The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend

A review of the young adult novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend.

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It’s extremely rare for a book to come along at just the right moment in your life. For me, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend was such a book, recommended to me by a close relative many years ago when I had just begun puberty. Being in my early teens at the time, reading Townsend’s debut novel was one of those momentous turning points in my life which hugely influenced me on a path to becoming a writer.

Obviously, it helped that I was roughly the same age as the book’s eponymous hero at the time of reading, but Sue Townsend’s diary of this teenage boy helped light a fuse in me which has yet to be extinguished—Adrian Albert Mole, wannabe intellectual and lacklustre poet, essentially propelled me into a more adult world of love-struck longing and ushered in the bumbling naivety of adolescence. For that, I shall forever be thankful.

From Adrian’s cringeworthy efforts to woo Pandora, his first love, to his desperate correspondences with the BBC (something which, I confess, I also did as a teen, but in my case it was submitting comedy scripts to a BBC Talent competition), it’s fair to gauge that I felt I had a little too much in common with Adrian Mole for comfort. Needless to say, there were many aspects of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ which went over my head—as it was set between 1981 and 1982, the occurrence of the Falklands War and its references to Maggie Thatcher and Cold War-era politics felt a little too far removed from my own world.

However, as the book is mainly rooted around Adrian Mole’s experiences at home—his obliviousness at his mother’s extra-marital affair with their next-door neighbour, Mr. Lucas, for example, or even Adrian’s exasperation in feeling that his parents were not on his intellectual wavelength—this, along with his experiences of bullying at school, gave me more than enough to identify with. That’s largely why as a young adult novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ is so influential—it’s largely about the male teenage experience, but done in a way which is very often gut-wrenchingly funny.

Delving deeper, however, I’ve learnt to better appreciate Sue Townsend’s use of unreliable narration, which expertly masked her satirical nous and cemented her reputation in my eyes as one of Britain’s finest social commentators. It’s easy to acknowledge how Townsend was using Adrian Mole as a vehicle to critique early 1980s Britain with dryly comic fervour, holding up a mirror to a country reeling from the birth pangs of Thatcherism and with Adrian Mole personifying the early flowerings of yuppiedom in the minds of schoolchildren, long before the Filofax had even become a thing.

But it’s really the novel’s focus on relatable teenage experiences for young males to which it owes much of its humour, particularly the sticky issue of wet dreams. Contrast this with Adrian Mole’s social consciousness, his short-sightedness and his immaturity, his intellectual pursuits and his tendency to be well-intentioned but ultimately coming across like a hypocrite-in-the-making, and clearly you have a hero for the ages. Of course, thanks to this book and Sue Townsend’s subsequent follow-up diaries, Adrian Mole has now entered our literary lexicon, becoming arguably as iconic as J.C.T. Jennings and Just William in our pantheon of classic British characters. Long may his legacy endure.

What elevates Adrian Mole’s diaries above all this, however, is Townsend’s rather nuanced satirical ambitions throughout all her books. Nowhere was Townsend’s talents bettered than in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, which quite possibly remains the best encapsulation of her masterful gifts as a humourist. If ever you wanted to understand just what goes on inside the mind of a young teenager, there really is nowhere better to start then here.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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