Thirty years ago this month, Sue Townsend published The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, which makes the series a little younger than me, though Mole himself is a good dozen years older. Perhaps the latter is why I never got around to reading The Secret Diary as a teenager myself; I was in my mid-twenties when I finally did – but I probably got more out of the book than I would have if I’d read it a few years earlier, and certainly enjoyed it enough to read the other books in the series (two further volumes have been published since) over the subsequent months.
Penguin have reissued all eight Adrian Mole books in new editions to mark the anniversary, and it has been interesting to revisit some of them. Certainly The Secret Diary remains a beautifully-crafted comic gem, and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (which begins the day after the first novel ends), is much the same. Through the pages of his diary, we meet Adrian Mole: convinced he is an intellectual, obsessed over the spot on his chin, with a crush on the lovely Pandora Braithwaite; yet unaware of how bad his poetry is, and oblivious to the signs of his parents’ marital turmoil.
What I really appreciate on this re-reading is just how well-constructed Townsend’s humour is, both in terms of its one-liners (‘I am reading The Mill on the Floss, by a bloke called George Eliot’), and the broader structural jokes which help establish Adrian’s character: intelligent (albeit perhaps not as much as he thinks he is, or would like to be), but not self-aware, nor adept at picking up the emotional cues of others. Yet, although we are often laughing at Adrian’s misfortune, we still root for him – there is a sense that ultimately he means well, and deserves more than he gets.
In some ways, the first two Mole novels stand apart from the others, because they are a little lighter in tone, and focus on Adrian as a teenager. Subsequent volumes revisit Mole’s life as an adult: in The Wilderness Years (1993), he is twenty-four, and less endearing because some of the traits that could be explained away as teenage foibles – his pedantry, pomposity, and self-obsession – are harder to take in a grown man; when Adrian is dwelling on his lack of success and action with the opposite sex, for example, it’s not so easy to be sympathetic, as one can see quite clearly why his personality and behaviour may be unattractive (there is a woman who likes him, but naturally Mole doesn’t take her hints). Yet Townsend’s humour remains, and one is back on Adrian’s side by novel’s (rather uplifting) end.
In 2009’s The Prostrate Years, Adrian Mole is thirty-nine; living with his wife and young daughter, in a converted pigsty next door to his parents – though his marriage is under strain, and the future of the second-hand bookshop where Adrian works is uncertain. His key character traits are the same as ever, but there’s a bitter sting in that, now, Adrian is trying his best to ignore the signs of prostate cancer. He’s a sympathetic character once again, because of the sense that he is trying to hold on to himself and his life in the face of all that’s happening; the single word ‘treatment’ in many entries gains its force from how much is obviously being left unsaid by this character who has always been so open. The dramatic irony of Mole’s asides carries more bite here than in the earliest books (‘It is good to know that whatever travails we may suffer in life, Woolworths will always be there’), and it serves as a reminder that none of us knows what may be around the corner.
Why do the Adrian Mole books remain so fresh after all these years? Partly because they’re very funny, of course; but I also wonder if Sue Townsend didn’t tap into something fundamental – maybe there’s something of Mole in all of us. Leaving aside his pedantry, for me Adrian represents ultimately represents thwarted ambition: wanting to be or achieve more, but not knowing how to do so. And Adrian is all the more frustrated because there are people in his life who have done what they wanted; it’s surely no coincidence that the lifelong object of Mole’s infatuation – Oxford-educated MP Pandora – is the character who has achieved her ambitions more than any other.
I want to finish with a quotation from The Prostrate Years which, to me, sums up the character of Adrian Mole. His marriage has broken down, and he’s reflecting on the absence of his daughter, Gracie:
I miss the physical presence of that indomitable little girl, trying to make her mark on the world. The feeling of those small strong arms around my neck. I miss the made-up songs she used to sing in the bath, I miss the certainty of her world. She knows nothing of nuclear proliferation or the misery that comes from loving somebody too much.
The comment on nuclear proliferation illustrates Mole’s tendency to dwell on issues at less-than-appropriate times; it might puncture the mood of the rest, but does not destroy that mood, because Adrian means everything sincerely. Those last few words – ‘loving somebody too much’ – are Adrian Mole all over; they show that, beneath the pretension and everything else, there’s a real human heart. That’s why Mole is such a great and enduring character.