For years when I was younger, I traded letters across the Atlantic with a British boy just a few years older than myself, writing back and forth about primary school and university, the 1996 Manchester bombing and the mysteries of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. But while I was writing to him, I was also reading dispatches from another fictional British teenager who was older than both of us. Adrian Mole was from the British Midlands, outraged by Margaret Thatcher, convinced of his potential literary greatness and mad for Pandora Braithwaite, his high school girlfriend and, ultimately, the love of his life. When I found out on Thursday that Sue Townsend, Adrian’s creator, had died, I felt as if I had lost an actual correspondent.
In “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and 3/4,” published in 1982, Townsend brilliantly captured a young teenager in the process of sorting out his intellectual and political identity. She could be hilarious and penetrating on the more familiar young-adult literature subjects of first love and Adrian’s relationship to his working-class parents. But she was at her best when she acknowledged that young people have politics, too, and not only when the post-apocalypse descends and they discover that they are Chosen Ones.
Adrian was anything but chosen. And his struggles to figure out his beliefs, and then to live them, could be hilariously off-base, given his resources and standing in his small, relatively conventional town. “The three punks/wise men made too much noise with their chains and spoiled my speech about the Middle East situation,” Adrian groused in a diary entry about a Christmas play he was trying to spice up for a contemporary audience. “And the angels representing Mrs. Thatcher got hissed by the audience so loudly that their spoken chorus about unemployment was wasted.”
But even though he could be hopelessly silly, both as a boy and later a man in the seven sequels that followed and took Adrian all the way to 39-and-a-quarter, Townsend always managed to preserve something appealing about Adrian’s search for a way to define himself, and to put us on Adrian’s side in the series’ shifting cultural and political debates.
Adrian’s intense jealousy of Barry Kent, a working-class friend from his childhood who became a literary sensation, may have been motivated by pettiness. But Townsend was a sharp enough writer that we could see that Barry’s success was a result of British readers congratulating themselves for championing an uneducated ex-convict, more so than his actual talent. Similarly, when Adrian becomes a celebrity chef, it seems likely that his specialty — offal — is ridiculous, but we can agree that there is real cruelty in a reality show that sets him up as a joke. And while Pandora is genuinely smarter and more accomplished than Adrian, who is a lackadaisical dilettante, Adrian is better and more devoted to her than her endless parade of boyfriends. In the big issues of his life, Adrian tended to be right, even if accidentally, rather than on the merits.
Townsend even pulled off the core conflict of the novel, making sympathetic a very ordinary man’s pretensions to greatness. “Now I know I am an intellectual,” Adrian wrote in the first novel as a young teenager. “I saw Malcolm Muggeridge on the television last night, and I understood nearly every word. It all adds up. A bad home, poor diet, not liking punk. I think I will join the library and see what happens.”
Adrian was reaching in declaring himself an intellectual, then or ever. But his experience was a necessary reminder that teenagers, too, can be unhappy in ways that have nothing to do with their looks, their lack of love lives or their relative popularity. Townsend was able to transcend cliches of both young adult literature and comic novels by granting respect to a hero who might have been easy to mock, and by recognizing that our tastes and our beliefs are essential parts of our identities. Figuring them out is a critical part of growing up.