives the ‘spinster’ life, alone, in a flat. She works part-time for the wonderfully named Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund, helps out at the vicarage, attends church and reads novels. When a married couple, the glamorous Napiers, move into the other flat in the house, she worries about how they will co-exist. ‘The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.’

What follows is a charming, funny, and sometimes poignant telling of the way things go over the next few months as Mildred faces disruption to her ordered life. I was completely absorbed and won over.

Beware these excellent women. My great aunt is one such excellent woman. Like Pym she served in the WRNS. After  the war she looked after her ageing parents. Marriage never happened. She put her energies into the church, Greenpeace, Christian Aid and composting. It wasn’t until fairly recently, with the passing of the Official Secrets Act, that that we discovered she worked on the Enigma Code as a young woman.  She might not have been an Oxford Mathematical genius. She didn’t even know what was going on, the bigger picture, but she knew her small part made the whole machine work and who knows how the war would have turned out without the Code breakers. 

Pym’s excellent women may be consumed with the smallest things of life but these are the biggest things of life. As Alexander McCall Smith says in the introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition of Excellent Women, it is ‘a novel that on one level is about very little, (but) is a great novel about a great deal.’